Reengaging School Refusers

We’ve all had mornings where we don’t feel like facing the day. Ones where we want to cancel the alarm and renounce the responsibilities of work, school and other commitments. However, for small proportion of young people this is more than a fleeting feeling.

School refusal affects five per cent of students and occurs when a young person is experiencing such severe emotional upset that they refuse to attend school. Despite the fact that this is a growing area of concern amongst mental health professionals, until recently little was understood about the condition and no framework existed on to best assist young people experiencing it.

“The exact definition of school refusal can vary, however for our purposes we define it as 50 per cent non-attendance at school in the last six weeks. This situation should almost be considered a type of psychiatric emergency and definitely warrants immediate attention” said Ric Haslam, Director of RCH Mental Health.

The increasing need to address instances of school refusal has prompted the RCH Mental Health team to take action. Thanks to your support and in collaboration with the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne and Travancore School, Australia’s first student focused program to tackle school refusal was developed. Travancore School is a local school dedicated to providing specialised assistance and support to children with mental health issues.

In2School is an innovative new program focused on building a student’s confidence and independence through social and interactive based learning to ultimately help provide a supported return to school,” said clinician Chrystie Mitchell.

In a collaboration which is redefining how teachers and clinicians work together, the In2School Program is delivered in three phases to support the gradual return to school. The team includes clinician Chrystie Mitchell and teacher Bec Mcgrath who work closely with young people and their families to develop individualised programs that addresses issues and behaviour both at home and in the classroom setting. Through the three phases, students work through levels of social interactions and challenges, while their parents are supported through parent groups and clinician contact.

“Participants present with a range of different issues ranging from anxiety and family issues, to previously undiagnosed autism spectrum disorders, and in a lot of the cases, educational difficulties. However one of the things the kids have in common is that they all have spunk, a sense of self that just needs some support and guidance,” said Chrystie.

With a focus on addressing the individual’s needs, the programming includes curriculum provided by the student’s home school or the In2School teacher, which is incorporated in a more social based learning environment to build up their participation and engagement. One on one sessions with the teachers and clinicians are incorporated with everyday learning and regular Out’n’About sessions are run to build up the participants confidence and independence.

“One of the most challenging things I overcame was making new mates. I realised that I had lots of skills to make new friends. With this knowledge I can now go and make new mates at my new school,” said a student from the program.

Initially piloted in 2015, the program has already seen positive results across school attendance and improved quality of life for students and their families. Now, thanks to your support, In2School has received funding for the next two years. Over this time, the team will measure success in increased school attendance for participants, improved mental health and quality of life.

The Travancore School is also in the process of producing a range of literature for both families and schools on school refusal, which will be available in mid 2018.

Information for families

Research shows that early identification of warning signs is key to successful school refusal interventions. Look out for behaviour including:

  • complaints about attending school
  • frequent lateness
  • absences on significant days (assessments, oral presentations, physical education classes)
  • poor teacher-student relationships
  • academic difficulties
  • frequent requests to go home
  • excessive worry about a parent when at school
  • panic symptoms
  • threats of self-harm

Parents and teachers who notice these behaviours should record increased absences or patterns and access support if these continue.

For more information visit the Kids Matter website by the Department of Health and the RCH Mental Health website.


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