Children who refuse to go to school: ‘We see young people with mental health issues, from all social classes’

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More young people with deep-seated anxiety are avoiding school. Can the education system do more to help?

The anxiety started to build about a week beforehand. On the night prior to her first day back at school, Emma Heffernan could not sleep. She lay in bed, her heart pounding, as worries ricocheted around her head.

“I worried about being alone, about being picked on...I was scared of that,” says Heffernan, now 19 years old. “They had seen me freak out before...I was worried that I’d already missed a lot of school. I thought that I’d fallen so far behind in some subjects that I’d never catch up,” she says.

Secondary school was a daily struggle for Heffernan, from Youghal, Co Cork. She found it hard to make friends and felt ostracised from her class. Her school struggled to understand what was going on, while there were also dilemmas for her parents.

By the time the school day ended, she got into the car and looked at her mother. ‘I’m not going back any more,’ she said. ‘I’d made the decision. And I just felt relief’

“It was difficult for them. They struggled a lot with knowing what to do; the school was telling them they had to make me go in or I’d just get used to being at home; and then I was saying I just couldn’t face it.”


She just about managed to get through first and second year, but by third year she was spending more time out of school than in it. Her anxiety was a barrier that was growing bigger and bigger every year.

On that first day in fifth year – she skipped transition year – she managed to get herself into school feeling clammy, nauseous and on edge. By the time the school day ended, she got into the car and looked at her mother. “I’m not going back any more,” she said. “I’d made the decision. And I just felt relief.”

School refusal

Education experts use different terms for school avoidance – such as school refusal, school phobia or reluctant attendance – but all agree it is becoming a bigger issue.

In simple terms, it involves a student who refuses to attend school and experiences significant distress. But there are complex layers to it. School refusal differs from truancy in that the young person is at home with the knowledge of the family, despite their efforts to enforce attendance.

Psychologists say school refusal is usually a symptom of something else: mental health problems, anxiety, depression, learning difficulties, social rejection, bullying or myriad other issues.

Children end up avoiding school because they are trying to escape negative feelings such as anxiety, or negative experiences, perhaps related to as exams or social interactions.

It is a problem that can quickly multiply: missing school intensifies both the academic pressures and social pressures that are waiting when a child returns, setting up a vicious cycle in which the more a young person is absent, the more they want to stay out.

Authorities do not have figures on the number of young people out of school on these grounds. However, there are a number of troubling indicators which have been exacerbated by the pandemic and school closures.

HSE-run child and adolescent mental health services have seen a 40 per cent year-on-year increase in caseloads. Waiting lists to screen education welfare referrals have reached the highest levels in years, while hundreds of children – 375 at last count – are in receipt of home tuition on mental health grounds, a measure of last resort.

The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), which provides support to schools, says it detected an increase in referrals of pupils exhibiting school refusal during 2020 and 2021, up from about four or five cases in 100 to seven cases in 100. In most cases, psychologists noted that anxiety and reluctance to attend had often been evident prior to the Covid-related school closures, but in some cases were precipitated by them.

Plagued by fear

Ryan Sharpe (17) recalls being about eight or nine when he first started hiding under his duvet in fear on school mornings.

“There were mornings where I’d refuse to get out of the car at school. Or I’d go in the gate, line up and while they walked into school, I’d run back to the car. There were lots of mornings where I’d make myself sick at school in order to go home.”

He was being bullied, he says, and felt out of place in school and unable to cope. “It felt like a scary place to go... I was very anxious and stressed. I just wasn’t myself.” If anything, it got worse at second level.

Plagued by anxiety, he switched schools, but he still kept missing large chunks of the year: feigning illness after roll call, hiding in the school bathroom during classes or trying to explain himself in the principal’s office. Shy and introverted, he felt much of the anxiety was linked to pressure he put on himself to fit in.

While there were individual teachers who were hugely supportive, he says it felt like the wider education system was not set up to care enough.

His unease reached the point where he searched online for advice on how to get kicked out of school. ‘I ended up writing notes saying that I’d hurt people and cause trouble, all in an effort not to be there’

“Some were great and looked out for me and cared about my education, when they didn’t need to. My music teacher, in particular. But the system itself just didn’t know how to respond to someone like me,” he says.

His unease reached the point where he searched online for advice on how to get kicked out of school.

“I’m not this type of person at all, but I ended up writing notes saying that I’d hurt people and cause trouble, all in an effort not to be there,” he says.

Sharpe, from Cork city, ended up home-schooling himself for much of third year and left school shortly afterwards.

Red flag

In education, absenteeism is a red flag, a signal that something has gone wrong in a child’s health or emotional life, or within the family or in the school itself.

Catherine Hallissey, a senior child psychologist and former teacher, says that with the right therapeutic assistance, which involves the child, parents and the schools, these issues can be overcome.

She and others agree that an important factor is a school environment where there is a supportive climate and understanding of school refusal, along with positive teacher relationships. This, in reality, is easier said than done against a backdrop of competing demands, staff shortages and difficulties accessing an overwhelmed child and adolescent mental health service.

Schools often seek the advice and support of outside agencies, but navigating the system or accessing the right support can be highly challenging, say teachers.

John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), says teachers see the impact of adverse mental health, emotional and behavioural problems first-hand. He says hundreds of children are waiting more than a year just to get an assessment, while the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) is under-resourced and provides on average one educational psychologist to every 18 schools.

“The crisis is compounded by a well-publicised staff retention and recruitment crunch at child and adolescent mental health services, leaving real questions about its capacity to respond to the needs of vulnerable children,” says Boyle.

The INTO is seeking funding to enable schools to introduce specialist counselling and therapeutic supports for pupils who are struggling due to mental health challenges. Boyle says a pioneering pilot scheme running across 75 schools, which offers in-school access to a range of therapies and supports, provides a potential blueprint for the way forward.

The Department of Education says it is responding to school refusal in a number of ways. There are school completion programmes and education welfare officers who provide support, guidance and advice to all schools and parents over school attendance issues.

“This is done through home visits, educational welfare conferences and collaboratively working with different agencies,” a spokesman says. “The main priority is to identify effective interventions and supports which will promote the engagement, attendance, and retention of the child/young person in school and to ensure their right to an education is protected.”

In addition, the department says NEPS provides a comprehensive, school-based psychological service to all primary and post-primary schools to “support the wellbeing, academic, social and emotional development of all learners”.

Alternative education

In the hallway of the Cork Life Centre, an alternative education provider, is a mural that reads: “Welcome – may all who come as guests leave as friends.”

Teaching staff greet students as they arrive at the door. If anyone is worried, upset or hungry, they are taken aside first and their needs are met. Classes and teaching can wait.

The centre is run by a voluntary organisation that offers a different learning environment to young people who have been excluded or have dropped out of mainstream education due to a range of personal circumstances.

“In the public mind, people think of young people who fall out of education as being troublemakers or in the care system, but we don’t see many of them,” says Don O’Leary, the centre’s director.

“We see far more young people with anxiety, mental health issues, from all kinds of social classes... Leaving school for them isn’t an event, it’s a process.”

O’Leary believes 10-20 per cent of children do not fit easily into the mainstream Irish school system.

“These children can be highly intelligent, they may have additional learning needs, they may have difficult backgrounds, or they may come from very privileged families.”

‘If a young person has mental health or personal issues, or they’re hungry, you need to deal with that before you ask them to focus on maths class’

Cork Life Centre is just one of a number of alternative education settings that are helping students overcome barriers to education. Others include the XLC project in Waterford, Trinity Access 21 in Dublin and iScoil, a non-profit online learning service, among others.

Groups such as Youth Work Ireland are supporting out-of-school young people in areas such as Loughrea, Longford, Donegal, Westmeath and Offaly.

Building a relationship

The key to the success of these settings, says O’Leary, is building a relationship with each young person and “really listening” to them.

“Our staff meet kids where they are, but we don’t have to worry about the points system. If a young person has mental health or personal issues, or they’re hungry, you need to deal with that before you ask them to focus on maths class.”

Many alternative education settings, however, are not formally recognised and lack a sustainable funding model; staff are often employed on short-term contracts and have to register for unemployment benefit in the summer. Yet recent research shows they are achieving education completion rates that are comparable with the mainstream system.

For both Heffernan and Sharpe, Cork Life Centre has proved life-changing.

“I thought it was going to be like every other school where I just felt trapped,” says Sharpe. “It was the complete opposite. They asked me to come in for just half an hour to begin with. That was brilliant. They asked me how I was. We talked through things. They were interested in me and what was going on.”

“Elsewhere, it felt like you were a number and had to follow their rules,” says Heffernan. “But here, they were very supportive of your interests. You felt welcome. I was able to focus much more on art. I recovered my self-confidence and self-esteem. I was able to talk to others.”

They both feel Ireland needs an education system which is more understanding of difference.

Last week, they both received their Leaving Cert results, something which was unimaginable a few short years ago.

Sharpe is due to start a post-Leaving Cert course in sound engineering, which offers a route into the Cork School of Music. Heffernan will begin a further education course in animation next week, and dreams of seeing her work on screen one day.

“When I think back, I didn’t know where I was going,” she says. “I have more self-confidence now, whereas before I could barely speak to anyone, I could never have done an interview like this... Now, it’s feels like anything is possible.”


Alternative education: The Cork Life Centre and the XLC Project in Waterford are just some of the alternative education projects that offer places to those who have left mainstream. There are also Sudbury schools in Wicklow, Sligo and Cork that focus on self-directed learning.

Youthreach: This is aimed at unemployed early school leavers aged 15-20 and is intended to help young people return to learning and prepare for employment and adult life.

Home schooling: Several thousand children are estimated to be homeschooled by their parents or others. Many parents and children say they find the mainstream education system oppressive or unsuitable for a variety of reasons. While regulated by Tusla, the child and family agency, any parent is entitled to begin homeschooling a child once they simply notify the agency and receive an acknowledgement.

Home tuition: This is distinct from home-schooling, where a parent decides to educate their child at home, without State supports. In exceptional cases, students can be approved for home tuition for medical, special needs or mental health reasons. Essentially, a family receives funding employ a teacher for the child, typically for a few hours a day.

iScoil This is a non-profit online learning service that offers young people a pathway to learning, accreditation and progression. It has an enrolment of more than 180 students is the largest out-of-school provider for under 16s in the State. It only takes referrals from Tusla’s educational welfare officers.

School completion programme: This programme overseen by Tusla aims to help students from disadvantaged areas stay in school to complete their Leaving Cert. Each project provides a tailored programme of in-school, after-school and holiday time interventions.

Back to Education Initiative: This provides opportunities for second-chance education to adult learners and early school leavers who want to upgrade their skills. The initiative builds on existing schemes such as Youthreach and Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent