On the surface school attendance woes may seem like a concept that is based on a child that is
worried about, or refusing to go to school, in reality, it is a complex subject that can have huge
implications for the child and their family.

So why is it so complex?
Firstly, the ‘label’ is a misinterpretation. Commonly referred to as school refusal, it puts the focus on
behaviour rather than cause and deeper issues occurring for tweens and teens, leading to shame
and judgement from others, including those who are supposed to help, leaving families struggling,
feeling alone and unsupported.

Many families on this journey and to be fair some professionals who are working in this area, are
using the phrase school can’t. Turning the tide on the labelling of a tween or teen’s actions to rather
drawing the attention to the fact that

it is not the child’s choice, they would go to school if they could, but they can’t.

We use school attendance woes because before a tween or teen is unable to go to school there is a
period where they are showing early signs of struggling with some or all areas of schooling.
School attendance woes, no matter what you label it, has the same meaning: a child is finding it
distressing to engage in schooling, in attendance and in learning, whether that’s at an education
setting or homeschool and unlike truancy, the parent knows that their child is not attending school
and are at home.

There are numerous reasons why and what every reason has in common is that underlying there is a stress response occurring, and it is the stress response that is dictating the behaviour that is seen.

5 Common Factors Causing a Stress Response?
Adolescence is an intense time of growth. Before emotional growth, there’s usually a lot of mess,
discomfort, fear, worry and in some cases when there is an intense overwhelm, fear, or worry
around school, it can develop into school attendance woes.

Learning style is not supported in the classroom, leaving a child unable to learn and as you can
imagine, if you’re unable to learn the information in the way it is being delivered simply because
your brain doesn’t learn that way, it will feel stressful and overwhelming. The most consistent
evidence provided to the senate committee into school refusal Australia 2023, indicates that school
refusal is most prevalent among students with disability (particularly neurodivergent students) and
those with mental health challenges.

Environmental factors that send your nervous system into overdrive, everything from classroom
noise levels and lighting to the uniform causing distraction or irritation for their body that stop them from being able to concentrate. For some children the environment can case sensory overwhelm
and this causes immense stress and pressure.

Mental health, whether that’s generalised anxiety which can present in several ways for example
perfectionism, if it’s not perfect they feel an immense sense of failure and fear. Or Separation
anxiety, were they feel such fear and distress when not with their main carer because something
may happen to either one of them. Anxiety can be a crippling mental health illness and can impact
attendance and engagement in school and learning.

Social factors, everything from their relationships with the teachers, school staff, peers in the class
and all other school students, to bullying and not feeling connected or included in school. Think
about a time you felt unsafe at school or didn’t gel with the teacher and then add in the sense of not
being able to escape it or change it.

But while the reasons can be extensive, multiple, actual, or perceived. They all send the body into a
nervous system response and it’s this nervous system response that is leading your child to beg you
not to send them or stopping them from being able to go entirely. When they do attend, they may
be so distressed it inhibits them from learning. While they look fine on the outside, it takes so much
work to hold themselves together during the school hours that the minute they walk in from school
they explode, they withdraw or are so mentally depleted that they just cannot function as their
usual self.


So, what is happening in a nervous system response?
One of the main functions of the brain is to keep us alive and keep us safe. As part of keeping us safe
we have the stress response. Fight, flight, freeze, fawn is something that you might have already
heard. This is a chemical reaction in your body enabling you to fight the danger, run away from it, be
so still that you are not seen, or become incapable of staying tuned in to your environment although
you look present, but are not, all to protect you.


It is an unconscious chemical reaction to an environmental factor or a
thought, it can be actual or perceived and it happens so quickly that it is impossible to stop it.

The blood is redirected from the stomach and the intestines, leaving you with butterflies, feeling
nauseous, or even vomiting and diarrhoea. It is redirected into the muscles of the arms and legs so
that if you run away or fight the muscles have got lots of strength, resulting in feeling hot, flushed,
and sweaty. The heart rate increases to get the blood where it needs to go quickly, resulting in a
pounding fast heart. The brain goes into overdrive with racing thoughts, all the what ifs. There is an
increasing sense of danger and doom and at the least this can leave you unable to take in
information, or being able to hear when someone is trying to reason with you.


In school attendance woes this can look like
Fight- anger, arguing with you or a sibling.
Flight – avoidant of homework or getting ready for school in the morning.
Freeze– cannot get out of bed in the morning.
Fawn– being present in class but not able to take in what is being taught.

What’s unhelpful?

  1. Blaming the parents and labelling them as enablers.
  2. Forcing exposure to school as the main ‘remedy’.
  3. Missing early warning signs. Both force and blame prevent schools from picking them up and
    parents from accessing help early.

    When underlying stressors are not addressed it can cause further distress, further trauma and in
    some cases burn out, requiring much more intensive support for recovery. For families, when a
    parent is held responsible to force their child into school without support to address the underlying
    stressors it can result in conflict and even breakdown of their relationship. Many parents often feel
    that what they feel is the right action to take to support their child, is scolded upon and dismissed,
    causing internal conflict for them too.

If we are to truly support a tween and teen in recovery from school
attendance woes, we need to have a combined approach of supporting the
nervous system, identifying stressors, reducing the stressors and encouraging a focus that is wider than just school and schoolwork.

So, what is helpful?

  1. Co-regulation
    Arising from work on attachment theory, research in neuroscience on co-regulation is now plentiful.
    Co-regulating is when you use your own nervous system with the intention of supporting your tween or teen when emotionally dysregulated, to feel regulated again. Co-regulation creates a
    synchronised physiological state supporting the tween, teen’s sense of safety. In essence creating
    calm in you to enable them to feel calm. Overtime it also helps our tween and teen build the skills to
    self-regulation.

    That said, this journey for parents and carers is often filled with feelings of guilt, shame,
    embarrassment, and powerlessness. It’s easy to become dysregulated yourself as you strive to
    maintain control of the situation, it’s exhausting and relentless. For many to survive this experience,
    growing in self-awareness, challenging your beliefs, and healing old wounds are essential in enabling
    co-regulation. Once your tween, teen feels safe can they begin to come out of the stress response.
    Only when they are out of a stress response can you begin to identify the stressors and problem
    solve.
  2. Collaborative problem solving
    Having a clear understanding of the underlying stressors is the best way to help overcome school
    attendance woes. When it is done collaboratively with your tween, teen you get a full understanding
    of the stressors and can address them. You also build their capacity to recognise and understand
    their own stress responses, enabling them to notice and act early, as well as teaching them how to
    problem solve. Both skills will have a positive impact far beyond the school years. You also get to
    know your tween, teen well, helping you to advocate for them in school clearly and specifically.
    Inviting in schools and other health professionals to work collaboratively so that everyone is working
    in the same direction of addressing the underlying issues is paramount. Of course, collaborative
    problem solving is not easy. It is much more than “what happened?” and more of an ongoing
    conversation of observations, reflections, trial, and errors.

Raising great teens have identified these steps as being integral to problem solving with a teen:
Observing behaviours and language, curiosity, TLC, validating emotions, asking open ended
questions and giving space for answers, gentle humour, breaking a problem down into the smallest
steps possible, apologies and forgiveness, seeing the bigger picture and knowing where and when to
get help.

  1. Engaging the para-sympathetic nervous system.
    There are two functions to the nervous system. The stress response for survival (sympathetic
    nervous system) and the rest and digest response (parasympathetic nervous system) to revert the
    body back into a state of rest after a stress response. During the stress response you feel nauseous,
    have tummy ache, your heart pounds and you are full of adrenalin. For a tween, teen that has
    significant overwhelm or worry they spend a lot of time in the flight, flight, freeze, fawn stress
    response, but we can help them to access and stimulate the rest and digest system.

    Belly breathing is one example, we cannot slow our heartrate down on demand, we cannot order
    our blood to return to the bowel, but we can take control of our breathing. By focusing on slowing
    our breathing and lengthening the out breath, we send a physiological message to our heart to slow
    and induce the rest and digest response. For those that find focusing on the breath stressful there
    are many different simple exercises that can stimulate the vagus nerve responsible for rest and
    digest. Putting pressure on the roof of the mouth with your tongue, moving the earlobes, cold water
    splashed onto the face, humming, physical exercise. Like all new strategies, our tween’s and teen’s
    are more open to learning them when they are not in a stressed space and when they see them used
    well by the adults around them.
  2. Having a desire other than overcoming school attendance woes.
    The struggle is very real, it impacts every part of life and everyone in the family. The nature of the
    journey means that often there are immense amounts of pressure, usually brought on by other
    people’s well-meaning comments of how it should be addressed, social pressures from employment,
    education and worries about the longer-term impacts. It’s no wonder that the whole day, their
    whole existence, can become about school attendance. So, giving them and yourself permission to
    have something else in life that’s not school success related can be helpful.

    After all school is just a ticket to a career path that depending on what you choose to do after school
    you may or may not need. There are many people who have finished school and gone on to live a
    very fulfilling, successful life. There are also so many ways to access education no matter your age.
    We all know that education is a very powerful resource but can also be very powerful to have a love
    or a passion for something. Childhood is the beginning of learning about yourself and what you love
    and like and for many tweens or teens that have struggled with school attendance woes, what they
    learnt about themselves on the journey, through the love and support of family, carries them a lot
    further in ways a school education can’t.

    So, what now?
    The impact of school attendance woes can be huge for tweens, teens, and their family. It can be a
    lonely journey and one which many families although survive are often not unscathed. While school
    doesn’t last forever, the relationship with your tween, teen lasts a lifetime. With the right support
    this can be a journey for you that creates trust and a close relationship with your tween, teen as you
    travel it together. Would you know what to look for? Would you recognise the early signs? Would
    you know what to do if you see them?

It can start slowly but progress quite quickly and it often looks like other things, so often early signs
get missed. Generally, they are still attending school when the early warning signs start and it’s
much easier to intervene while they’re still there. When they are unable to go a day or two a week,
it becomes so much harder and even more so when they are unable to go to school at all.

Recognise early warning signs
 Reluctance to go to school most days, or days with certain subjects.
 Frequently complaining of feeling unwell.
 Have a hard time starting or completing homework, often with temper outbursts.


Take Action
 Take action early to understand your tween’s, teen’s underlying stressors, problem solve
and learn together different strategies to support them.
 Get support for yourself so that you can self-regulate and then lend your calm to your
tween, teen when they need it.
 Learn a little more about school attendance woes to increase your capacity to support them
at home and in advocating for them at school, both are essential in reducing the impacts of
school attendance woes.

At Raising Great Teens, we have created an online self-pace course.
Leaning in with love, to thrive rather than survive.

What’s Included
 6 modules with multiple short videos, PDF’s and transcripts for easy reading if preferred.
 Tips and strategies for you and for them to identify and address underlying stressors.
 A practical 10 step approach to supporting them in the stressful moments of school
reluctance, including co-regulation and problem solving.
 Accessing help and engaging with school.
 Helping you and them see the bigger picture.
 Weekly journal and planners.
 Private Facebook group providing a community of support with others in the course.
 Bonus episode.

The course was developed following many years of working with tweens and teens in all thing’s
health and wellbeing. Supporting families to parent through the adolescent years in a way that
builds and preserves the relationship with their tween and teen, creating life long, close and
connected relationships.

Being able to apply this work for my own teen during their struggle with school attendance woes
resulted in a deeper understanding of ourselves and each other, building trust and a closeness
between us beyond measure. I can say with hand on heart that we not only survived the school
years, but we thrived through them and continue to do so using the strategies taught, and you can
too.

If you feel the call or would like further information you can find us at
https://raisinggreatteens.com/
And you can continue to follow us on https://www.instagram.com/raisinggreatteens/

Whatever you do, we wish you and your tween, teen all the best for school
and for healthy happy relationship with yourselves and with each other.