Lesson 1

Lesson 1: Understanding School Refusal: Unpacking Causes and Anticipating Outcomes


Feeling lost and overwhelmed because your child is refusing to go to school? You’re not alone. Many parents face this challenge, and we’re here to lend a helping hand.

In this session, we’ll break down what School Refusal is, delve into its causes, and emphasize the importance of teaching our kids to be braver in overcoming their anxiety to get back to school. We’ll learn some tried and proven Psychological Theory called Operant Conditioning and you’ll see it’s a powerful tool that when used correctly, teaches children their behaviors have consequences and allows us to increase ‘good’ behavior, or decrease ‘bad’ behavior.

HINT: Completing the homework: this is vital this week as it sets the stage for crafting your child’s Gradual Exposure plan in Lesson 3.

Whether your child is dealing with anxiety, bullying, academic hurdles, or other factors leading to school refusal, we’re here to assist. We’ll help pinpoint the root causes and implement customized solutions tailored to your child’s unique needs. We’ll give you loads of tips, and you can pick and choose those you’d like to try out.

Remember, overcoming school refusal is a journey that demands a steady, consistent approach, and every small step matters. By engaging in this self-guided lesson, you’re taking a crucial step toward providing your child with the support they need to thrive both academically and emotionally. By the end of this session, you’ll have a clearer understanding of the challenges your child may be facing, and the importance of teaching them to be braver for their success in returning to the classroom.

Lesson 1 Objectives

By the end of this lesson you will be able to:

  • Define school refusal and recognize the different types.
  • Distinguish school refusal from truancy.
  • Identify common causes and triggers of school refusal.
  • Understand why it’s important for your child’s future to get them back to school.
  • Work on understanding the causes of your child’s school refusal.
  • Have a basic understanding of how to reinforce a behavior or take steps to reduce a behavior.

Sound good? Let’s go.

Reasons children refuse school

It is commonly accepted that School Refusal is an avoidance-based anxiety disorder which means that children aren’t feeling brave enough to tackle school, because it’s scary to them in some way.  Every child is different, and when they refuse to go to school, it’s essential to know why so you can help them.

Research shows that school refusal often happens during big changes, like starting kindergarten or moving to a new school level. It can happen at any major transition in life which is one of the reasons it’s so important to help your child get braver.  If School Refusal isn’t tackled and fixed, the child may grow into adulthood with crippling anxiety and may not be able to work with others.

School refusal tends to be more common around ages 5-7 and then again at ages 11-14, affecting both boys and girls equally. It’s also very common for children who exhibited separation anxiety as babies, who’re more likely to be school refusers – but more about that in a later Lesson

Here are some common reasons why kids refuse school:

  1. Anxiety: Kids might be scared of things like social situations, tough schoolwork, or being away from their parents. This fear can be so strong that it feels like a panic attack, making going to school really hard.
  2. Bullying: If a child is being bullied, either physically or with mean words, they might refuse to go to school to avoid their bullies, because bullies are scary.
  3. Academic Struggles: If a child finds schoolwork too hard, it can be hard on their confidence. They might be afraid of failing or being embarrassed, making them not want to go to school.
  4. Learning Disabilities: If a child has a learning problem that hasn’t been found or treated, it can make school really tough, and they might want to avoid it.
  5. Family Issues: Problems at home, like moving, divorce, sickness, or losing someone, can make a child emotionally stressed and make it hard for them to handle school.
  6. Trouble with Friends: Struggling to make friends or having issues with other kids can make a child not want to go to school.
  7. Mental Health Problems: Conditions like depression, trauma, ADHD, or social anxiety disorder can make a child want to avoid school.
  8. Physical Health Problems: If a child is dealing with a chronic illness or other physical health problems that cause pain or discomfort, it might make them not want to go to school.


Grab an exercise book, so you can take notes throughout the course.

If you know why your child is refusing school, write this down. If you’re not sure, have a guess – we’re going to be working on this for the first three lessons.

Distinguishing School Refusal from Truancy

It’s helpful to understand the difference between when a child refuses to go to school and when they’re skipping school on purpose. When a child doesn’t want to go to school because it makes them upset or worried, that’s what we call “school refusal.” It’s because of how they feel, not because they want to skip class.

On the other hand, “truancy” is when a child decides to skip school on purpose without a good reason. One way to tell the difference is that a child who’s genuinely refusing school because of anxiety will let their parent know, but a truant keeps their non-attendance a secret.

Even though experts might say that real school refusal is not the same as truancy, it’s still important to deal with both types. Some children might show really clear signs of one or the other, but for some, it can be a bit mixed up.

Anxiety-based school refusal Behavioral-based school refusal (truancy)
The student attempts to get to school, puts their uniform on, may get into the car, but soon becomes anxious and then angry, tearful, or distressed.
These children will often say they want to go to school but can’t.
Parents report moodiness before and school, refusal to complete homework, aggressive behavior, reduced appetite and changes in sleep patterns.
These behaviors are worse on Sunday nights or before a new term begins.
There is no attempt by the child to get ready for school or they may hide the fact they are not attending school.
They may spend the day hanging with friends, gaming, or doing other truant-like behaviors and are more likely to engage in criminal activities.
Risky sexual behaviours
Tendency to violence
Suicide ideation
Antisocial behaviors

Understanding this distinction will help you approach your child’s situation with empathy and appropriate support.  Which type of school refusal does your child fit into – or is it a bit of both?  The strategies offered in this course will help in either case, so we have your back.  You’re not alone.

Why it’s important that your child goes to school

It’s widely agreed that school is important for teaching kids things like values, how to be part of society, and lots of other practical, ethical, and physical stuff they need in life. When a child doesn’t want to go to school, it messes with all these important things and can make life really tough for the child and their family.

This can create problems between the family and the school. Parents have to deal with work, other kids, family issues, and what other people might think. The instability School Refusal causes can break up the family, cause problems at work, and make the child feel very alone. The parents of a school refusing child can even get into trouble with the law for not going to school. We don’t delve into the legal ramifications because this is a global issue impacting families from many different countries and states. But we can say that refusing school makes it more likely that the child will keep avoiding difficult things into the future, so it’s important to try to tackle School Refusal early.

In the short term, not going to school can lead to bad grades, family fights, and problems with friends, making the situation even worse. The longer this goes on, the more time it takes to fix things. In the long run, not going to school can mean not doing well in jobs, struggling with mental health, and having a tough time with money. Besides the everyday issues for the child, things like feeling anxious or sad can stick around into adulthood.

The four drivers of school refusal

It is widely agreed that school refusal is the result of one or more of four drivers (in Psych terms, they’re called ‘functions’), which basically means ‘the reason behind the reason’ we’ve just looked into in the first Exercise, eg. bullying.  This is getting into a psychological theory called Operant Conditioning, but bear with us, because it’s important and definitely worth knowing.  Understanding Operant Conditioning will be a game changer in your home because it’s a way to change behavior and it teaches the child (and often the parent) that behaviors have consequences.

Now, let’s look at the four drivers of School Refusal:

  1.  The child is AVOIDING situations which bring up negative emotions.

Example: Sarah is getting picked on at school, and it’s making her really upset. Because of these bad feelings, she doesn’t want to go to school. When she tells her parents how upset she is, they let her stay home. But here’s the thing: by keeping her home, they’re taking away the yucky feelings she gets from the bullying which might seem like a good idea, but it actually makes it more likely that she’ll keep avoiding school.  The reason is that the negative emotions Sarah experiences due to bullying make her anxious and when her parents let her stay home, it takes away her anxiety, and it makes her more likely to continue avoiding school.  The trouble is Sarah is not learning how to deal with her anxiety.

In psychological terms this behavior is called Negative reinforcement – more about this later

2.  The child wants to ESCAPE from negative social and/or evaluative situations.

Example: Alex is having difficulty understanding some of his classes, and the worry about being judged by the other kids for his poor performance causes him a lot of anxiety. When Alex does not want to go to school, he gets a break from the situations where he fears negative judgment by other students. This break serves as a kind of reinforcement of his school refusal because by avoiding the negative evaluation, it reinforces the behavior of staying away from school as a way to handle the anxiety.

In psychological terms this behavior is called Negative reinforcement – more about this later

3.  The child is ATTENTION SEEKING

Example: Emily seeks attention by refusing to go to school. When she does so, her mother takes her to Nana’s house, where she receives a lot of attention and fuss. The positive attention from her mother and Nana becomes reinforcement for her school refusal behavior, making it more likely that she will repeat the behavior to gain attention.

In psychological terms this behavior is called Positive reinforcement – more about this later

4.  The child receives TANGIBLE REWARDS

Example: James refuses to go to school, and as a result, his mother allows him to play video games and takes him out for ice cream. The tangible rewards of playing games and enjoying ice cream become reinforcements for James’ school refusal behavior. The likelihood of him repeating the behavior increases because of the rewarding consequences

In psychological terms this behavior is called Positive reinforcement – more about this later

It’s quite common that a child will have their school refusal behavior reinforced because of more than one driver.  An example of this could be that Sarah avoids school to get away from the bullies, her parent takes her out shopping and they have a nice lunch with Nana who fusses over her.

In this scenario, Sarah has three drivers which are reinforcing her school refusal: 1.  Not having to face the bullies; 2. Tangible rewards and 3.  Attention seeking.


Looking at the four drivers of school refusal, which two do you believe would be the easiest to fix?

If you guessed Negative Reinforcement (avoidance of bad things at school and avoidance of what others might think), you’d be right.

To explain it another way:

Operant Conditioning is a way of learning that happens through rewards and punishments for behavior. It’s really helpful to modify most behaviors, and it’s proven to be really effective for school refusal. Remember though that at School Refusal Recovery, we’re all about punishing the behavior, not the child (more about that later).

Here’s how it works:

Positive Reinforcement:

Definition: Adding something desirable to increase the likelihood of a behavior.

Example: If a child attends school without resistance, parents praise them and allow extra playtime. The addition of praise and playtime makes the child more likely to attend school without resistance in the future.

Negative Reinforcement:

Definition: Removing something to increase the likelihood of a behavior.

Example: If a child is anxious about going to school, and their parents allow them to stay home, the removal of the scary stimulus (anxiety) reinforces the behavior of avoiding school.

Positive Punishment:

Definition: Adding something to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

Example: A child refuses to do their homework, and as a consequence, they are given an additional assignment, the addition of the extra task serves as a punishment to decrease the likelihood of future refusal.

Negative Punishment:

Definition: Removing something desirable to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

Example: If a child avoids going to school, and as a consequence, their parents temporarily restrict their screen time or other privileges, the removal of these desirable stimuli acts as a punishment to decrease the likelihood of future school refusal.

In summary:

  • Positive is adding something (add a high five or some praise for good behavior)
  • Negative is taking something away (taking away screen time for bad behavior)
  • Reinforcement Aims to increase the likelihood of a behavior.
  • Punishment Aims to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

Positive Reinforcement: When a child goes to school, they get something good as a reward. This could be extra playtime or a favorite snack. This makes the child want to go to school more because they know they’ll get something good, thus reinforcing the behavior.

Positive Punishment: If a child doesn’t go to school, something they dislike is added. This could be extra homework or additional chores which makes the child not want to skip school because they don’t like what is added, which is punishing the behavior of school refusal.

Negative Reinforcement: Sometimes, going to school can help a child avoid something they don’t like. For example, if they go to school, they might not have to do chores. This reinforces the child’s attendance at school, because they can avoid something they don’t like.

Negative Punishment: If a child doesn’t go to school, they might miss out on something fun. This could be a trip to the park or a play date with friends. This punishes the school refusal because the child does not want to skip school because they don’t want to miss out on the fun.

By using these strategies, parents can help encourage their child to go to school (and do most things). It’s all about making school seem like a good thing and not going to school seem like a not-so-good thing. But remember, every child is different, so what works for one might not work for another.

Let’s break down the differences between positive and negative reinforcement, as well as positive and negative punishment in the context of school refusal using simple examples.  Important: these words have different meanings than what we’re used to.  Let’s take another look:

Understanding these principles can help parents and educators choose appropriate strategies to address school refusal effectively. It’s important to note that positive reinforcement is generally considered more effective in promoting lasting behavior change and maintaining a positive relationship with the child.

Let’s see if you can discern where each one of the examples fits from the four categories.  Follow these steps:

STEP 1: What is the behavior (in these examples the behavior is either school refusal or school attendance)

STEP2:  Work out if something is being added or taken away (positive is added; negative is taken away)

STEP 3: Work out if the behavior of school refusal is being reinforced (likely to continue) or punished (likely to stop).

STEP 4: Respond to the Questions – the link is at the bottom of this page.


You’re on your way to understanding how powerful Operant Conditioning is.  Your homework for the next ten lessons is to constantly look at your child’s behaviors and decide if you’d like each behavior to continue, or to stop.  What can you add or takeaway to reinforce the behavior or punish the behavior.  Then work on strategies to make this happen – your world will start getting easier.

In fact, I use Positive Reinforcement on my husband a lot and it works well. When he’s vacuuming I tell him he’s amazing and that I really appreciate his help in keeping our house clean – the man can’t do enough to help me. Try it – you can thank me later 😉

Remember to be kind to your child and be kind to yourself – this is a tough time for you both and the rest of the family, but above all be consistent.  Remember your child will not be pleased if you’re trying to punish a behavior they enjoy (eg. gaming at night) and you will get push back.  Be strong and be consistent. The strategies in this Course do work well.

That’s the end of Lesson 1, but we’ll be working on more Operant Conditioning throughout the course.  Remember to work through the Homework to reinforce your learning for Lesson 1 – doing so will clarify what you’ve learned already and if you’re unclear, will help you understand how to recognize behaviors that are being reinforced or punished.  Oh, and another reason is there’s some great strategies and tips here to help you PLUS there’s an exercise to help you and your child understand what’s scary at school and you’ll need this for Lessons 2 and 3.

You can join the conversation in our forum or private Facebook group to chat about what you’ve learned so far. If it’s a bit confusing, feel free to revisit this Lesson. Understanding these theories will genuinely help you with your child’s behavior and even your understanding of other people’s behavior, including your own.

Next Week:

In our week 2 lesson, we’ll have another look at Operant Conditioning so it’s fresh in your mind.  Then we’ll look at trying to find out why your child is refusing school so we can work on a Gradual Exposure Plan to get them back into the classroom in Lesson 3.

Before you move onto lesson 2, please complete the Home Work for Lesson 1

Back to: School Refusal Recovery