Article September 18, 2023

How to support your child through school phobia | Empowering Families

By Ray Boxall

If your child is feeling hesitant about going back to school this year, you're not alone. It's a challenge that affects numerous families every year, even more so since the pandemic.

Alison Manser’s 15-year-old daughter, for example, began experiencing struggling to attend school due to her anxiety when she started Year 10.

With her daughter suffering from anxiety since the age of seven, Alison explains, “As parents, we were in despair and desperate for some help, support, compassion, understanding, and guidance within the school setting. Our daughter was declining at an alarming rate. She had stopped eating, talking, engaging, socialising, and sleeping, and we could no longer get her into school at all.

Alison’s story is just one example of what so many families are dealing with regarding school avoidance. Fortunately, it’s not a situation you need to feel stuck in. If you’re in need of guidance, take a look at these strategies for understanding and approaching the problem, finding solutions, and the possibility of alternative education options when traditional school simply isn’t the right fit.

Article author: Ray Boxall, SEND Lead Practitioner

Reframing the issue

When your child resists going to school, you’re likely to hear the term “school refusal” come up. However, if you’re going through the problem yourself, you likely know that this term isn’t always an accurate reflection of what’s going on. “Refusal” implies a conscious and even defiant choice, but often, these children are avoiding school due to overwhelming emotions like fear and anxiety. As such, many educators now prefer terms such as “school avoidance,” “school resistance,” “school anxiety,” or “school phobia.”

Reframing the issue is the first step in helping us to grasp the underlying reasons behind a child’s reluctance to attend school.

Identifying school phobia

One thing many don’t realise is that school phobia doesn’t always manifest as a complete refusal to leave the house. Signs of a phobia or anxiety might also include:

  • Morning crying or meltdowns
  • Resistance to getting out of bed on time
  • Begging to stay at home
  • Frequent complaints of illness that vanish once school is ruled out
  • Skipping classes

Alongside this, you may notice changes in your child’s behaviour and daily life, such as:

  • Struggling with homework
  • A drop in grades
  • Acting out at home or at school
  • Withdrawn or depressed demeanour
  • Sleep or eating disturbances

Your child may be struggling with school phobia even if they don't completely refuse to attend altogether. Look out for signs like crying, meltdowns, or unexplainable complaints of illness before school, as well as behaviour changes like trouble sleeping or a drop in grades.

Understanding the causes

The key to overcoming school phobia is working out what’s causing it, and it can stem from various sources, both sudden and gradual. Common triggers include:

  • Poor test results
  • Difficulty keeping up in class
  • Bullying
  • Trouble making friends
  • Negative teacher-student relationships
  • Fear of specific activities, like physical education or public speaking

You may also be surprised to learn that school itself isn’t always the problem. Home-related factors may also contribute, such as:

  • Family conflicts or illness
  • Major life changes
  • The loss of a pet
  • Relocation or school changes

On top of this, children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) are more susceptible to school phobia. If you have a child with a learning difference, you may find that many traditional education settings won’t always adequately support their specific needs, exacerbating the academic, social, and environmental challenges school can bring.

School phobia is often caused by problems at school, such as bullying or poor grades, but it can also be triggered by problems at home, like the loss of a family member or a recent move.

Addressing school avoidance and school phobia:

Ultimately, every child needs and deserves an education, which is why it’s crucial to address school phobia as promptly as possible. In many cases, children struggling with school attendance may simply benefit from a different form of education, but there are many steps you can try before considering alternative options:

1. Identify the underlying issues

Engage your child in open and empathetic discussions about their reluctance to attend school, and you may find that their concerns or worries can be tackled.

Try to explore their feelings thoroughly, whether through conversation, writing, or art. Allowing your child to express themselves in the way they’re most comfortable, especially if your child is neurodivergent, can be key to getting an accurate picture.

2. Brainstorm solutions

Once you know what’s wrong, collaborate with your child to brainstorm potential solutions to their specific concerns. Don’t be hesitant to experiment with various approaches, as there may be a combination that works best for your family.

3. Maintain a routine

If your child is avoiding school entirely, you likely won’t be able to find an overnight solution. In the meantime, while you work on getting back into the classroom, make sure to establish a daily routine at home that mirrors a school schedule.

This includes ensuring your child engages in educational activities throughout the day. This can include everything from reading to experiments to watching educational YouTube videos.

4. Communicate with the school

If home-based solutions prove ineffective, it’s time arrange a meeting with the school. Get together with your child’s teachers, special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs), or pastoral leads, and present them with a list of the challenges your child is facing — along with potential solutions you’ve come up with.

It’s important that your child, your family, and the school are on the same page, so collaborate with them to devise the right plan. Where applicable, adjustments should documented in Individual Education Plans (IEPs) or Education, Health, and Care Plans (EHCPs) to make sure they’re well followed.

Consider alternative education

If the traditional school setting continues to pose difficulties, all hope is not lost. There are always other options out there, even if you don’t have the time or resources to homeschool your child yourself. Online schooling, for example, has helped numerous children like yours regain their love for learning and progress through school with great academic outcomes.

King’s InterHigh, the leading British international online school, is one such place, with various features and supports in place for students who have been avoiding school:

Smooth transition

With King’s InterHigh, students can attend live, interactive online classes from the comfort of home, easing the transition back into learning. Plus, families can join at any time throughout the year with a welcoming onboarding process, ensuring learners don’t miss any more school time than they already have.

Flexible learning

Students can study at their own pace at King’s InterHigh, and all lessons are recorded and made available 24/7. This type of flexible scheduling, which also includes timetable adjustments where needed, can accommodates various learning styles and needs, making it perfect for children who felt unsupported in their previous school.

Wellbeing support

King’s InterHigh provides comprehensive wellbeing support to all students too, including workshops, exam anxiety sessions, and more.

Early detection of challenges and tailored strategies to overcome them are all part of the program, guiding your child to work through the issues which contributed to their school phobia to begin with.

Freedom of choice

With a wide range of subjects to choose from, including a vast array of GCSE and A Level courses, students can tailor their education to their interests and needs. This can be a huge help in getting former school avoiders enthusiastic about learning again.

Safe learning environment

The school’s virtual classrooms are distraction-free, with a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. This creates a safe, secure environment that’s conducive to learning, which some students struggle to find in mainstream settings.

Social opportunities

Alongside great teaching and pastoral support, King’s InterHigh brings its vast community of students numerous online and offline activities.

Clubs, social media platforms, and community events offer opportunities to make friends all around the world — even for students who once struggled with socialisation in school.

Innovative learning model

At its core, King’s InterHigh’s learning model has been designed from the ground up to work for every individual student, no matter their circumstances or background. The school combines expert teaching with cutting-edge technology to engaging students in innovative ways, all while supporting them through any specific needs they may have.

Why choose King’s InterHigh online learning

Addressing any child’s reluctance to attend school requires empathy, communication, and exploration of potential solutions. While traditional school settings may not work for every child, alternative options like King’s InterHigh offer flexibility, support, and a safe environment for effective learning. Your child’s education should align with their needs, and King’s InterHigh’s “learning that revolves around you” offers a positive, fulfilling experience that will set them on the right path for a bright future.

Recent research conducted by Cambridge University has highlighted the impact COVID-19 had when education was forced to go online, and how these changes have created a positive long term impact. You can read more about this research here.

When asked about her daughter’s experience with King’s InterHigh, Alison gushed, “She was laughing, smiling, engaging, and singing with happiness again. The beautiful child we felt we’d lost was returning!

To discover more about King’s InterHigh, including how we support the needs of each unique child, join us at one of our online open events.

By Ray Boxall

As SEND Lead Practitioner, Ray Boxall works to create a welcoming environment for our students with special educational needs and disabilities as well as our neurodivergent learners. He has a master’s degree in educational leadership and a postgraduate certificate in the psychology of education, with over 15 years of experience in teaching and school leadership.

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