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Back to school after holidays - dealing with anxiety and school refusal.








By Michael Hawton

2nd February, 2021

Many parents would be familiar with the morning struggle of getting a reluctant child back to school.  The teeth gnashing, the tantrums, the threats.  School refusal can be really tricky to deal with especially at the start of a new year, especially during a pandemic. As a parent, you’re not alone.

Trying to understand your child’s anxiety around going to school, implementing clear expectations, and setting up a program for gradual exposure can assist in helping your child overcome the anxiety about going into a new school year.

See below my top tips for dealing with anxiety around going to school and school refusal below:

  • Understand and listen to your child’s anxiety about going to school.

These are worrying times even for adults, but for a child going into a new year and a new class it can be very anxiety provoking. At a time when you are both calm, talk to your chid about why they are feeling worried about the new school year.  Ask curious questions ‘how does your body feel when you go to a new class?’, acknowledge their feelings ‘I can see you’re really feeling upset.’  and let them feel heard and acknowledged. Even just acknowledging the feelings around school and school refusal can go some way to making your child feel less anxious.

If appropriate, challenge any catastrophic thinking and cognitive distortions. These refer to all or nothing thinking patterns. Role play with your child, ‘What is the worst thing that could happen to you on your first day?’, ‘Will that really happen?’

And then challenge that thinking ‘Is that the only way of looking at things?’  ‘What about all the friends you have at school?’

  • Implement clear expectations about them going to school

Be clear about what you expect from your child.  Don’t start patterns of avoidance at the start of the new year by letting your child skip the swimming carnival, or have the first day off. Instead of saying ‘If you go to school tomorrow…’ say ‘When you go to school tomorrow…’  By being clear about these expectations you are normalising the act of going to school and making it clear that this is what is expected of them. 

  • Use the step-ladder approach

Gradual exposure can be an effective way of managing one’s anxiety around a particular event, issue or thing.  You might want to consider mapping out a process of gradual exposure for your child, starting with the least intimidating event (which might be talking about school) and working to going to the school for a test drop-off. Along the way remember to check in with your child, and acknowledge how he or she might be feeling.

  • Get the team together

It takes a village to raise a child, remember you’re not alone in this problem.  At the start of the school year reach out to your child’s school and ask for assistance from support staff or the executive.  Work together to come up with some strategies that are realistic and achievable.

If you want to learn more about this topic, and managing anxiety and building resilience, Parentshop is running an interactive webinar for parents to learn a parent-led intervention to reduce anxiety and build resilience in children aged 4 -12 years. The workshop will be held over three consecutive Monday evenings 6th, 13th and 20nd May 2021 from 6.30pm – 8.30pm to register visit www.parentshop.com.au/parent-courses

About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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