When a child experiences difficulties in attending school, the impacts can be far-reaching for both the child and their family. Various terminology is used to describe school non-attendance (SNA), such as ‘Emotionally based school non-attendance’ and ‘emotionally-based school avoidance’ (EBSA). Often researchers and educators distinguish between truancy and EBSA; however, it is useful to consider all school non-attendance as having an emotional basis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the prolonged period of absence from school for some children may have resulted in difficulties with attending school again. Factors such as being away from friends, fearing being behind in schoolwork, decreased motivation, preferring to stay at home with family members, and increased anxiety may all influence attendance.
Understanding the Complex Problem
To address school non-attendance, the complex problem first needs to be understood. It is useful to consider the many different contexts in a child’s life that could be impacting their ability to attend school, such as their home life, family circumstances, friendships, their cultural values and their own physical and mental health.
Labelling: School non-attendance can often be labelled as ‘school refusal’. This terminology may point to a child’s non-attendance as being a ‘choice’ and places the onus of the problem with the child. Research has shown that school non-attendance is a complex and multi-faceted problem with a need to look beyond this ‘within-child’ view. Using compassionate and empathetic language when interacting with children, and changing the way we label non-attendance will be important in shifting how we view and address the problem.
Further consideration could be given to the following:
- Taking a child-centred approach and being inquisitive about a child’s experiences and worries.
- Ensuring close home-school communication and regularly meeting with parents to discuss their concerns and the child’s situation at home. School staff may not be able to easily observe the challenges the child is experiencing within school (due to ‘masking’), and so, supportive communication will be needed between home and school.
- Getting to know the child’s strengths, interests, and values.
- Giving consideration to the different areas of safety that a child experiences: physical safety; emotional safety; social safety; cognitive safety 
What does the research tell us about addressing school non-attendance?
Recent research indicates the importance of the simple act of ‘keeping promises’ and providing consistent, reliable support (such as meeting the child at the school gates each day) for children experiencing school non-attendance. In the context of COVID-19, the child’s worries may be linked to the threat of the virus. In other cases, a child may be experiencing a difficult home life, relationship issues or bullying at school. Some evidenced-based approaches to supporting children are provided below. However, it is important to acknowledge that each child will have their own unique challenges and push-pull factors (those factors that push a child away from school and those that are pulling them to home) which need to be considered individually when implementing support.
Early intervention. The importance of recognising a child’s needs early on is key to preventing long-term non-attendance. Early ‘warning signs’ can include: changes in attendance and/or punctuality; parental concerns; past anxiety difficulties; less engaged in schoolwork, ‘psychosomatic’ complaints e.g. experiencing tummy aches, headaches, etc before going to school.
Positive relationships. Current research has highlighted the significance of building positive relationships and communication between home and school. Pastoral staff may be well placed to adopt the role of a ‘key person’ between home and school with the aim of maintaining consistent communication, building trust, and supporting families.
Think ‘Relationships, Relationships, Relationships’: Positive and supportive relationships between the child and their peers, the child and their teachers, and the child’s parents and school staff may help children to feel emotionally safe, secure, and increase their sense of belonging in school.
Promoting feelings of safety. Research highlights the importance of promoting children’s feelings of safety within the school setting and the need for schools to provide a safe, consistent, and predictable environment for all children to help prevent non-attendance.
Collaborative Support. Working in collaboration should be a priority to supporting children who experience school non-attendance. Any professionals supporting a family need to work together to ensure a ‘joined-up’ understanding and approach to support.
Practical suggestions to support children experiencing non-attendance
For school staff, it will be important to recognise that the child’s parent/s may be feeling worried and anxious too, and to consider how the school might support parents through this e.g. acknowledge the difficult situation; give them information about support being implemented in school; encourage and promote their own self-care.
- Maintain regular communication with the child and parent/ carer and support them to address concerns that may be raised.
- Provide parents with a key person in school that they can contact.
- Focus on the positives, strengths and skills of the child.
- As much as possible, ensure predictability and routine.
- Welcome children to school each day and let them know how happy you are that they have come to school.
- Focus on relationship-building with staff and peers.
- Establish what success looks like for the child; work together to create child-centred goals that are achievable in small steps and celebrate small successes.
- Create “If… then…” support with the child; something they can pick up and refer to when they feel worried or uncertain of what they can do to help themselves.
- Teach the child/children calming and relaxation exercises (these might need modelling before the child can independently use them).
- A ‘Pupil Passport’ or ‘One Page Profile’ for children might be helpful where key information is shared with staff so that they are aware of a child’s needs and what strategies they could draw upon.
Further suggestions for parents and carers
As well as considering some of the strategies listed above at home, parents might also find some of the following strategies helpful:
- Create a list of “I cans” at home that you and your child can use to build a positive, stepped (small steps) approach to success
- Ensure a consistent routine at home before school and during the evenings e.g. bedtimes, morning routine.
- If the child is willing, practise the route to school and if appropriate, the child might find it helpful to draw the route to school as a map that they can refer to when needed.
- Support your child to begin to name and list their worries. It might be useful to get them to ‘draw’ their worries, rather than verbalise them as this can be difficult for some children. Drawing a map or graph of the ‘school day’ that identifies the positive and challenging aspects at different times of the day might also be helpful.
References & Further Reading
The information in this guidance is developed from the current literature on school non-attendance and from online training on ‘emotionally-based school avoidance’ by 1Pooky Knightsmith (available from www.creativeeducation.co.uk).
For further useful resources and information: