1. Pre-teens
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Truancy and school refusal

9-15 years

Your child might miss a day of school every now and then – that’s pretty normal. But if it happens a lot, you could be looking at or truancy or ‘school refusal’. By supporting your child to attend school regularly and working on any concerns together, you and your child can make the most of education.

Absenteeism, truancy and school refusal: what are they?

It’s pretty normal to miss a day of school here and there. But for some young people, missing school is more common. And if a child misses a lot of school, it can be hard to keep up with schoolwork and friendships.

Absenteeism is a persistent or regular pattern of not attending school. It usually happens with a parent’s knowledge and consent. Students who are absent usually spend their time away from school at home.

Several family, school and personal factors might be responsible for absenteeism. These factors include:

  • lack of family support, encouragement or organisation
  • family poverty leading to problems with buying food, uniforms and school books or with getting transport to school
  • work or family commitments, including care duties in the home
  • negative school experiences such as bullying or failure in learning
  • the need to catch up on homework or assessment tasks
  • illness.

Truancy is when students are absent from school without their parents’ knowledge or permission. It’s also called ‘wagging’ or ‘skipping’ school. Students who truant tend to hide this from their parents or do it against their parents’ wishes.

If your child is truanting, it might look like he’s going to school. He’ll leave and come home at the usual time – he might even go to school some of the time – but he’ll miss particular classes or even whole days at school.

School refusal
School refusal is when young people refuse to go to school. It’s a more serious emotional problem involving fear of attending school or anxiety about leaving home. It’s different from truancy. 

Your child might show symptoms such as crying, panic, tantrums, aggression or threats of self-harm.

Research estimates that between 1-5% of school-age children suffer from school refusal, with children aged 5–6 years and 10–11 years most affected. Students who suffer from school refusal might also be dealing with depression or anxiety disorders.

School attendance is compulsory in Australia for all children. The exact age of compulsory schooling varies across states. School doesn’t always mean your local government or non-government school. Other options include home-based or distance education, but these do need approval from the education department in your state.

Why young people truant or refuse to go to school

School refusal often happens around the same time as a major change in your child’s life. Some of those major changes might be changing classes, schools, friends, starting secondary school or having problems at school.

Your child could be anxious about family circumstances – for example, a period of illness or stress in the family – and want to stay at home because of that.

A change to personal, school or family factors in your child’s life – or several things happening all at once – can be so upsetting that your child might feel disconnected from school or anxious about leaving the house. Once your child feels this way, skipping or refusing school becomes more likely.

Signs that your child is missing school

Young people can be good at hiding things from their parents. If you’re worried that your child’s missing school, you can watch out for signs such as the following:

  • not doing homework
  • not talking about friends or teachers
  • avoiding conversations about school
  • avoiding talking about things she’s been doing at school
  • changing the normal ‘getting ready for school’ routine.

Your child’s school will contact you if your child has been missing school without any explanation. It’s vital that problems are identified early on, before they become chronic. Once your child gets disengaged from school, it can be very hard for him to reconnect with his learning.

You can also find out more about how to spot signs of problems at school.

Helping your child go to school regularly

You can support and encourage your child to go to school by showing interest in and support for her education. If your child’s sick, you can help by working out ways for her to keep in touch with school friends and teachers.

If you know your child’s missing school, talking to your child is an important first step. This will help you work out ways to support him. You might want to try the following:

  • exploring with him why he doesn’t want to go to school
  • listening to any fears and concerns about school that he has
  • working with him to find a way to address the problem.

You can also:

  • talk with school staff to find out what assistance they can provide – in particular, the student wellbeing staff or school counsellors are there to help young people deal with problems
  • talk with school staff about strategies to keep your child attending and engaged 
  • talk with the parents of your child’s friends to find out if they can offer you help and support.

If your child’s missing only particular classes or avoiding particular teachers, talking to the student wellbeing staff or school counsellors might help you and your child pinpoint particular areas of concern. Once you’ve spotted these, you can work on finding solutions.

Why young people need to be at school

If your child goes to school on a regular basis, she’ll:

  • find it easier to reach her full potential
  • have a better chance of making friends and building support systems that can help her deal with difficult times
  • keep up with schoolwork
  • be more likely to go back to school if she has to miss it for illness or another reason
  • be less likely to engage in risky behaviour.
Research shows that young people who stay in school for longer have better outcomes, not just in education, but also in future employment, income, health and wellbeing.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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