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We have changed our name! Kids on the Spectrum is now called Living on the Spectrum

School Can’t, a national crisis we can no longer ignore.

School Can’t (School refusal) is when a child is so overwhelmed and stressed by school that they find it difficult to attend. Formally referred to as School refusal. We now understand that it is not a choice for many kids. It is due to overwhelming sensory overwhelm, anxiety and stress. For kids experiencing this, the onsite educational environment is no longer a mentally safe environment.

When a child experiences School Can’t, it can be overwhelming, confusing and can create a divide between students and their educators. Because of this many parents blame themselves. It is not reasonable or logical to blame ourselves as parents. And often, the reasons behind avoiding school cannot be easy to identify. Autistic students and students with ADHD are twice as likely to experience School Can’t.

Read more: What are reasonable adjustments in school for my child who has a disability?

A Parents Struggle

Maryanne’s autistic son was in year 7 when he started to hide in his room and would refuse to get dressed for school. At first, she thought it was just a phase, or there may have been some bullying issue. However, after talking with the school and appointments with her son’s psychologist and paediatrician, she was at a loss on how to help her son with chronic school Can’t.

“At its worst James would just refuse to leave his bed. We couldn’t physically pick him up and even if we could, we couldn’t force him to get dressed”

School tried to adjust his work and teachers gave him options. They allowed him to have recess and lunch in the library, however it did not help”

Autistic students and students with ADHD are twice as likely to experience School Can’t.

Maryanne’s story is not unusual, it is estimated that in 2019 between 2% and 5% of all students were experiencing school refusal, reports suggest that it has trebled over the pandemic period in Australia.

What is it?

“School refusal occurs in 1–5% of all school children, peaking at ages 5–7 years, then 11 years and 14 years. It occurs across all socioeconomic groups, and equally among boys and girls.”

According to Jill Sewell A.M. FRACP, the Deputy Director, Centre for Community Child Health. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Victoria, the term ‘school refusal’ refers to difficulty attending school associated with emotional distress. Refusal to attend or difficulties remaining in school for the entire day.

It can also be defined by its timeline. For example, self-corrective school can’t behaviour refers to absenteeism that remits spontaneously within 2 weeks. Acute refusal behaviour lasts from 2 weeks to 1 year, and chronic refusal behaviour lasts longer than 1 year. Greater chronicity is related to greater difficulty reintroducing school.

Read more: What is an Individual Learning Plan, and do you really need one?

What does it look like?

It may manifest in different forms. Refusing to attend, physical complaints such as headaches or stomach issues, being disruptive in class or failing to complete homework or directives. We can’t always assume physical symptoms are not real. It is important to investigate these as they are often genuine concerns for your child. It can be distressing for you and your child.

What leads to this issue?

It may be the result of one concern or a combination of many. Including, anxiety, lack of attachment, sense of not being safe, separation – (What if…), friendships, yard conflict, discipline.

What is important is to ensure that educators make reasonable accommodations and supports for your child. Fundamentally it is the school’s responsibility to ensure your child has access to an education and treat each child experiencing this as individuals. Addressing each child’s individual needs and requests, rather than assuming each child has the same obstacles.

It is also important to recognise that this is often a result of a psychological distress resulting in a state of emotional suffering. Associated with stressors and demands that are difficult to cope with in daily life. It is rarely a child just wanting to play computer games or stay at home.

The Senate Inquiry

On 27 October 2022 the Senate referred the inquiry into the national trend of school refusal and related matters to the Education and Employment References Committee. The report is due for release by 22 March 2023. Visit the APA website to review the Inquiry submissions.


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