Kirrilee Smout gave some great advice to The Calm, Connected Tweens and Teens Summit last month around school anxiety and school avoidance. Here is my summary:

It is important to be distinguish between school anxiety and school avoidance – it’s not always that kids don’t want to go to school – but it may be that school provokes some kind of distress for them.

Like most things, there is a spectrum of anxiety and avoidance – so it’s hard to get data on how common this is.  At a mild level, a child might wish they didn’t have to go to school, and feel anxious about it the night before… stomach aches, complaints etc.  In the middle, kids may miss a few days here and there because they can’t make it, hate it or feel sick. At the other end of the spectrum are kids who are so distressed that they haven’t been for a term or even a year. 1-5% of young people will experience school anxiety at the moderate level or above. 

Some kids are definitely more at risk for school anxiety and avoidance – children with issues with disability or health, who have had a traumatic experience, wo have mental health problems, who live with neurodivergence or have a cultural background that is different from where they go to school.  This all tends to present in early years so some 6-7 year olds really struggle.  Transitions and change also present challenges such as transition to high school and then again at the end of high school – year 12 – where they are worried about further change. 

 School anxiety can be divided into groups;

  1. Separation anxiety – more common in younger kids but can still present in 12-13 year olds
  2. Social anxiety – anxious about being judged by their peers
  3. Schoolwork – am I good enough? Am I doing it right?
  4. Physical anxiety – eg eating and toileting – will I have to use the bathrooms?  What if I get sick at school and vomit? 
  5. Low mood and depression – feeling like school is pointless

In reality, kids are dealing with a combination of these factors but addressing the reasons for these feelings makes it easier to help.

 When trying to help a child with school avoidance it is important to

  • Investigate what is driving the anxiety.  Can you increase their coping skills to help? Eg if a child is anxious about their school work, can extensions be negotiated? Would a tutor help?  Can you help a socially anxious child make connections before they start at a new school?
  • Practice coping skills – role model as a parent, showcase times they have been brave – small and frequent exposure is a good strategy especially if a child has extreme school avoidance. Eg just getting out their school jumper might be a start and do that frequently before building up to the next step.  You might work up to going to school until recess and celebrating these successes. This is not always possible with family commitments but this is the theory to work on.
  • Parents should approach the topic of school anxiety and avoidance with a sense of compassion and curiosity. Findging out what is driving the anxiety is a great start.  Ask questions like ‘on a scale of 1 to 10 how anxious are you feeling about x?’ which makes it comparable to past experiences for discussion.
  • Focus on your relationship with your child first… what are sources of humour?  Humour is key for teens.  Don’t let their anxiety take over their being. Don't forget to express your love and to praise them for any kind of wins – no matter the size 
  • If your child does return to school after a period of avoidance, they are often embarrassed about why they have been absent for so long.  A safe catchphrase is a great idea to agree on ‘Oh those stupid migraines are finally under control’