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School refusal and truancy

school; refusal; truancy; truant; ;

School refusal is when a child does not want to go to school, or is afraid to go to school, or refuses to go to school. Often these children will be sick or miserable in the mornings. They want to stay at home rather than go out and do other things.

Truancy on the other hand is when children leave for school or go to school but then slip off, often to meet with friends or do something that may involve breaking rules.

The Raising Children Network website has a lot of information about school aged children, including information about development, behaviour, fitness, health and daily care. As well as articles there are several videos. The Raising Children Network site has been funded by the Australian Government.

Contents of this topic

School refusal

School refusal can be very distressing for both the parents and the child. Often parents are blamed, as if it is their fault, which makes them feel worse. If your child does not want to go to school it is usually not your fault but there are some things you can do that might help.

Children who don't want to go to school usually:

  • want to stay at home with parents
  • get upset about going to school and may have stomach aches or headaches, or may not feel well without a physical cause
  • don't have any other serious behaviour problems
  • don't try to hide their wish not to go to school from their parents
  • are more likely to be the youngest member of a family, but may not be the youngest. 

School refusal can happen at any age but is likely to be at times of change such as starting school or starting high school, or when changes are happening in the family (such as the family breaking up), or when parents are unwell.

In the long term these children usually do well, they get back to school and don't have any ongoing behaviour or emotional problems.

The short-term problems are missing out on school work and not having the chance to enjoy playing with friends. These can happen if it goes on for a long time, as it sometimes does.

Reasons for school refusal

Some reasons for not wanting to go to school are:

  • Separation anxiety (being afraid to be away from parents). This may be because some time in the past there has been an unhappy separation such as the child or parent being in hospital.
  • Fear of losing a parent. The child may think something bad will happen to the parent. This could be due to:
    • a parent being ill, (sometimes happens after the parent gets better)
    • marriage problems and fighting
    • parents separating
    • knowing another child who has lost a parent or whose family has broken up.
  • Fear that a parent might leave while the child is at school.
  • Moving house in the early primary years when the child does not fully understand distance and space and so feels she has lost contact with her home.
  • Jealousy if there is a younger brother or sister at home - the child may think the mother is doing all sorts of good things with the younger child while she is at school.
  • Problems at school which could be:
    • being bullied
    • not having friends
    • not understanding where things are - feeling lost at school
    • learning problems
    • not getting along with a teacher
    • not having homework done
    • fear about excursions, special programs (eg swimming) and school trips.
  • Parents being unreliable about when they pick up after school. Some parents are very late picking up their children, and the children feel they have been forgotten.
  • Parents' worries. If the parents show they are worried about the school refusal, the child is more likely to believe there is something to really be worried about.

What parents can do

It is important to get the child back to school, because the longer the child is away the harder it is likely to be. Try to deal with the cause if you can work out what it is from the ideas above.

Some other things you can try, depending on the cause -

  • You need to believe that your child will get over the problem and let your child know that you believe that he will get through this.
  • Try not to let him see that you are worried.
  • Listen to your child and encourage him to tell you about his feelings and fears.
  • Let him know that you can understand how he feels.
    • For example say, "That feels really scary to you".
    • Don't make fun of his feelings and don't tell him that big boys aren't scared - everyone is afraid sometimes.
    • If you are not listening and understanding what he is saying, your child will find it hard to tell you when he is worried.

Check with the teacher what is happening at school. It is important that you develop a good relationship with your child's teacher and that your child knows this. Parents and the teacher are the most important adults in your child's life while she is at school. Check your child's diary and for school notes everyday to know what is happening.

  • Make sure your child knows that you will always come back - tell her over and over again if you need to.
  • Let the child know about the boring things you will be doing at home while she is at school, but don't tell lies
  • Be reliable and on time when picking your child up after school. Have a plan for times when you might have to be late.
  • Sometimes it is helpful if the child says good-bye to you at home and a friend's parent takes her to school.
  • Spending time close to the teacher at the start of the day sometimes helps. It will give her something to take her mind off her worries and help her to settle in.
  • Sometimes parents can volunteer to help in the library or elsewhere in the school so the child knows you are near until she feels safe.
  • Let the child take something of yours in her pocket to mind during the day (it need not be something valuable but needs to be something the child knows is yours and that you would not want to lose).
  • Give the child as much control over the problem as you can - ask him what he thinks will help and then try that.
  • There are several topics on the 'Your school' part of the  Kids Health site which may be useful for your child.

If the problem still keeps on or if you or your child are getting very upset, special help may be needed to help get things going again. All schools have a school counsellor or other staff member responsible for helping children and parents with problems like this.


  • Children who run away from school to do other things (truancy) rather than stay home usually have different problems from those who don't want to go to school.
  • They may be wanting to get attention, trying to impress their friends or they may be angry because of school or home problems.
  • Truancy may happen when there are learning problems or bullying at school.
  • Children who truant a lot sometimes go on to break the law as they get older.
  • Children who truant usually try not to let their parents find out.
  • Truancy sometimes happens when parents are not very interested in the child getting a good education, and perhaps don't get on very well with the school themselves.

Schools usually expect parents to inform the school in advance if their child will be absent through the student diary, or by phoning the school on the day of absence. It is a good way of ensuring your child's safety.

After 3 days of unexplained absence the school will usually contact the parent, as schools are required to report student absences.

What parents can do about truancy

  • Parents or guardians have an obligation to see that their child attends school.
  • If it has just started, try to find a cause. Think about what else was happening in the child's life when it started.
  • Parents can talk to the school if their child is truanting.
  • Let the child know that you believe that going to school is really important.
  • In South Australia attendance officers are available to help students with a history of long term truancy.
  • If truancy continues there needs to be an assessment of the child's problems and, in South Australia, Education Department Guidance Officers are likely to be involved.
  • Getting help from a family counsellor may be an option.
  • Most high schools will have behaviour management consequences for truancy.
  • If your child is skipping lessons, certain days or certain teachers the school counsellor can help her to see what pattern is emerging, and put strategies into place to minimise the risk of truancy occuring.
  • A police officer can request a school age child, seen in a public place during school times, for the following information: Name, address, age and the reason why he or she is not at school at that time.
    If no valid reason is given then that officer may take the child into custody and return him or her to someone in authority at the child's school or to the parent/caregiver of the child.


Department of Education and Child Development (SA) 

Books for Parents and children (School refusal)

There are many books available - check with your school librarian or children's librarian at your local library.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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