7 steps to help young people who are school refusing

The 7 steps you can do immediately to help young people

It’s the start of the school year, and suddenly my clinic phone is ringing with worried parents who have kids refusing to attend school. Here’s how to help fast.

School refusal is a worry for parents and their kids, and the research shows there are important steps to take. This research also shows that the longer it takes to act, and the more time away, the harder it is to get the young person back to school. Do not wait for school absenteeism to be week or months, act within days.

With DNA-V, the youth model of ACT, you can work quickly to get the young person back to school.

Here are 7 steps to take:

1. Make an appointment to see them as quickly as you can. I know it’s hard, but prevention before refusal habits start is very powerful. Just today I squeezed a young person in on my lunch break because they hadn’t been to school in 3 days (and that’s what prompted me to write this). With school refusal, each day away makes it harder, so fast help can be one of the best things you can do. I count school refusal as a crisis appointment.

2. Normalise their anxiety and worry. About 50% of kids refusing school will have early warning signs of anxiety or depression or both. Many will have bullying or social isolation. Others will be afraid at school due to uncertainty, increasing study demands, or changes in school dynamics (new school year). Let them know that about 1 in 5 young people in their class will be struggling with ‘something’ but all those other students hide it too. (See our inside-outside vision exercise in Get out of Your Mind and Into Your Life for Teens)

3. Connect with the school support person asap.  Most schools understand how school refusal works and know that fast action is needed. My preferred option – while I’m in this first session working on some DNA-v skills with the young person – covertly ask the parents to telephone the school and arrange to go up to the school straight after our session. It doesn’t always work out, but I attempt to strike while the iron is hot so to speak. After the session, quickly call/email the school and ask them to make a plan to support the returning student.

4. In this same first session, show the young person the DNA-v “I hate school” video. I use this as a way of teasing out what is happening. Pause at each relevant point and allow them to personalise it with their own issues. As you watch, help them share what their own DNA-v for school refusal has been. Maybe their advisor is telling them some self-critical things? Maybe they notice strong somatic symptoms each morning. As you go, write a step by step plan for what they can do tomorrow.

5. Check for school bullying, isolation, and loneliness. Many schools are big places with over 1000 kids. For a young person with anxiety, it can be a frightening place to wander around the school ground at lunchtime, or to try and find a friend. If you detect any concerns with friendships or isolation, work with the school to create a plan. Sometimes it can be as simple as a meeting point at lunchtime, or the opportunity to head to a safe zone (library).

6. Help parents to know that the longer their young person is away from school, the more likely school refusal will become an ongoing battle. Coach parents in how to listen to their young person’s feelings without trying to fix or problem solve; i.e. ask the young person “Do you want me to offer suggestions or just listen?” This handy e-book can help parents.

7. Once the immediate return to school crisis has passed. Use DNA-v to help the young person build resilience and learn how to manage anxiety, depression, loneliness and friendship skills.

(Note: the above steps are helpful for young people that have sudden onset school refusal, and are supported by parents. For young people without this, you will need to modify).

If you want more DNA-v or ACT training, follow the links below. I’d love to see you.

Good luck,

Louise Hayes, PhD
President Association for Contextual Behavioural Science
ACT Peer-reviewed Trainer