If you’ve been experiencing a tough time and have felt like you can’t go to school because of it, you’re not alone.
The number of young people refusing to go to school – which is commonly referred to as ‘school refusal’ – has increased in recent years.
While many young people feel stressed about school from time to time, it’s a good idea to get extra support if the thought of being at school distresses you so much that you refuse to go.
What exactly is 'school refusal'?
The term ‘school refusal’ has become more common in recent years. It’s used to describe the phenomenon of a young person becoming very distressed and anxious about going to school, to the point that they refuse to attend.
School refusal is different from regular truancy or ‘wagging’ school, which is hidden from your parents or carers. School refusal isn’t hidden – refusal to go to school is usually very direct and open, and parents are aware of their teen adamantly refusing to attend.
The signs of school refusal can include distress before attending school, health complaints, regularly skipping classes or leaving school early, or repeated absenteeism.
In some cases, attempting to attend – or even the thought of attending – school can cause physical symptoms such as vomiting, refusal to eat, shaking, or panic attacks.
There’s no single thing that causes someone to experience school refusal, but there are some common reasons for the distress associated with it:
- The person is being bullied.
- They’re having difficulty coping with schoolwork.
- They’re going through a major life event (e.g. death of a family member, parents going through a separation or divorce, moving, being away from family).
- They have a mental health condition, such as:
- attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Work out why you're feeling this way
If you can figure out the reasons why you’re feeling anxious, depressed or stressed, you can start to make things feel a bit easier.
If you’ve been feeling sad and aren’t sure why, this article may help you to identify why you’re feeling this way.
You could also give our ‘Checking in with yourself’ quiz a go – it can be a really helpful starting point for working out how you’re feeling.
Dealing with issues at school
If you’re being bullied at school, it’s a good idea to find support by talking to someone you trust. Many young people who have experienced bullying say that talking was the thing that helped them the most. Learn more here about why talking to someone about bullying helps.
If you’ve decided to talk to someone about being bullied, that’s great! It can be tough to open up about such a difficult topic, so just do your best to be open and honest, and remember to be kind to yourself during this process. Here are five steps to talking to someone you trust.
Having a tough time with schoolwork
There’s no doubt that struggling with schoolwork can be really distressing, and it can be a common reason behind people not wanting to go to school.
If you feel like you’re struggling with schoolwork, or just struggling to keep up at school in general, you're definitely not alone in having this experience, so try not to be hard on yourself.
If you didn’t achieve the results you wanted in a course or subject, it can be a really horrible feeling – but failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure. In fact, if you look at the history books, there’s plenty of stories of the world’s most famous people at the top of their fields experiencing failure or stumbling before they found their feet. Check out some of these stories here, as well as some tips on what to do if you’re feeling distressed about failing an exam or subject.
The best thing to do is to talk about it with a teacher or school counsellor that you trust, or with a parent or family member. A lot of people find it hard to have this conversation – there are some tips here on how to do it.
Remember that simply letting someone know you need some extra support in getting on top of schoolwork is the first step in making things much more manageable for you.
Coping with mental health issues
Everyone feels sad from time to time. However, feeling extremely low, or low for an extended amount of time (or both), means it’s probably a good idea to chat to someone about your mental health.
Consider talking about how you feel with a GP, who can help you to work out what kind of treatment or support might be right for you. This might include a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Head here to learn more about the different types of professional mental health help that are available.
As well as chatting to mental health professionals, you could reach out to a trusted friend or family member for support, or try some other self-help strategies that can be beneficial for mental health.
If you regularly feel anxious about going to school, you might want to look into your support options.
There are treatments available for anxiety, and health professionals can help you to work out a plan for dealing with these feelings.
Our article on how to manage your anxiety and stress has lots of other tips that might work for you.
Other mental health issues
Dealing with other mental health issues such as addiction, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, psychotic disorders, trauma and self-harm can all make it very hard to go to school.
If you’re concerned that you may be experiencing any of these mental health conditions or symptoms, the best thing to do is speak to a GP, who will be able to help you find treatment and support that works best for you.
Talk to someone you trust
Opening up to a trusted friend, family member or mental health professional can really take a weight off your shoulders.
If you’re just looking for someone to listen rather than to come up with practical strategies, let them know this by saying something like, ‘I know you’ll probably want to suggest things to fix what’s going on, but honestly, right now, I just need someone to listen and be there for me.’ Learn more here about active listening and how it can help.
Work out a plan and take small steps
Anxiety and stress about going to school can seem overwhelming at times, but the best way to deal with it is to take it step by step. If you need support in coming up with a plan, a trusted person or mental health professional can help you to create one.
For example, if you’re worried about falling behind at school, try breaking down your schoolwork into small tasks. So, if you haven’t written an important assignment and are struggling to get started, try writing 100 words and then taking a 10-minute break – then repeat.
Remember to celebrate any small steps you take towards your goal by doing something you enjoy.
Take each day as it comes
It’s important to take each day as it comes, because every day can look really different. Maybe one day you feel okay about going to school and the next you feel stressed or anxious.
Practising mindfulness is a good way to help you learn how to focus on the present moment and to take things one day at a time. You can practise mindfulness while you’re doing a task – such as focusing completely and mindfully on what you’re doing when you are going for a walk or drinking a cup of tea – or by taking some time out to practise mindfulness in a meditation session. Learn more about mindfulness here.
Take care of yourself
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
Trying to work towards developing or maintaining a healthy lifestyle can really help with your overall wellbeing. Here are some ways to do this:
- Eat a nourishing diet.
- Do regular exercise, whether that’s walking, running, boxing, yoga, or something else you enjoy.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule and aim for eight to ten hours a night.
- Develop and stick to a routine as much as possible. This might include times for sleeping, eating, doing things you enjoy and schoolwork.
A little self-care goes a long way. If you’re not sure what self-care is right for you, try doing our quiz to get some ideas.
You could try:
- doing a YouTube exercise or yoga class
- going on a picnic with a friend
- baking some cupcakes
- watching a series on Netflix
- listening to an uplifting or informative podcast
- making a cup of tea and drinking it mindfully
- having a ‘tech-free hour’
- choosing a random book at the library and taking time out to read it.
Self-care doesn’t have to take heaps of time – even 5–10 minutes a day spent on caring for your wellbeing can be really helpful in lowering your stress levels.
Get extra support
Here are some ways to get extra support if you need it:
- Speak to a friend or family member about what’s going on.
- Talk to a teacher at your school about a school return plan. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you could ask your parent or carer to do it. A school return plan might include options such as returning for half a day at first, and gradually increasing the amount of time you spend at school. Your school might also be able to offer you reduced homework or extra tuition.
- Make an appointment with your GP, who will be able to suggest treatment and support. They can refer you to a mental health professional if needed.
- Contact a mental health line or chat service such as Lifeline or Kids Helpline if you need immediate support.
What can I do now?
- Read Georgia's story about how she coped with school refusal and how she got through it with her family's support.
- Join the ReachOut Online Community if you're looking for a safe space to talk about school life and read the experiences of others.
- Check out our self-care collection to learn more about ways to look after yourself.