What is Emotional Based School Avoidance?

Some children struggle to attend school because of anxieties or emotional difficulties that may be associated with their special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This is known as Emotional School Based Avoidance (ESBA).

The young person may feel overwhelmed, unable to cope and have tantrums, physical symptoms or be threatening to harm themselves if you make them go to school. Avoidance is a common stress response. The young person’s anxiety may also visibly reduce during weekends or school holidays. 

School refusal due to unmet SEND is not the same as general non-attendance for physical illness or truancy, as the child often wants to be in school, but is struggling to cope with the demands of it. 

These underlying reasons can be complex and due to several factors, rather than one single cause. These barriers need to be explored and addressed in order to re-engage the child with their setting and learning. 

Law and guidance

Schools and on roll settings have a legal duty to safeguard children under the keeping children safe in education guidance. This safeguarding duty includes 'preventing the impairment of children's mental and physical development.' 

There is also the mental health and behaviour in school guidance. This guidance states that the on-roll school setting should have a whole school approach to creating a safe calm environment where mental health problems are less likely to develop, recognise emerging issues as early as possible and help pupils to access support at an early opportunity. 

They also have a legal duty under the Children’s and families Act 2014, to work with you to identify and support any special needs that your child may have. 

This means that if your child is struggling to attend school because of their SEND, their school should be working to offer appropriate support or to further investigate your child's SEND if not enough is known about it. 

They can also take advice from and make referrals to other external support service and teams.

What can schools do?

As part of the graduated approach, found in the SEND Code of Practice, guidance suggests that schools should: 

  • Assess
  • Seek to gather information on the EBSA signs and risk factors. To look for potential reasons behind the avoidance behaviour, what the avoidance might be helping the young person. 

    Kearney and Silverman (1990),identified that school avoidance may serve functions such as avoiding uncomfortable feelings, avoiding stress, demands or pressures, to reduce seperation anxiety from a care giver and/or to pursue reinforcement behaviours out of school. 

  • Plan
  • Bring together all the information gathered and use it to inform an action/ support plan.  

  • Do
  • Put the agreed strategies and interventions in place. 

  • Review
  • Use assessment measures to monitor the progress interventions and adjust the plan for next steps 

What can I do?

If you think that your child doesn’t want to go to school because of their SEND, you could ask for a meeting with the school to discuss this. We can help you to prepare for a meeting about EBSA

If you feel that the school are not able to meet your child’s needs you can also consider an EHC needs assessment

If your child already has an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), it may need to be reviewed. For example, it may be that your child has developed new social, emotional or mental health needs that are not covered by the existing plan. We can help you to prepare for a review.

You could also speak to your child's doctor (GP) about your concerns. If the GP agrees that your child is not currently able to attend school, ask them for a letter, to give as evidence to the school or local authority for their non-attendance.

If your child is not attending school due to a long term medical or mental health condition, you can find further information and advice on our medical needs page. 

What if my child behaves differently at school?

It is not uncommon for children with SEND to behave differently in different environments. 

For example your child may be presenting as anxious and distressed at home, not feeling able to go to school. Yet, once they are in school they present as a calm and compliant child. 

This may mean your child is 'masking' rather than adapting to their environment. You can read more about masking here.

What about reduced and part-time timetables?

All schools, academies and free schools have a statutory duty to provide full-time education for all pupils of compulsory school age. 

Education should be: 

  • Full-time
  • Efficient - the education must achieve what it sets out to achieve
  • Suitable - to their age, ability and aptitude and any special educational needs they may have. The education must also equip the child for life within the community and must not limit a child’s options in later life.

In exceptional circumstances, schools may decide to propose a reduced timetable to support a pupil needs. 

There must be a clear reason and some evidence as to why this approach is needed. 

The Equalities Act 2010 says that it is illegal for schools to discriminate against pupils on the basis of their special educational need and/or disability, including those with social emotional and mental health difficulties. 

Key points for using reduced timetables
  • It must be done with parent agreement, otherwise it could be considered unlawful exclusion
  • Exclusion must not be threatened as a means of getting parent agreement
  • It must not be viewed as a long term solution, usually with a maximum of 6 weeks
  • It must plan towards the pupil increasing their time in school and for any support that they will need upon their return
  • It needs a time limit by which point the pupil is expected to attend full-time, or be provided with alternative provision
  • It needs to be monitored and reviewed regularly.
  • Where a child is Looked After, subject to Early Help plan or any other services are involved, the timetable should be discussed with and agreed by all parties.
  • If there is an EHCP, a review must be held, and the Local Authority must agree to the reduced timetable and planning
  • A risk assessment should be done to look at the possible impact of the pupil being out of their education and agree how this can be managed
  • The arrangement should not negatively affect any agreed SEND transport arrangements
  • If the pupil is entitled to free school meals, these should be provided (perhaps as a packed lunch)
  • Absences should be formally recorded using an appropriate code as an authorised absence (often coded as 'C')

What should the Local Authority do?

Section 19 of the Education Act (1996) says each local authority will make arrangements for the provision of suitable education at school, or otherwise than at school, for those children of compulsory school age who, by reason of illness, exclusion from school or otherwise, may not for any period receive suitable education unless such arrangements are made for them.

Government guidance makes clear that where the council knows that a child is not receiving suitable full-time education, or not receiving the number of hours they could benefit from education, it should step in to arrange provision. 

The Council should: 

  • consider the individual circumstances of each case and be aware that a council may need to act whatever the reason for absence, even when a child is on a school roll
  • choose, based on all the evidence, whether to enforce attendance or provide the child with suitable alternative education
  • keep all cases of part-time education under review with a view to increasing it if a child's capacity to learn increases
  • adopt a strategic and planned approach to reintegrating children into mainstream education where they are able to do so; and
  • put whatever action is chosen into practice without delay to ensure the child is back in education as soon as possible.

In addition to this guidance, The local government ombudsman has recently ruled that:

  • A Council’s requirement that it must be a medical reason for the absence has no sound basis; and
  • A Council stating they have not had evidence that child has been unable to attend school, was considered a sweeping statement because parents had clearly documented the difficulties that their young person experienced and what that meant practically for them.

Useful resources

Leeds Sendiass are not responsible for the content of sites or services offered by third parties.

You can find more links on our Useful SEND resource page.