What is Emotionally Based School Avoidance?

Emotionally Based School Avoidance is a broad umbrella term used to describe a group of children and young people who have severe difficulty in attending school due to emotional factors, often resulting in prolonged absences from school. A clear distinction is made between those that are absent from school due to truanting and those that are absent from school due to the specific emotional distress that they experience around attending school (Thambirajah, Grandison & De-Hayes, 2008).

Although the literature in this area often cites the phrase School Refuser, this terminology could be considered misleading as the term ‘refuser’ implies that the young person has control over the school non-attendance. This is problematic as this terminology locates the ‘problem’ within the young person and detracts from environmental factors that could be considered instrumental in supporting a young person back to school:

“School refusal occurs when stress exceeds support, when risks are greater than resilience and when ‘pull’ factors that promote school non-attendance overcome the ‘push’ factors that encourage attendance” (Thambirajah et al, 2008: p. 33).


There is no single cause for EBSA and there are likely to be various contributing factors for why a young person may be finding it difficult to attend school. It is well recognised in the research literature that EBSA is often underpinned by a number of complex and interlinked factors, including the young person, the family and the school environment (Thambirajah et al, 2008).

However Kearney and Silberman’s (1990) review of the literature indicates that there tends to be four main reasons for school avoidance:

  1. To avoid uncomfortable feelings brought on by attending school, such as feelings of anxiety or low mood.

  2. To avoid situations that might be stressful, such as academic demands, social pressures and/or aspects of the school environment.

  3. To reduce separation anxiety or to gain attention from significant others, such as parents or other family members.

  4. To pursue tangible reinforces outside of school, such as going shopping or playing computer games during school time.

According to this model, the avoidance of uncomfortable feelings or situations described in the first two points could be viewed as negatively reinforcing the EBSA, whereas in the second two points, the EBSA could be seen as being positively reinforced by factors outside of school (Kearney & Spear, 2012).


The UK literature reports that between approximately 1 and 2% of the school population, with slightly higher prevalence amongst secondary school students, are absent from school due to emotional reasons (Elliot, 1999; Guilliford & Miller, 2015). It is reported to be equally common in males and females with little evidence of a link to socioeconomic status (King & Bernstein, 2001).

Difficulties children have in articulating their distress and the difficulties that parents and school staff have in understanding the young person’s emotional experience of school are often key barriers in identifying and supporting young people at risk of EBSA (Thambirajah et al., 2008).

For some young people, the distress may be obvious in their presentation and chronic non- attendance. However for others, these difficulties may not be so easily identifiable. These young people may demonstrate sporadic attendance, missing the odd day here and there or particular lessons, or may only be able to attend school when provided with a high level of support and a modified timetable.

The onset of EBSA may be sudden or gradual. The literature suggests that there tend to be peaks in EBSA corresponding to transition between school phases (King & Bernstein, 2001).

It is also important to highlight that some young people with EBSA may appear to recover relatively quickly from the initial upsets of the morning and this can lead school staff and others to question the legitimacy of the EBSA; however it is important to hold in mind models of anxiety, as it is not unusual for the anxiety to quickly dissipate once the perceived threat is removed (Thambirajah et al., 2008).

Figure 1.


Picture of a 14 year old her feelings are like a whirlwind where she is not in control, that the school is not a safe place, she worries something bad might happen, she sees school as having lots of people in it, but she is on the outside and that people are making fun of her. She has also indicated that she feels she is not doing well with her work and she loves being at home.

Download a PDF version of the Emotionally Based School Avoidance Guidance and other leaflets here.