Lesson 3

Lesson 3: Creating a Gradual Exposure Plan


In this lesson, we’ll explore some powerful techniques that can help when things feel tough at school. These strategies are like tools that can help make your child braver and less scared. We’re going to talk about two main tools: gradual exposure and desensitization. These tools are like a guide to help you face worries and feel more confident, especially when your child doesn’t want to go to school.

Gradual exposure means taking small steps, one at a time, to get used to things that make a person feel worried or scared. It’s like when you learn to do something step by step, making it easier and less scary each time. Desensitization is about getting used to things that make you anxious by seeing them or doing them over and over, but in a positive way. We use both of these techniques in our daily lives, often without even realizing.

If your child is having a hard time with school, there are a couple of tricks that might help. Imagine these tricks as tools that make things a bit easier. We’re talking about two main tricks: one is taking small steps to face worries, and the other is getting used to things that scare you (in a good way).


  • Learn what gradual exposure is, and how to make a Gradual Exposure Plan.
  • Learn calming strategies for your child.
  • Making positive associations with school.

When gradual exposure is used in life

Gradual Exposure is when your child learns something bit by bit, and doing this makes it less scary each time. Let me give you examples:

For Fears and Worries:
Say your child is scared of something. Gradual exposure means starting with just thinking about the scary thing, then looking at pictures of the scary thing, until finally, they can do the scary thing for a little bit. It helps them get less scared step by step.

For Public Speaking and Social Anxiety:
If your child is scared of talking in front of others, they could start by practicing in front of a mirror, then with a few people, and later, with even more people. Gradual exposure makes it less nerve-wracking.

For Learning New Stuff at School:
Imagine your child learning something new in school. Gradual exposure would be starting with easy things and moving on to harder ones bit by bit. It’s a way to learn without feeling too stressed.  Look at the picture above, see some of the children are stepping on the ground ladder –  after a few times, they’ll get better and be able to not step on any – gradual exposure works the same way.

For Healing After an Injury:
If your child hurts their leg, they might start with easy exercises and slowly do harder ones as they get better. Gradual exposure in healing helps them feel less pain.

For Training a Dog:
Teaching a dog to get used to grooming might start with short sessions, then move to brushing, and finally, include more grooming. Gradual exposure helps the dog feel comfortable.

For Learning in School:
In school, when learning hard stuff, gradual exposure means starting with easy things and moving on to harder ones bit by bit. This way, learning feels less scary.

For Doctor Stuff:
If your child is scared of going to the doctor, they might start with simple check-ups and slowly move to more complicated stuff. Gradual exposure makes it less scary.

So, Gradual Exposure is like a guide to help your child get used to things that seem tough. It’s about taking one step at a time until they feel more confident and less worried. And it’s about teaching them how to be brave so they can cope with scary things.  Remember, gradual exposure is used in every day life for lots of things and it can make facing tough stuff a bit easier and help your children feel stronger.

Things to know about gradual exposure plans

For parents dealing with the tough parts of school refusal, it’s important to know how taking small steps can help kids face and beat their fears about going to school. It means breaking down scary situations into smaller, manageable steps. This way, kids can deal with their worries in a step-by-step and controlled way. Here’s a guide for parents on how this works:

Find Out What Scares Your Child:
Figure out exactly what makes your child scared about school. It could be going into the school building, talking to other kids, or joining class activities. Knowing these fears helps make a plan.  Remember we did this for homework when you asked your child to grade different segments of their school day out of 10. In Lesson 1, there are also School Refusal Assessment forms if you prefer this method.

Make a List from Least to Most Scary:
Make a list from the least scary to the most scary things. This could include standing outside the school gate, spending time in a familiar classroom, or doing school-like activities at home. This list helps decide which steps to take first.  The segments of their school day with high scores such as 8/10 scary, are likely the triggers for your child’s school refusal.

Start with the Least Scary Step:
Begin with the least scary step – let’s say going to school with mum and sitting in the car is 2/10 scary – that’s a good place to start if that’s the lowest number. Remember the key is to get each step down to a 0/10. Then move up to the next step – getting out of the car and walking through the gates and so on.

Decide Together:
It’s important to ask if the child is okay with the plan and to involve them in making decisions. Talk with your child about what scares them, and set goals together. This helps the child feel in control.

Get Rewarded for Being Brave:
To encourage progress, praise your child and offer small rewards when they finish a step in the plan (Positive Reinforcement). If they do something brave, like going into the school without being scared, they might get praise and maybe get a favorite treat.

Check and Change the Plan:
Keep checking the plan and change it if needed. If your child is ready for a harder step or if things get tough, the plan can be changed. Being flexible helps the plan work well.

Learn Tricks to Handle Stress:
Learn ways to handle stress during the plan. This could be deep breathing, imagining nice things, or having a special phrase to say when things get tough. These tricks help your child deal with tricky situations.  Try these:

  1. I can handle hard things at school.
  2. Every day, I’m getting smarter and stronger.
  3. I’m brave and can face tough stuff.
  4. I’m not alone; people care about me and want to help.
  5. Mistakes help me learn, and I can learn at school.
  6. I should feel safe and happy at school.
  7. I can choose to think happy thoughts.
  8. I can make school a fun and good place.
  9. I can get through tough times because I’m strong.
  10. I can do great things at school.

Feel Safe with Support:
Be supportive for your child all the time. If they need you during the plan, you can go with them. Encourage them and celebrate when they do something brave. Your support helps them feel safe. If it’s not practical for you to go with them, make sure to contact the school so someone can meet them at the gates and help them.

Skills for More than School:
The skills they learn aren’t just for school. Learning to be brave can help in lots of situations, making them strong and able to handle different parts of life. Check How Your Child is Feeling:
Keep an eye on how your child is feeling during the plan. Checking in regularly makes sure they know they are safe and loved. If you’d like to look at ways to talk your child through the steps of developing an Exposure Plan, just download the template below and adapt it as you go. A-Conversation-Exposure-PlanDownload

By doing these things, parents can help face and beat worries about going to school, making it a positive and strong experience.

An Example Gradual Exposure Plan

Here’s an example of a gradual exposure plan for a child who is refusing school. The plan is about taking small steps to make school less scary. Remember, it’s okay if things don’t always go smoothly, and each step might take some time to feel better. If things get tough, it’s fine to go back to the step where there’s no worry and then try again.  Read it from the bottom to the top.

Example gradual exposure plan
Creating a gradual exposure plan for your child’s school refusal

Now it’s your turn to make an Exposure Plan for your child

Remember the homework we did in Week 1? You and your child graded each part of their school day to find out what makes them anxious. Usually, the parts with the highest scores are the triggers for school refusal. If you didn’t do this, hopefully you downloaded the SRAS parent and child form and you now have some idea of which of the four reasons impacts your child’s school refusal the most. If you haven’t done this yet, please do so now, we can’t develop an Exposure Plan until this has been done.

Now, let’s make a plan to tackle these triggers step by step.

Start with the lowest number, like “Sitting in the car with parents,” which got a 2/10 for anxiety (above). Move gradually to the next steps, such as walking through the school halls after school, until all aspects of your child’s day at school have been covered from least anxious to the last step of most anxious.

The goal is to lower anxiety at each step to get the child feeling brave enough to take the next step, so what was a 2/10 is now a 0/10 and it’s not scary any more.

When the plan is written, you can add some ideas for how to stay calm at each step, as well as rewards (Positive Reinforcements) for your child for each step.  Have your child help you with ideas.  What would they like as rewards? What would keep them motivated? Stay on the same step until your child isn’t scared of that step anymore.  When this happens you can move to the next rung of the ladder.

If your child gets more anxious at any point, go back to the step where there’s no anxiety and work on that until they feel okay. Each step should be mastered before moving forward, building confidence and a sense of achievement.

Anxiety can be unpredictable, and setbacks are normal. The important thing is to support your child, celebrate their achievements, and know that setbacks do not erase progress. This is not necessarily a linear process. Remember, we’re actually working on anxiety here, not just school refusal.  Encourage your child if they take a backward step, move down to the previous step and start again.

By following this plan, you’re helping your child face their fears about school one step at a time. This methodical approach builds strength and helps your child overcome anxiety about different parts of the school day.

When you’re done, take your Gradual Exposure Plan to your child’s school and ask for help. Talk to a counselor or therapist so everyone can work together to get your child back to school. Remember, your child must agree to the Plan, so include them in each step for it to work.

Ways to stay calm might look like this:

Use the tricks you’ve learned to stay calm and practice them with your child.

Try deep-breathing to stay calm while talking.

Use a calming phrase while walking.

Breathe deeply and say positive things during this step (see above)

Have a reward ready for doing this step.

Keep track of how you feel and use tricks to stay calm

Rewards (positive reinforcements) might look like this:


Positive feedback

Celebrate the walk with a small treat your child likes

Praise and a small treat for doing it well

Acknowledge bravery and effort, saying ‘you can handle being in a classroom’

Praise, acknowledgment, and a special treat for doing great

Celebrate with a big treat and show how proud and supportive you are.

Encouraging positive associations with school

Creating a positive connection with school is really important to help with school refusal. Making a place where your child feels safe, like they belong, and where they enjoy being can change how they feel about school. Here are some ways to do this:

Start the Day Right:
Begin the day in a positive way with routines that are easy and fun. This might be having a healthy breakfast, talking about good things, or doing something together that makes everyone happy.

Comfortable Place to Study:
Make a special and comfy study spot at home. Keep it bright, tidy, and have all the things your child needs. This can help your child feel good about learning at home.

Good Relationships with Teachers:
Encourage talking between your child and their teachers. Having good connections with teachers makes school a supportive place. Go to meetings with teachers and talk about how your child is doing.

Celebrate Doing Well in School:
Notice and celebrate even small achievements your child makes in school. When you praise your child for trying, it helps them feel good about what they can do and shows that school is a place where they can do well.  It’s important to let your child know you don’t expect perfection or A’s for every class, you just want them to try their best, to be the best version of themselves they can be.

Join Fun Activities Outside of Classes:
Try out activities that your child likes. It could be sports, arts, or clubs. Being a part of these activities makes your child feel like they belong and makes school more enjoyable.

Go to School Events Together:
Be there as a family for school events, shows, and meetings with teachers. Taking part in what happens at school shows your child that their family cares about their school life.

Help Make Friends:
Arrange times for your child to be with other kids. This could be play dates, group activities, or just being friendly. Having good experiences with friends makes school more positive.

Stop Bullying or Problems Quickly:
Deal with bullying or problems with friends as soon as they come up. Making sure your child feels safe is really important for them to like school.

Let Your Child Decide Things:
Involve your child in making choices about their education. This could be picking activities, choosing classes, or even deciding on school stuff. When your child has a say, it helps them feel in control and interested in school.

Show That Learning is Cool:
Be a good example by showing that you like learning. Share when you’re excited about learning new things. When your child sees that learning is fun, they’ll start to like school more.

Making school a good place for your child is an important journey, and these simple steps can guide you. They help turn school into a place where your child feels safe, happy, and like they belong. Remember, even small changes can make a big difference. Keep talking with your child, celebrate every little success, and be involved in what happens at school. By doing these things, you’re a key part of making your child’s time at school better.

Let’s work together to create a strong foundation for your child’s love of learning, facing challenges with strength and a positive attitude. Your commitment not only shapes how they experience school now but also sets the stage for a positive view of education in the future.

The Power of Desensitization

Desensitization is like a powerful tool that can help our children face challenges, especially when it comes to school refusal. It’s a superhero strategy that involves taking small, manageable steps to make big, scary things feel less intimidating over time and it is the theory behind the Gradual Exposure Plan.

Parents, think of it as guiding your child through a series of mini-adventures. Let’s break it down:

  • Start with Conversations: Begin by casually talking about school in a positive and stress-free way. Share fun stories about your own school experiences or discuss exciting things your child can look forward to at school. This helps create a positive mindset.
  • Quiet School Visits: Take a trip to the school when it’s quiet, like on the weekend. Walk around the outside, explore the playground, or visit the school library. This step allows your child to become familiar with the school environment without the hustle and bustle of a regular school day.
  • Meet the Teachers: Arrange a low-pressure meeting with teachers. It could be a brief chat during a school event or even an email exchange. This step helps your child see teachers as friendly and approachable figures, reducing anxiety about the classroom.
  • Short, Positive School Experiences: Gradually expose your child to short, positive school experiences. Attend a school assembly, a sports event, or a class presentation. These events allow your child to feel the school atmosphere in a positive light without the pressure of a full school day.
  • Trial Run: Consider a trial run for a partial school day. Start with just a few hours, perhaps attending a favorite class or activity. This step helps your child experience the routine and structure of a school day in a manageable way.
  • Incremental Increase in School Time: Slowly increase the time spent at school. Begin with half-days and gradually progress to full days. This step helps your child get used to the entire school routine without feeling overwhelmed.

Remember, desensitization is about pacing and celebrating every small achievement. Each step forward, no matter how tiny, is a victory. Be your child’s superhero guide through these adventures, making school feel less like a daunting challenge and more like an achievable quest.


That’s the end of Lesson 3.  Don’t forget to head to the Homework, Tips and Case Studies page.  We provide some helpful strategies in the homework so even if you don’t feel like doing it, you’ll still learn some really great parenting tips.

Have your say on the Forum or the private Facebook Group and ask questions if you need.  Got any tips that might help other parents?  Did you have a win or a set-back this week? They happen – remember to share.  You’re not alone.

Before you move onto lesson 4, please complete the Home Work for Lesson 3

See you next Lesson.

Back to: School Refusal Recovery