Emotional Based School Avoidance – 6 Ways To Support Parents

Boy with head on arms hiding or unhappy.


Emotional Based School Avoidance, also known as school refusal, is very challenging for parents to deal with. Parents often feel unsure of what to do. They want the best for their child, but are not sure what the best is anymore. The fear of being fined or prosecuted and the difficulty of balancing work with having a child with unpredictable school attendance can be overwhelming. School staff also often feel out of their depth. This article gives you six strategies for supporting parents.

What is Emotional Based School Avoidance (EBSA)?

EBSA is when a child is either unable to attend school, or finds it very difficult to go to school, due to emotional distress. Previously referred to as school refusal, the term Emotional Based School Avoidance recognises that students aren’t refusing to go to school because they don’t want to go, but because they are overwhelmed with anxiety. In other words, EBSA is not due to defiance, instead it indicates that a child is struggling significantly and needs help.

How common is it?

Children not attending school is a big issue. Headlines report startling figures – ‘Almost two million pupils regularly missing school’. Not all children who are persistently absent will have EBSA but there is a high link between children with SEND and low attendance, and many Autistic children have Emotionally Based School Avoidance due their needs not being met.

Ofsted place a lot of pressure on schools to achieve high attendance, and this pressure is passed on to children and parents. Posters and letters home warning that ‘every day in school counts’ and ‘even a few days absence from school can damage the chances of success for life.’

Much has been written advising schools how to improve children’s attendance. However, not much has been written about how to support parents through this.

Professionals are well meaning but they are often grasping at straws as well. Signposting to services who then won’t accept the referral or taking ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’ approaches – alternating between incentiving the child to come into school, or making dire warnings about how missed school can damage their future.

How to Help

As an Occupational Therapist, I’ve sat around a table giving advice on how to integrate a student back into school.

Now, I’m the parent. And I know there are no easy answers.

It’s heartbreaking to see your child in distress, clinging to furniture and begging to stay at home, because they are too anxious to go to school. It’s incredibly stressful to have to speak to school every day, not knowing what reaction you will get. Trying to juggle work around your child’s unpredictable attendance and mental health needs is very challenging. Getting support from services is nearly impossible.

Parents are dealing with so much, and struggling. Although there are no magic fixes to Emotional Based School Avoidance here are a few ways you can help parents:

1. Remove threat of fines

The first thing to do is take away the very real fear parents have of being fined or prosecuted for their child’s low attendance. Government guidance clearly states that absences due to poor mental health should be marked as authorised, just as physical illnesses would be. Informing parents that the absences are authorised and the school won’t be fining them, removes a huge amount of anxiety, in what is already an extremely stressful situation.

For more see this excellent article ‘Absence due to illness – do mental health problems count?

2. Listen.

Listen to parents’ concerns, take them seriously, and deal with them as soon as they arise. We had been saying that things were getting worse for a long time, before our son stopped attending school. Sadly, by then it was too late for many of the interventions they wanted to try.

3. Value parent’s  input. 

Parents are the experts on their child. Treat them as such. They should not be an after-thought at meetings, or just invited to make a token contribution. They know their child best and will know what is likely to work.

4. Educate yourself about masking and the causes of Emotional Based School Avoidance.

Lots of children who experience Emotional Based School Avoidance are Autistic and spend much of the day masking. Masking is when people hide parts of themselves to try and ‘fit in’ or appear ‘normal’. It involves children suppressing their anxiety, stims, and how they are really feeling, so they appear fine. Realise that many children who look ‘fine’ are anything but. You may need see the distress and anxiety at school, but it is real.

5. Validate parent’s experience

It’s heartbreaking to see your child so distressed. It’s exhausting trying to make the right decisions and trying to work around the unpredictability of your child’s’ absences and needs. Validate parent’s experience and emotions, and don’t minimise the impact on the whole family. If it was as similar as telling the child they ‘have’ to come to the school, it would have worked by now!

6. Ask parents how they would like to be contacted and agree the frequency

I was baffled to be getting weekly calls from the receptionist at my son’s school, asking when he was coming in when I had just talked with the SENCo about the plan for him not to return. It turns out that the receptionist had been tasked with making a weekly welfare call, but no-one had communicated that to us.


Supporting parents is a crucial part of Emotional Based School Avoidance. Which of these strategies can you implement this week to support parents of your students?

You may also be interested in the post ‘Why Attendance Awards Are A Bad Idea (And May Be Harmful, Ineffective, And Illegal).


  1. What happens when school are gaslighting/ignoring you; and putting your child down as absent. Working with CAMHs but school aren’t doing anything about a hate campaign being waged against your child?

    1. I’m so sorry your child is going through this. Regarding the hate campaign have you escalated this by reporting it to the head and governors if other staff aren’t doing anything? With regard to school not authorising absences I recommend:
      1. Keeping your own record of absences and the reasons
      2. Asking CAMHS to write something saying that the reasons for absence are linked to poor mental health / anxiety
      3. Writing to school quoting government guidance, a good template letter can be found here – NFIS Authorising Attendance Template Letter on notfineinschool.co.uk/nfis-resources
      4. Is your child on the SEN register and the graduated pathway? If not can you ask for them to be based on their mental health needs.
      5. Not Fine In School is a very supportive Facebook group

      I hope some of this is helpful. All the best!

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