School can be a source of support, belonging, learning and community for young people. It can provide roles and responsibilities that make them feel good about themselves, the opportunity to think about their own opinions, access to sport, drama, art, trips and other new things, a sense of progress and achievement, life-long friendships, and supportive relationships with teachers and other adults.
However, every child and young person will worry about things that happen at school from time to time – and that's completely normal. For some young people, school can become challenging, stressful and distressing over a longer period of time.
If your child is struggling at school, the important thing is to recognise there’s a problem to be solved, and to work with them and RBA to find the right support as soon as you can.
Young people tell us their worries about school can include:
- finding the work difficult, or having problems concentrating
- finding school exhausting, especially if they are dealing with mental health issues
- feeling pressure to get good exam results
- difficult relationships with friends and friendship groups
- not feeling accepted or that they ‘fit in’
- not getting on with teachers
- feeling pressured to be the same and learn like everyone else
- experiencing or witnessing bullying
- feeling unsupported and not seen as an individual
- additional needs such as dyslexia not being recognised
- feeling average or no good in a class of high-achieving peers
Young people may show they're feeling anxious about school by:
- not wanting to get up and get ready
- being reluctant to go to school
- getting very worried about relatively small issues, such as remembering the right equipment for
- feeling sick or having stomach or headaches
- not doing schoolwork, or getting lower marks
- being angry or upset, or acting out
- exploding when they get home, even if they seem okay at school
- withdrawing – seeming low, quiet or depressed
- refusing to go to school at all
- not going to school without you knowing
How to Help
- Ask them what it is about school that makes them not want to go. Listen to and validate their experience of finding these things difficult, stay as calm as you can and take your child’s worries seriously.
- Don't shout, tell them off, or physically force them to go to school. Even though the situation may feel stressful, this is likely to increase their anxiety.
- Speak to your child's teacher or form tutor as soon as possible. Have they noticed any changes in their behaviour, or in their friendship group or class? Tackling the problem early can be really helpful, as the longer your child is out of school, the harder it can be to go back.
- Ask their teacher(s) if there are particular moments when they seem to struggle. For example, it might be during lesson changeovers, break-times, particular subjects, the journey to school or through the whole day. This can help you identify triggers.
- Keep in regular contact with key members of staff from your child's school. Work with them to make changes that will help - see the section in this guide on working with your child's school for more advice on this.
- Make a log of the days when your child doesn't want to go to school. This will give you a better sense of when and how often they feel like this, and can also help you raise it with the school.
- Be consistent with the strategies you try to help them get back to school. Let your child get used to them and remember that it might take a while for something to work. Changing between lots of strategies quickly can be confusing, so only move on when you’ve tried something for a while without it helping.
- Try to stick to the same routine and praise your child for every small step they take. This could be getting out of bed at the right time, eating breakfast, washing and brushing their teeth, getting dressed and eventually leaving the house.
- Focus on listening and providing emotional support, and reassure them that you can work together to make things better. Read our tips on starting a conversation around mental health with your child.
- Talk with your child about strategies that help them to express and manage their anxiety. This could be spending time with particular friends, listening to music, reading, playing sport, drawing, cooking or watching a favourite film.
- If your child feels particularly anxious while they’re at school, they can carry this with them and write down a worry when it comes into their head, helping to keep anxious thoughts from becoming overwhelming.
- Younger children might find it helpful to make a worry box. This can help your child to feel that their worries are being held somewhere, making them more manageable. We have step-by-step instructions on how to build a worry box with your child.
- Teenagers might find it helpful to create their own 'self-soothe box'. They can fill their box with all the things that help them when they’re feeling worried. You can share our guide on how to make a self-soothe box with your teenager.
It's recommended to have a range of sensory things and something to focus your mind on. You could include something to smell, something to touch, something to look at and maybe even something to taste. For some inspiration, below are some of the things I have included. You can change yours depending on your preference.
Include something that you can touch; this serves as a good distraction for your hands. Playdough, fidget cubes or spinners, and stress balls are great for this; they’re satisfying to touch, and easy to put force into and relieve some stress. It can encourage your muscles to relax, which is what many methods to reduce anxiety involve.
Listening to Music and slowing your breathing to a steady pace can help you relax if you are feeling stressed. Alternatively keeping some earphones and making an easy-to-access, calming playlist on your phone is a nice, easy way of finding music to listen to.
Drinking water can be such a vital way of reducing symptoms of panic. Not only is it important to stay hydrated, but the regular sipping is a good way to keep a steady rhythm to your breathing. I also find it keeps you fresh-minded, and the coolness of water can often give you something to focus on and have a grounding effect.
Having an activity to complete can really help you self-soothe. Reading and colouring in are the more obvious options and both of these work for me. You can find plenty of inexpensive beautiful colouring books, pretty much anywhere nowadays - The Works, Amazon and Waterstones all have a good variety to choose from. You can also find a lot of printable colouring sheets online. I keep some colouring pencils and a pad to fill in.
Colouring is a very simple task and having something beautiful that you made can feel very rewarding. You might like to write about how you are feeling, or try some creative writing or poetry; for that you can include a pen and notepad. I also keep a book that is an easy, light read.
External Support and Advice
Provides independent advice and information for parents on education issues in England.
You can also find information about exclusions, special educational needs, bullying and other issues on their website.
10am - 1pm, Monday - Wednesday (term time only)
Child Law Advice
Provides free legal advice about education and family issues to parents, carers and young people.
You can contact them by email about education law here, or about family and child law here.
8am - 6pm, Monday – Friday
0300 330 5480 (family and child law)
Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA)
Provides legally based advice to help families get the right education for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
You can book an appointment with their Advice Line or Tribunal Helpline.
What will happen if my child doesn’t go to school?
- If your child is regularly missing days of school, or not going at all, the school’s first step will usually be to work with you to try to solve the problem.
- Letting the school know what’s going on as early as possible, sharing information, attending meetings and being open to trying new strategies will encourage them to take a supportive approach.
- If the absence continues, the school may refer you to an Education Welfare Officer from the local council. This person will usually arrange a home visit to find out what’s happening and work with you to try to resolve the problem.
- If needed, the school and other professionals may also refer your child for other support, including for their mental health.
- If your child cannot attend school for a period of time because they are not mentally well enough, it is likely that you will need to provide evidence from a GP or another professional.
- If the school is pressuring you to get your child back to school and the communication doesn’t feel constructive, a good first step is to re-emphasise to them why your child isn’t attending - for example because they do not feel mentally well enough. It may also help to get advice and support from your Local Education Authority.
- If the school or local council think your child is missing school without a good reason, you can face legal consequences such as fines.