Victorian children show increasing rates of school refusal after COVID lockdowns

Lockdowns and distance learning led to an increase in calls to the Kids Helpline in 2020 and higher numbers in 2021. A Mission Australia youth survey found that more than a quarter of young people met criteria for experiencing mental health problems in 2020.

School refusal or school phobia is not just children who skip classes. It has been linked to underlying problems such as depression, separation anxiety and anxiety.

While school refusal is at the extreme end, many students continue to struggle with constant changes at school, such as merging classes and staff absences.

“There’s a new cohort of kids who were doing fine before Covid, but not now,” Chellew said. “I think what we’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg. If nothing is done about it and school attendance continues to be a growing problem, I think in the future we will end up with a cohort of children who are significantly compromised.”

Monash Health child psychiatrist Dr. Michael Gordon said the pandemic had led to socialization problems and emotional delays, and an increase in children with eating disorders, suicidal behavior, psychosis and school refusal.

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He said school refusal normally peaked in the transition from prep to grade 1, between years 5 and 7, and year 9.

Some affected students were behind academically. “Some did very well, but they need the scaffolding, the structure of the bell that rings, to get to school in the morning.”

Headspace’s schools’ national clinical manager, Nicola Palfrey, said a lack of face-to-face learning may have cut the connection with school.

“Staff changes due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 may also present a barrier for young people to re-engage,” she said.

The Victorian government has a program, Navigator, for the state’s most severely withdrawn students — those who were absent for at least 70 percent of the previous school year. It connects students with a case worker and support services.

In March, the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office found that access to Navigator was unjust and dependent on where a student lived. Some students had to wait six months to gain entry. The office also found that the Education Department was unable to demonstrate that Navigator was an effective intervention.

“Very few students meet the program goal of returning to education with 70 percent attendance for two terms,” the Auditor General’s report said. “However, many Navigator students re-enter education with an attendance rate below the program goal and achieve a range of other positive outcomes.”

The department adopted the report’s recommendations and a spokesperson declined to comment on this story.

Adam Voigt, a former principal who is CEO of consulting firm Real Schools, said schools reported children struggling to get through the day, bickering on the playground and struggling with anxiety.

“The schools have lost routine right now because they have so many teachers gone, so there’s so much inconsistency,” he said. “When a child with autism goes to school and is split into three different classes all day, they are turned upside down.

“That’s why we get spikes in kids refusing to go to school because they’re very concerned about what’s going to happen that day — they don’t remember what the plan is.”

Pitsa Binnion, principal of McKinnon Secondary College, said the school had the highest absenteeism rate.

“They are not at the stage we expect from students. Some of the younger ones are really immature, some of the older ones are really struggling with the workload,” she said.

The school has programs for struggling students and cares for dogs that attend every day.

Shelford Girls’ Grammar Director Katrina Brennan said that despite “excellent” NAPLAN results, there was an increase in mental health problems.

“Every school says the same thing: the increase in social, emotional problems, eating disorders, anxiety, stress, depression, feeling lonely, disconnected, having trouble getting back into their friendship groups,” Brennan said.

David is now 13 and enjoying school. He still attends sessions with Chellew, and his school posts his schedule online so he can see early teacher absences.

His mother said, “For a child with anxiety and school refusal and separation issues, one of the things that was a barrier was going to school and not knowing what was going to happen.”

Chellew said families dealing with school refusal should work with their schools, their GPs and a mental health service.

“Try to understand the complex causes of the problem, which children often cannot articulate,” he said. “And then be curious … about what could be causing the problem — addressing the root causes rather than just the behavior.”

*Names have been changed

If you or someone you know needs support, please contact Headspace or Beyond Blue at 1300 22 4636.

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