EBSA Resources For Parents: School Avoidance & Anxiety

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

No parent wants to see their child suffer from anxiety about going to school each day.

It’s tough watching them struggle, and school refusal can leave you feeling pretty helpless.

We need to start by figuring out what’s making school so stressful or scary for them.

In this article I’ll look at how we, as parents, can recognise, understand, and support them through the tough times. This includes how can we work alongside your child’s school to support your child with EBSA (Emotionally-Based School Avoidance).

anxious 11 year old boy at his kitchen table

What is EBSA?

Emotionally-Based School Avoidance (EBSA) is a persistent pattern of a student being absent from school, often driven by high levels of anxiety.

It’s more than occasional reluctance and it can become significantly intertwined with their mental health.

close up teenage girl well lit room

EBSA: Understanding Your Child’s Circumstances

It’s worrying, and sometimes incredibly frustrating, when your child resists or refuses to go to school.

As parents, our initial reaction might be to show our frustration, or even to push them harder.

We might catch ourselves asking: “Why can’t you just go in?” Yet, what’s crucial at this juncture is to take a step back and approach the situation with empathy rather than pressure.

Rather than focusing solely on the visible behavior, it’s important to look deeper and explore what lies beneath the surface of the school refusal.

This approach requires us to really get alongside our children, understand their experiences, and listen without judgment.

It’s about connecting with your child and uncovering the hidden challenges they face that might not be immediately apparent. This understanding is the first step toward addressing the root causes of their school avoidance.

Start by having a straightforward talk with your child. This conversation should be open and pressure-free, allowing them to express their feelings and experiences without fear of judgment.

Next, take the opportunity to speak with their teachers, perhaps during a parents’ evening.

Teachers can offer insights into your child’s behaviour and interactions at school that you might not see at home.

a nervous school boy at the school gates

What are Your Child’s “Barriers to Thriving” At School?

One effective method to understand and address the challenges your child faces is conducting a “barriers to thriving” exercise.

Sit down together, and if possible, include school staff in this discussion.

List every factor that makes school a daunting place for your child.

Be as specific as possible.

This could range from a crowded cafeteria that overwhelms them, to an English teacher whose loud voice makes them anxious, or even issues like unsanitary restrooms or feeling isolated during breaks.

By identifying these specific barriers, you create a targeted list that can then be prioritized and tackled one by one.

Here is an example of the “barriers to thriving” for Jess, a fictional 12-year-old experiencing emotional-based school avoidance (EBSA):

Overcrowded HallwaysFeels overwhelmed by the noise and chaos in the hallways during class changes.
Loud School BellStartles and causes anxiety with its loud ringing.
Strict Maths TeacherFeels intimidated and stressed due to the teacher’s strict demeanor and high expectations.
Isolation at LunchStruggles with loneliness, having no consistent group to sit with at lunch.
Bullying in the Changing RoomsExperiences verbal bullying from peers in the locker room, creating dread around physical education.
Unclean ToiletsAvoids using the toilets all day due to unsanitary conditions and people vaping in there, causing discomfort.
Difficulty with HomeworkFeels overwhelmed by the volume and difficulty of homework, particularly in science.
Social AnxietyExperiences intense anxiety during group work or class presentations.
Negative Peer InfluencesFeels pressure from a particular group of peers leading to negative feelings about school.
Lack of Effective CommunicationHas trouble expressing needs and challenges to teachers and peers, leading to misunderstandings.

This table identifies specific issues that might be contributing to Jess’s school avoidance, providing a basis for her parents and school staff to develop targeted interventions.

an anxious tween girl leaving her home to go to school

The EBSA Anxiety Cycle

When a child avoids going to school due to anxiety, they often feel immediate relief from not having to face the stressful environment.

This sense of relief, however, is only temporary.

As the pattern of avoidance continues, the underlying anxiety tends to intensify over the long term.

Each time the child stays home, they miss out on opportunities to learn that they can cope with the day-to-day challenges of school.

Without these experiences, they don’t have the chance to build confidence or develop coping skills.

As a result, the thought of returning to school becomes even more daunting, creating a cycle where short-term relief is followed by to increasing anxiety at the thought of going back to school.

This makes it even harder to return to school as time goes on.

close up of a tween girl's face

Overcoming EBSA: Essential Steps for Parents

  1. Act swiftly to manage school avoidance. Address school avoidance as soon as you notice symptoms, because the situation can quickly spiral. Early action prevents the anxiety from becoming more entrenched, making it harder to overcome. Prompt intervention shows your child that you’re attentive and proactive, helping to break the cycle of avoidance before it becomes more severe.
  2. Engage in calm discussions with your child. It’s absolutely crucial to delve into the source of your child’s anxiety by listening intently to what they share. This is more than just hearing them out; it’s about truly understanding the depth of their distress and the specific school-related triggers. Recognizing these factors is key to helping them navigate their anxiety effectively.
  3. Develop an action plan with school staff. As a parent, it’s essential to be assertive in setting up positive and regular communication with school staff. Ideally, establish one experienced and supportive staff member as the main point of contact. This makes it easier to advocate strongly for your child’s needs while ensuring your demands remain reasonable and focused on your child’s well-being.
  4. Anticipate and prepare for potential obstacles. Understand that progress in handling school avoidance won’t be immediate or linear. There will be ups and downs influenced by various factors, including life events and your child’s mental state at different times. Preparing for these fluctuations helps you and your child manage setbacks more resiliently, maintaining focus on gradual improvement.
  5. Keep an eye on how your child spends their time at home during school hours. Be mindful of how your child spends their time when they’re at home instead of school. Engaging in highly enjoyable activities like playing video games all day might make staying home more appealing than going to school. Encourage activities that are constructive and keep them connected to a learning environment, even when they’re not in class. This can help reduce the temptation to avoid school.
a tween boy in a meeting with his teacher

Key EBSA Strategies

Now we are going to look at the two key strategies I use as a child psychologist for children with EBSA, to help them attend school happily again:

  1. Ensuring they feel safe at school by making adaptations to the school day and environment.
  2. Gradually reintroducing your child to the school environment (known as graded exposure).

1. Making Adaptations to Ensure Your Child Feels Safe

The key to helping a child feel safe and less anxious at school is to make thoughtful adaptations based on the “barriers to thriving” we identified earlier.

These adaptations are tailored to address the specific concerns that contribute to your child’s school avoidance.

For example, if your child is overwhelmed by noisy environments, providing a quieter, more controlled space for them to learn can make a significant difference.

Adjustments may include altering their schedule to avoid peak crowded times, allowing them to use alternative quieter routes between classes, or even modifying participation requirements in larger group settings.

These changes aim to minimize your child’s stressors and create a supportive school environment that accommodates their needs, enabling them to gradually feel more comfortable and secure at school.

2. Graded Exposure

Graded exposure is a therapeutic strategy used to help children gradually face their fears related to school.

Depending on the severity of the EBSA and available resources at the school, your child may have a school psychologist (educational psychologist) or child clinical psychologist supporting with this process.

This method involves slowly introducing the child back to school in a controlled and stepwise manner.

A common mistake is to try to push this process on too fast. It needs to be the child – not school staff or parents – who dictates the pace.

Initially, this might mean your child attends school for just an hour per day, or only goes to their favourite classes that induce the least anxiety.

In fact, at the beginning of the process, they may only be able to manage walking to the school gates and then home again.

Over time, as the child acclimates and builds confidence, they can increase their hours at school and expand their activities.

This gradual increase helps to minimize overwhelming feelings and teaches your child coping strategies in real-time, allowing them to experience small successes that reinforce their progress.

Here’s a very short video I made about graded exposure!

EBSA Resources For Parents: EBSA Toolkit

If you’re looking for more detailed information to help your child overcome Emotional-Based School Avoidance (EBSA), I’ve curated a number of resources for you.

These provide comprehensive insights and advanced strategies designed to ensure long-term positive outcomes for your child.

They are ideal for parents who want to enhance their understanding and employ even more helpful strategies, and build on the valuable steps you’ve already taken.

Websites about EBSA

Not Fine in School

Square Peg

Books on EBSA

Understanding & Supporting Children & Young People with Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) by Tina Rae

Overcoming School Refusal: A practical guide for counsellors, caseworkers and parents by Joanne Garfi

Anxiety Mini Course

If you want to deepen your understanding about anxiety so you feel clear on exactly which steps will help for your child, consider our mini-course, Knowledge is Power!

Knowledge is Power: Understanding Anxiety in Children course

EBSA Case Study: Supporting Jess Back to School

Jess, a 12-year-old girl who we met earlier in the “Barriers to Thriving” exercise, had been facing significant challenges with EBSA.

Her school team and parents collaborated closely to develop a tailored plan that addressed these specific barriers and facilitated her gradual return to school.

Initially, the team focused on creating a supportive environment by addressing the physical and social aspects that were causing Jess distress.

Since Jess felt anxious in the overcrowded hallways, the school allowed her to leave class five minutes early to move to her next class before the halls got busy. They also provided her access to a less frequented bathroom to alleviate her discomfort with the unsanitary conditions of the more commonly used facilities.

To tackle the issue of isolation at lunch, the school counselor helped Jess form a small lunch group with a few other students who shared similar interests, providing her with a sense of belonging and reducing her lunchtime anxiety.

The school also addressed her discomfort with the loud school bell by allowing her to use noise-canceling headphones during transitions.

Graded exposure was implemented by first reintroducing Jess to her favourite subjects, Art and English, where she felt more confident and less anxious.

Jess started with these classes twice a week, gradually increasing her school attendance as she began to feel more comfortable.

The school provided additional support by assigning a mentor teacher who met with Jess regularly to discuss her progress and any ongoing concerns.

Over several weeks, Jess’s attendance improved as she became accustomed to her new routine and the adaptations made for her.

Her teachers and the school counselor continued to monitor her progress and make adjustments as needed.

By the end of the term, Jess was attending full days at school and actively participating in class and extracurricular activities.

Jess’s successful return to school demonstrates the effectiveness of personalized adaptations and graded exposure in overcoming EBSA.

By carefully addressing the identified barriers and gradually increasing her exposure to the school environment, Jess was able to rebuild her confidence and significantly reduce her anxiety related to school.

a young girl talking to her dad

EBSA: Alternative Provision if Your Child Can’t Return to Their Current School

If your child can’t return to their current school due to EBSA, exploring an alternative provision might be a necessary step.

This means finding an educational setting that better suits their emotional and learning needs, which could range from specialized schools to more flexible online or home-based learning environments.

These alternative provisions are designed to help reduce your child’s anxiety by offering a more accommodating and supportive educational approach.

If your child is found an alternative setting, this may be seen as a temporary measure by the professionals supporting your child. They will likely continue using strategies like graded exposure, aiming for your child to eventually return to a mainstream school setting, though not necessarily the original one.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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