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PrimarySEND

EBSA – What to do when pupils are avoiding school

Slashed SEND budgets and attendance targets have whipped up the perfect storm for school avoidance. We need to do things differently…

Liz Hawker
by Liz Hawker
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PrimaryHealth & WellbeingSEND

School avoidance or EBSA (Emotionally Based School Avoidance) is the new term for ‘school refusal’, a misnomer implying that pupils have made a controlled choice rather than being unable to attend due to high anxiety.

It’s a negative spiral – reduced attendance can lead to greater anxiety, with ‘pull’ factors towards home becoming stronger than ‘push’ factors towards school.  

While many children are thriving on the ‘new normal’, according to social enterprise Square Peg, 22 per cent of mainstream pupils were persistently absent in the autumn/spring term of 2021/22. That’s a 117 per cent increase since 2018/19. 

With attendance currently such a hot topic, it’s time to explore what we can do to help. 

Identify risk early 

EBSA risk factors take many different forms – but some are more obvious than others.

Change or trauma, however small, has a profound effect on a child. So moving house, the death of a pet, or the relocation of a friend can be triggers as much as separation from a parent, illness, trauma or death.

Even last-minute changes for drop-off or anxiety during transport to school can increase risk. 

Pupils with autism, sensory needs, ADHD and other SEND are at higher risk, with or without diagnosis.

In the latest data from Square Peg, 37 per cent of pupils with EHC plans and 31 per cent receiving SEN support were persistently absent as of November 2022. This compares with 22 per cent of all pupils.  

Watch for patterns of absence or illness, too. Do they cluster in the run-up to tests or occur off your watch (perhaps in external PE lessons, lunch or after school club)?

Check in with colleagues to pattern-spot problems in specific subjects and with specific staff.

Look out for pupils who struggle or are solitary during breaks; EAL pupils and those with social communication difficulties are particularly at risk. 

Stay abreast of family situations, too. Common EBSA triggers are a new baby, sibling jealousy or conflict, parenting difficulties, parental conflict or separation, and domestic abuse. Young carers are particularly vulnerable.  

Unpack the problem

No two children with EBSA are the same, so it’s essential to meet one-to-one and unpack what is causing school-associated anxiety.

One approach is to use blank cards in a ‘diamond five’ activity – a structured session to help establish the most effective solutions to problems.

Encourage the pupil to identify which aspects of school cause them most anxiety and write the top five on five cards.

Place the biggest barriers at the top of a diamond-shape layout and those that are problematic but less so further down.  

Discuss solutions and write them on the back of each card.

Common adjustments could include going with a friend or named adult; early or later entry to the lesson; not needing to change into sports kit; working in a pair rather than a group; using assistive technology; or working with a desk partition. 

If things worsen, co-develop ‘What If?’ cards.

Establish which specific scenarios worry the pupil most, and explore responses that would help.

Solutions can go on the reverse side of flashcards for a keyring or on a foldout pocket resource, such as these from Bromley Education: tinyurl.com/tp-WhatIf  

Flex the system 

‘Flexible’ and ‘individualised’ should be your watchwords if you want things to improve.

We need to change the way we look at schooling for pupils with EBSA.

This calls for some flex in the system from senior management. Agree reasonable adjustments and individualise the school experience in response to the child’s needs and their triggers.

Enable staff to do home visits to build a solid partnership with families and carers to inform strategies.

You could also allow a reduced timetable with shorter days, later starts or earlier finishes, and a graduated approach to building back up at the pupil’s pace.

Familiar adults are critical. Provide pupils and parents with consistent staff to meet them in the car park, at the entrance, or outside the dinner hall.

There should also be a dedicated staff member for overseeing EBSA pupils.

Plan adjustments to the environment and curriculum, modifying demands without lowering expectations (see the panel at the end of this article for examples).  

After extended withdrawal from school, plan how you can successfully ‘ladder’ the pupil back in. Build attendance back up in tiny increments with pauses, where needed, along the way.  

Be universal and consistent 

Create a one-page profile outlining personalised support and save it in an easily accessible, shared area.

Communicate to all staff, not just teachers, how critical it is that they read and maintain the same strategies consistently and make them aware of the difference it can make.

Stick rigidly to the child’s new structure, ensuring predictability and consistency.  Enable agency, too.

If anxiety begins to build, have a dedicated circle of staff for the pupil to check in with, ensuring at least one is available at any point in the school day. 

Ensure whole-school responsibility 

As any aspect of school can exacerbate the problem, it’s important that EBSA is understood at a whole-school level, with a supportive culture directing good provision.  

Train all staff, not just teachers, in mental health, anxiety and school avoidance, and establish a culture of sharing concerns about children who may be at risk.

Bring in ELSAs (Emotional Literacy Support Assistants) and specialist training on autism, ADHD and masking. 

Finally, emphasise that all pupils are different but equally valued and that they belong.

Increase and extend buddying, and ensure policies and procedures on behaviour, bullying and equality are clear and are followed.

You can also increase pupil voice, targeting at-risk pupils; to understand EBSA better, their voices must be heard. 


10 strategies to reduce anxiety  

  1. Use alternative formats like mini whiteboards for responding to questions. 
  1. Build a familiar activity from home that pupils like into the start of the day. 
  1. Use a visual timetable and prompts, building up to a three-part First, Then, Next board. 
  1. Offer access to quiet/low sensory spaces and a preventative break card. 
  1. Discuss seating changes before they are implemented; keep affected children away from (and out of the sightline) of more challenging peers. 
  1. Smile and make pupils feel welcome, particularly in corridors, playgrounds and the dinner hall. 
  1. Build choice-based activities into the day.  
  1. Individualise their timetable, with early exits, later starts and support options for breaktimes and lunch. 
  1. Do not call them out to the front, and avoid sanctioning the whole class. 
  1. Give the pupil more open-ended ways in to the curriculum and home learning tasks that are creative or opinion-based rather than strictly right or wrong. 

Liz Hawker is a SEN specialist and parent in Kent. Follow her on Twitter @hawkerl1 and see more of her work at oneinfive.org.uk

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