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What to do when your child refuses to go to school?

Posted on August 2, 2019 by Ann

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Su Lin’s story

Su Lin is a 14 year old girl who has moderate intellectual disability. She is often absent from school. Her mother tries to get her ready for school but she will complain of a stomachache and run to the toilet. As a result of the delay, Su Lin would miss the bus. When the social worker visited her at home, Su Lin was found playing computer games and watching YouTube videos while her mother was doing household chores.

What is school refusal tendency?

School refusal is a term used to describe a child who regularly avoids or refuses to go to school, with the knowledge of his or her caregiver.

How do I know if my child has school refusal tendency?

Your child may cry, throw tantrum, cling persistently to you or show signs of physical discomfort like sore throat, stomachache or headache, to avoid going to school. Such behaviour often occurs before he or she leaves for school, subsides once he or she is at home, and will often reappear the next morning.

Occasionally, school refusal tendency occurs after a long break from school such as the school holidays. Sometimes, a child may still go to school but may exhibit behaviours such as skipping classes or arriving late for school.

Why is my child refusing to go to school?

It is often assumed that traumatic experiences in school with people such as a fierce teacher or a class bully are the reasons why a child does not want to attend school. However, this is not always true. Here are some other possible reasons:

1. Avoidance of school-related activities

Your child may be afraid of a particular activity in school such as reading lessons. A child who is struggling with his academic performance may be more likely to avoid attending school.

2. Attention from significant people at home

Your child may want to stay at home to get more attention from you. When a child experiences conflicts at home, family separation, sibling rivalry or neglect from caregiver; he or she may feel insecure and seek the attention of the caregiver.

3. Home environment is more attractive

Sometimes the home environment may be more attractive to your child. Your child may prefer to stay home to watch TV, sleep, and play.

4. Medical condition

The child may develop a fear of going to school after a long absence from school due to illness. Mental illnesses such as depression, excessive preoccupation with cleanliness or certain fears (e.g., fear of being contaminated in the school washroom) may also lead to school refusal.

How do I manage my child’s school refusal tendency?

1. Explain the facts

You need to explain to your child why he or she must go to school no matter how young he or she is. Keep your explanation simple, such as, “This is a place where you can learn new things, play and meet new friends”. If your child is old enough, explain the consequences of missing school.

2. Visit the school

Arrange for a visit before the first day of school. Talk to the child’s form teacher in the presence of your child and introduce them to each other.

3. Work with the school

Work closely with the school to identify the causes of school refusal and to remove factors that will prevent your child from going to school.

4. Empower your child

Empower your child with the skills to cope with emotions. If the reason for school refusal is anxiety, teach your child some relaxation techniques.

5. Home management

Establish clear and simple rules at home and list the rewards and consequences for attending and not attending school. Be sure to acknowledge your child’s efforts.

6. Talk it out

Talk with your child to find out what is bothering him. If you cannot find out what is bothering him or her, check with the teacher. Maybe someone is picking on your child in school or there could be a situation that is causing your child embarrassment.

7. Cheerful goodbyes

When you send your child to school, do not prolong the time of separation from your child by giving hugs, kisses and reassurances. Do not tell your child that he or she should not be afraid or that nothing bad will happen to him or child. If a child senses anxiety in the caregiver, the child may think there is reason to be anxious. Inform your child when you will return, and leave him or her happily with a smile on your face, regardless of whether your child is screaming or pleading with you to come back.

Su Lin’s story (cont)

In the case of Su Lin, her mother may consider giving her rewards for attending school. Rewards may include praises, computer time at home or a star chart where Su Lin can earn a number of stars for going to school regularly. The stars can be exchanged for favourite activities. When Su Lin refuses to go to school, she will not be allowed to play computer games at home and would be required to help her mother with household chores.


MINDS is an All In Preferred Partner.

Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) is one of the largest Voluntary Welfare Organisations in Singapore, serving some 2,400 clients from past the age of six to their ripe old age. MINDS’ services include four special schools, three employment development centres, three day training and development centres, and one multi-service residential home.

This guide was originally published by MINDS’ Allied Health Professionals unit and republished with minor editorial amendments by All In.

All content found on the All In website, has been created for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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