Asha is a Year 7 pupil whose school attendance has become increasingly sporadic. She often complains of headaches on Sunday nights and by Monday she’s in tears insisting she stays at home. Asha’s parents have tried everything to encourage her to go to school, with little success.
Asha is a fictional pupil, but the experience of emotionally-based school avoidance (EBSA) is very real and it’s one important reason why persistent absence in schools has doubled since before the pandemic.
The challenge for schools
The issues behind EBSA can vary hugely, from a child struggling with schoolwork to changing family circumstances, bullying or even complicated journeys to school. Its complexity makes it much more challenging for schools to address.
While whole-school strategies for supporting pupils’ mental health and wellbeing remain a significant priority, reducing EBSA requires a more tailored approach.
Here are five key steps schools can take to help pupils like Asha get back into the classroom more regularly.
Children who’ve been persistently absent can become more anxious over time about missed learning or re-engaging with friends. So, the sooner a back-to-school plan can be put in place, the better the outcome.
Involving the child is key. Encourage them to talk about how they feel and share their thoughts and concerns about being in school. With more clarity on the barriers, schools can shape personalised plans to give children a sense of control over what’s happening and what’s coming next.
Allow for soft landings
Small steps can reduce anxiety in the long term, so allow pupils to explore different options for starting the school day. Rather than launching straight back into the busy classroom, they might prefer to arrive in a quiet room and complete activities for their favourite subjects first with a familiar adult present.
Once they’re comfortable with a routine, build resilience by placing children into small groups, changing the room or encouraging them to start the day working on different subjects.
Knowing they will see a friendly face when they get to school can really help children struggling with EBSA to feel happier about coming in.
Find out if they have a particularly good relationship with a teacher, TA or someone in the school office. Where possible, arrange for the staff member to spend time with the child in the morning or during breaks.
Being able to chat openly with a trusted adult about how they are feeling or what’s happening for them could ease their anxiety and smooth the transition between home and school.
Being more flexible about when a child comes to school can improve attendance over time.
A child concerned about the busy school day may feel less anxious coming in later or earlier when the playground is quieter, or to attend a morning or afternoon session instead of the whole day.
If timetabling allows, create the environment where children feel happier and more confident about spending more time in school. It’s the first step to longer days.
Parental support is critical to getting children back into school so assess what help families might need too.
A regular workshop could help parents better understand of the impact of absence on their child’s emotional and academic development. The chance to chat with other families reduces isolation and helps parents to find effective ways to encourage their children into school.
Schools can invite parents to spend time in school too, familiarising them with daily routines so they can better support their child from home.
With child-centred strategies in place, schools, parents and pupils can work together to reduce EBSA, improve attendance and give children such as Asha the academic, social and emotional support they need to succeed.
For more information, download your free copy of How to tackle student anxiety.