‘If a teenager says they don’t want to go to school – what do you do?’

There is an increase in children refusing to attend school but ‘there is no standard solution’

Almost 60,000 children in Ireland won't have turned up for school today. Maybe they're sick or unavoidably absent but many of them, despite the best efforts of their parents, will have refused to go – for whatever reason.

"We have seen an increase in the number of cases of school refusal in recent years," says Maria Tobin, national manager of Tusla Educational Welfare Services. "This is a very individualised issue for children and young people and there is no standard solution."

Currently, there are more than 920,000 students attending primary and secondary schools in the Republic and every day more than six per cent of them miss school, according to Tusla. The agency is concerned about the level of school absenteeism and will be launching an awareness campaign, Every School Day Counts, to run during November, highlighting the importance of children attending school every day.

"Parents often feel powerless," says Rita O'Reilly, manager of Parentline, which receives a significant number of calls about school refusal. "If a teenager says they don't want to go to school – what do you do?"


Earlier this year, Parentline introduced a specific category of “school refusal” when logging topics of calls to its helpline, after volunteers talked about it coming up more frequently. More than 100 calls on the issue have been noted in recent months and the parents’ support organisation is now running an evening seminar on the problem, in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin on Tuesday, October 8th at 8pm.

The term “school refusal” may conjure up the image of a brat who refuses point blank to go to school. However, it’s not usually a case of misbehaving, says O’Reilly, pointing out that most children want to do the same as their peers.

“There is something that is making them miserable – maybe an undiagnosed condition, bullying or they just really dislike the place.” It’s a matter of trying to get to the root of their unhappiness and then discuss what can be done to alleviate it.

She knows parents can feel they have somehow failed, she adds, after all “your job is to put food on the table and send them to school”, but it’s not their fault.

School refusal is "quite an individual issue" and requires an individualised response, says John Sharry, adjunct professor at UCD School of Psychology, founder of the Parents Plus charity and columnist with The Irish Times. The three components in sorting the problem are the child, the parents and the school.

“It’s a collaboration – they often blame each other and then it doesn’t work out so well,” he says. It’s very important to get the child on board “to decide they want to overcome their fears and get back to school”.

Sharry will be a keynote speaker at the Parentline evening, along with Pairic Clerkin of the Irish Primary Principals' Network.

In Sharry’s experience there are two main types of school refusal. “One is a rebellion against authority and questioning the value of school and rules. The other, probably more common sort, is anxiety, coming from a variety of sources” – such as particular classes, friendships, break times or travelling on the school bus.

The more anxious children feel, the more they panic and want to avoid going. Avoidance makes them feel better, so they’ll want to avoid it again and then they get into a habit that is hard to overcome, he says.

Anxiety can cause tummy pains or headaches, so it may take a few days of missed school before a parent begins to suspect there is something else at play.

Times of transition tend to present challenges for children, so school refusal can be a particular issue among those starting school, again at the other end of primary school and then in the first couple of years of secondary school.

Sarah’s story

“Second year is probably the worst for problems,” according to Sharry. And that was certainly the experience of Anne, a Co Kildare mother, with her daughter Sarah (names have been changed).

“From second year on it really hit home,” she says. One day it would be a bad headache, another a tummy upset, “this and that, and not wanting to go to school. Then we realised there must be more going on.”

The first thought was that Sarah was being bullied. “But she was adamant there was nothing like that; there was no problem with school.”  Anne and her husband tried to deal with it themselves first and then they sought help.

“There is no doubt all you want to do is make it better,” says Anne. But they knew this wasn’t something they could just “fix” for Sarah.

“You have to try and give them the tools, or get them to talk to somebody who will give them the tools.”

They first spoke to the school and liaised with the guidance counsellor from then on. “We can only sing the praises of the school, they were very, very accommodating in everything.”

One of the health professionals said, “she has to go to school, you have to bring her and if she won’t get out of the car, you’ll have to drag her out of the car and bring her in”.

Anne was sitting there thinking how, with Sarah being the same size as her, was she going to be able to do that, even if she was prepared to try. She and her husband preferred to work out their own approach.

“Often we would arrive at the school gates and she would say, ‘I can’t go in’ and be in floods of tears.” On those occasions she would wait across the road for a while, or see if Sarah wanted to have a coffee first before going in a bit late.

Anne acknowledges that both she and her husband were lucky they had some flexibility in their work, which enabled them to do that. Or, if the school rang and said Sarah was in a bad way and needed to go home, her husband could usually collect her.

Sarah was referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and, after a couple of months, was told she wasn’t bad enough for their services. “She felt she had been dropped and it was quite traumatic,” says Anne.

Her daughter hated missing school, “not just because she had to catch up afterwards but she wanted to be in there, she wanted to do well, but she just wasn’t physically able to get through the gates some days”.

For her parents, it was a constant battle of “what is the right thing to do, how far can we push her?” Anne’s husband would sometimes try to be the “bad cop” to her “good cop”, to see if that worked.

“Sarah understood that sometimes we had to push her,” says Anne. “It wasn’t great when it was happening but afterwards, she’d be sorry that she was such trouble.” But they would assure her that all they wanted was her to go in and do her best.

Over time, Sarah’s attendance improved and, for exams, the school always organised a separate room for her and a small number of other pupils. After sitting the Junior Certificate, during which she missed one exam because she was just too anxious, Sarah enjoyed Transition Year, with its relative freedom and different activities.

During fifth and sixth year, she supported a number of peers who were experiencing similar problems of anxiety and depression that she was learning to cope with.

Now in her first year at university, having got her first choice, Sarah “still has her anxieties but she is more able to deal with them and she is a much more mature person”, adds Anne. “She is an intelligent young woman but sometimes she doesn’t have faith in herself.”

Small changes

Parents, understandably, tend to get very worried and panicky about a child refusing to go to school, says Sharry, “but a lot of pressure sometimes makes it worse and you get these big stand offs: children having meltdowns at the school gate, being dragged in.”

It is very stressful if everybody is trying to get out of the house on time in the morning and a child is refusing to go and making people late, he acknowledges.  Responses need to be creative and one parent may need to take time off work to alleviate the pressure on everybody.

With younger children it is usually easier to sort out.  For instance, one girl he worked with didn’t like the chaos in the yard at the beginning of the day, so it was agreed she could arrive a bit late, go into the principal’s office for a short chat and then be brought down to her class.

“That little change made all the difference,” he says. Travelling to school with a friend might also help.

For a child fearful of speaking out in class, teachers can agree not to call on them to contribute for the time being. While an anxious child can be given a pre-arranged signal to leave a class if it is getting too much, without drawing attention to themselves.

“They might never have to do that but, knowing they can, can make an enormous difference.”

In most cases of anxiety, he adds, it is getting over that “hump” of walking in and becoming involved in the school day. “Often it’s the anticipation that is the problem.”

School absences by numbers

- 60,000 students miss school each day
- 5.6 per cent absentee rate in primary schools
- 7.9 per cent non-attendance in post-primary schools
- 20 days or more missed in a year by a child must be reported by the school to the statutory Educational Welfare Services of Tusla
- 65,800 primary school students miss more than 20 days
- 51,700 post-primary students miss more than 20 days
Source: Tusla and school attendance data from primary and post-primary schools 2016/17