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School Attendance

Updated: May 17, 2023

School attendance is a hot topic, with the government making it a top priority and schools giving out rewards for high attendance and removing privileges for those with poor attendance. However, for many children and young people, getting to school each day can be a real struggle. So what happens if your child is having difficulty attending school?

Key terms

Before we consider what to do, let’s look at some common terms relating to non-attendance at school. There are a number of different ways that professionals refer to school attendance issues. This is important to be aware of because it will affect the lens through which your child’s behaviour is viewed and the support you and your child are offered. Here are some of the key terms that you might come across:

School Refusal - this is a behaviourist term that focuses solely on the external observation that the child is not in the school building when they are supposed to be. This focus on behaviour implies that the child is being naughty and choosing to refuse to go to school. It places the blame on the child and/or parents.

This puts the onus solely on the parents to ‘fix’ the problem and get the child through the school gates no matter what. Parents are often advised to use punishments and rewards along with other ‘strategies’ to control the child’s behaviour. Professionals may suggest the parents should attend a parenting course.

Emotionally Based School Avoidance - ‘school avoidance’ once again focuses on the behaviour, although there is now consideration of the underlying feelings driving it. Although this approach sounds more empathetic, the expectation is still that the child needs to change. They simply need to become more resilient, develop coping strategies, or learn how to rationalise their emotions in order to control their own behaviour. Professionals may suggest that parents attend a course about anxiety in children.

This approach may be helpful if there is a one-off, short-term, specific reason for the child’s difficulty attending school, but for many children, there are deeper issues that need to be addressed.

Barriers to Attendance - this term looks behind the child’s emotions and behaviour. In this approach, it is the adults’ responsibility to understand the child’s unmet needs and make accommodations so that it becomes easier for the child to attend school. Professionals recognise that there are valid reasons why the child cannot attend school - it is a case of ‘can’t’ not ‘won’t’. This requires teamwork between the child, parents, school and sometimes other agencies.

Barriers to Education - sometimes focusing on school attendance in itself is not helpful and the child’s needs may mean that school attendance is not actually possible. Continuing to push school attendance only increases the child’s distress, and in the meantime, the child is not receiving any education. In this situation, alternatives such as part-time attendance, alternative/specialist provision, Education Other Than At School (EOTAS) and Elective Home Education (EHE) should be considered.

What to do

First and foremost, do not force your child to attend school if they are struggling, even if well-meaning professionals tell you to. This can potentially cause trauma and create long-term difficulties with accessing school. It can also destroy your child’s trust in you and damage your relationship with your child.

Contact the school and tell them your child is unable to attend. Absence due to mental health should be authorised and recorded as illness.

Finally, make sure you understand your legal rights and responsibilities - the organisation Not Fine in School has more information on how to protect yourself from prosecution for your child’s non-attendance at school, and how to get the right support for your child.

Zoe is a late identified autistic parent to 2 unschooling neurodivergent children, writing about autistic identity and culture. Find her on Medium and Mastodon

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