emotionally based school avoidance
2 min read/Published On: October 30, 2023/488 words/

Emotionally Based School Avoidance: It’s a matter of can’t not won’t

At a time of high levels of school non-attendance, it would be easy to assume that all non-attendance is the same. However, there are a group of children for whom school non-attendance is a matter of can’t not won’t.

These children are not refusing school nor avoiding school. What they are avoiding is in fact, the high levels of debilitating anxiety that attending school or even the thought of attending school brings to them. We all have that ‘Sunday night feeling’ or struggle to get back into the flow after a holiday for example. But for this group of children, the biology of their distress means that no amount of rational negotiation is going to settle their survival instinct; the school is on fire. In order to support these children to attend school and access the wide-ranging benefits that attending school brings, we need to ensure that professionals have a thorough grasp of the challenges these children face and a desire to find solutions that support both the child and the family.

Emotionally Based School Avoidance, (EBSA) sometimes called Anxiety Based School Avoidance is a broad term used to describe a situation where there are persistent barriers to a child or young person attending and fully engaging in school life and learning. These barriers may be associated with the school and its systems, situations in the family and community or challenges for the child themselves such as Special Educational Needs or Early Life Adversity for example. EBSA can be seen as a spectrum which children may move backwards and forwards along depending on particular ‘stressors’ at different times in their school journey.

Some children will not have attended school for weeks, months or even years. Some may attend sporadically, or gradually reduce attendance. Others may suddenly stop attending and be unable to go at all. It should also be noted that receiving an attendance mark is not the same as attending lessons and learning. Children may be in the building but unable to participate. These children are therefore missed from the EBSA statistics but equally need our support.

Another way to view EBSA is that it is actually ‘school focused anxiety avoidance’. It is not the learning that these children are trying to avoid, nor the routine, but rather the feelings of stress and anxiety that come from being in or around the school building, peers and/or staff. In order to find and action sustainable solutions, a whole eco-psychosocial approach will need to be taken, thereby taking the problem away from the child and avoiding language such as refusal, avoidance or truancy to a more holistic, compassionate approach which recognises the physiology of stress and distress and the full complexity of barriers to attendance.

Training to better understand experiences of EBSA as well as appropriate interventions to support positive progress and change is available through AC Education.

Amelia Brunt – Specialist Teacher, Trainer and Clinical Supervisor.