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School Attendance & Summer Holidays with Therapy Dog Womble

Embracing the Summer Break & Preparation for Children Struggling to Attend School?

Woof! As the academic year draws to a close, many parents find themselves eagerly anticipating the summer break. For those whose children grapple with social or school-based anxiety, this break represents more than just a hiatus from academic obligations. It offers a reprieve from the daily battles of persuading anxious children to attend school, managing the emotional turmoil when they refuse, and navigating the myriad of challenges associated with these struggles.

Hi, I'm Womble, the therapy dog at TMH (Teenage Mental Health), and I'm here to guide you through this!

The Strain of School-Related Anxiety

School-related anxiety can manifest in various forms for various reasons, including physical symptoms such as stomach-aches, being sick, and headaches, as well as emotional distress, which can result in outright refusal to attend school. This anxiety can stem from numerous sources, including bullying, academic pressure, social challenges, and underlying mental health conditions. For parents, each morning can become a daunting task of negotiation and emotional support, often leading to stress and frustration for both the child and the parent.

We often hear how parents feel like they’re ‘bad parents’ and worry about seeking help out of fear of judgment or shame from perceived failure. At TMH, we don’t believe that’s the case, and by seeking support with this scenario, we believe that’s the sign of a truly good parent. People don’t tend to have children to intentionally create emotional distress for them, and anything can happen whether it’s perceived to be in our control or not. Trust me, as a therapy dog, I know a good parent when I see one!

The Summer Break: A Welcome Respite

The onset of summer break is often a beacon of relief. It provides an opportunity to step back from the daily stressors and can allow both parents and children to relax and recharge, or it can create different stressors too. However, while this break is necessary and can beneficial for school refusers, it can also be a critical period to address the underlying issues that contribute to school-related anxiety.

Rather than waiting until the new school year begins, parents can use this time proactively to seek therapeutic support for their children while still having a tail wagging good time.

Are School Absences a Growing Issue?

In the UK, the issue of children missing education is significant. As of the autumn 2023 census, there were an estimated 33,000 children missing education (CME) on census day, up from 24,700 in the previous autumn. During the 2022/23 academic year, an estimated 117,100 children were missing education at any point.

The persistent absenteeism rate also highlights a concerning trend. According to UK Government Statistics, in the autumn term of 2023/24, 19.4% of pupils absent, were persistently absent, meaning they missed 10% or more of their possible school sessions. This is a decrease from 24.2% in the previous autumn, but remains significantly higher than the pre-pandemic rate of 10.9% in the 2018/19 school year.

For comparison, in 2018/19, the overall absence rate in state-funded primary, secondary, and special educational needs schools was 4.7%. In the 2023/24 autumn term, this rate was 6.7%. In 2023/24, illness accounted for 3.5% of absences. That means there was roughly 90000 more student illness related absences in the UK last year compared to 2018/2019 with illness related absences not just documented for physical illness, but also mental health related illness.

As of autumn 2023, an estimated 92,000 children were in elective home education in England. This number has been increasing, reflecting a growing trend towards home schooling.

The rise in home schooling can be attributed to various factors, including parental preference, concerns about the school environment, and the desire for a more tailored educational experience for their children.


What Are Some Causes?

Several factors contribute to school refusal and absenteeism. These can include but are not restricted to:

Low Self-Esteem: Children with low self-esteem may feel inadequate, incapable or not worthy, exacerbating feelings of being fearful of failure and more, leading to avoidance of school. This low self-esteem can be influenced by various factors such as follows;

Bullying and Social Issues: Children who face bullying, both within and outside of school, may develop a fear of attending school. Bullying can occur online, in the community, and even within the home, leading to increased anxiety and school avoidance. Building a supportive environment and addressing bullying comprehensively is crucial for these children.

Academic Pressure: High expectations and academic challenges can lead to anxiety and avoidance behaviours. Children who struggle academically may feel overwhelmed and fear failure, causing them to avoid school. Issues within the academic institution itself, such as teaching styles, classroom dynamics, or lack of support, can contribute to a child's reluctance to attend. Ensuring a positive and inclusive school environment, where children feel supported and understood, is essential for promoting regular attendance.

Mental Health Conditions: Conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, and ADHD can significantly impact a child's ability to attend school regularly. These conditions may require specialised approaches, multi-disciplinary and consistent support to manage symptoms effectively.

Family Dynamics and Home Environment: A variety of home-related influences, including stressful home environments, changes generally at home or with personal relationships, parental attitudes towards education, and overall family dynamics, can affect a child's attendance. It is essential to recognise that family stressors, such as financial difficulties or health issues, can indirectly impact a child's school attendance. Providing family-centred support can be equally beneficial as other interventions.

Peer Pressure

Truancy can be influenced by peer pressure, where children skip school to fit in with friends who do the same. Peer pressure can play a significant role in a child's decision to avoid school, especially if they are trying to conform to a group that devalues education. Building a supportive peer environment and fostering positive friendships can help mitigate this issue.

Special Educational Needs

Children with special educational needs (SEN) are at a higher risk of absenteeism. Tailored support and understanding of their unique challenges are essential for improving attendance. These children may require individualised education healthcare plans (IEP/EHCPs), additional resources, and specialised support to ensure they can thrive in a school environment.


Economic hardships can lead to higher absenteeism rates. Children from low-income families might miss school due to various barriers, including lack of resources, inadequate transportation, and the need to support family income.

Where We Learn... 

What are the Effects of Absenteeism in Schools?

Absenteeism can lead to long-term academic setbacks, social isolation, and increased risk of mental health issues. Studies show that persistent absenteeism is linked to lower academic achievement, increased dropout rates, and diminished future opportunities. Additionally, social isolation from peers can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and anxiety, further impacting a child's overall well-being.

We understand, how it’s still possible to find other ways to improve on socialisation, academic knowledge and general skills for life, which may feel or be preferable and good for some. But school absenteeism is still often a fundamental cause for the concerns raised with lasting or later evolving impact that may not be so positive.


When the Standard School Environment May Not Seem Suitable

While as social beings mostly, it’s an understandable and mostly healthy goal to encourage school attendance wherever possible. And even the most distressed child can find their way back to positive education attendance in a school or familiar setting. But on the odd occasion it is important to acknowledge that the standard school environment may not be suitable for all children and families. One size does not fit all, and for some individuals, alternative educational approaches might be more appropriate, even if only for part of their educational journey.

Either way, ensuring that each child receives an education that meets their needs is important, and inviting educational, therapeutic, psychological, and other professionals such as GP’s is encouraged in this process, it is important to capture the voice and need of the child to balance the wider needs for consideration.

Talking, creative and play therapies for example, can identify both general and emotional needs for children and adolescents, helping to inform parents and children when considering whether alternative educational settings if not already engaged with them.


The Benefits of Educational Settings

Woof! Educational settings provide more than just academic learning; they offer essential social and psychosocial benefits. Children learn to interact with peers, develop social skills, and build relationships, which shape how they approach future experiences. However, we understand that for some children, particularly those experiencing mental ill health, the standard school environment may not always be suitable at times.

It's crucial to find alternative ways to provide this social learning and stimulus in a manner each child can tolerate and benefit from. For some, this might involve gradually promoting school attendance through measures that stretch their resilience to symptoms like severe anxiety without causing distress.

By working with therapeutic services and understanding the options available, parents can make informed decisions that prioritise their child's well-being and educational success. Remember, when the right balance is achieved, a school environment can be hugely beneficial, offering a nurturing space for children to grow and develop both academically and socially.

Getting Ahead with Therapeutic Support

It's important to work with schools, educators and others to reduce school based anxieties, and promote attendance in a way that supports the individual needs of the child. But sometimes space and a neutral party can be equally beneficial, as one-size-fits-all approaches do not work for everyone.

Engaging in therapy during the summer can offer numerous advantages. Therapy can help children develop coping strategies, build resilience, and address the root causes of their anxiety without the immediate pressure of school attendance. A therapist can work with the child to inform bespoke interventions to their specific needs, providing a personalised approach that might not be possible to achieve from within the school environment.

This support can guide families through this difficult situations and also transitions to different educational environments, helping them accept and understand their individual needs.

Out-of-school therapy services, such as those we provide at TMH, offer a confidential and neutral space for children to explore their anxieties and develop healthier coping mechanisms. These services provide timely intervention and mitigate the immediate pressures and dynamics of the school setting when that’s felt to be beneficial.

Furthermore, therapy can help identify and address issues that children might be reluctant to discuss with familiar figures within their existing support network. Remember, I'm here to lend a paw and some comfort during these tough times with the help of the TMH Therapy Team.

I hope this helps! Woof!

What else can I do?

It's important to recognise that feeling a bit anxious about school, whether while there or on the way, is completely normal. With your support, children can learn to handle these feelings effectively. It's not uncommon for children and adolescents to self-diagnose or misunderstand their symptoms as something more concerning than they might be. We won't stop it by denying it; we first need to acknowledge it and understand what’s behind their feelings and what’s evoking their emotions. Here are some tips to help your child:

Acknowledge Their Feelings: Let your child know that it's okay to feel anxious about school. Validate their feelings and reassure them that everyone experiences anxiety from time to time.

Normalise the Anxiety: Explain that a bit of anxiety is a normal part of life and can even be helpful in certain situations. Just like I might feel a bit nervous meeting new friends at the park, it's normal for them to feel the same way about school.

Provide Perspective: Help your child find a perspective they can understand and internalise. Encourage them to see school as an exciting adventure filled with new things to learn and discover. Remind them of past successes and how they overcame previous fears.

Teach Self-Regulation Techniques: Show your child simple strategies to manage their anxiety, such as taking deep breaths, practicing mindfulness, or using positive affirmations. These techniques can empower them to take control of their feelings.

Offer Consistent Support: Be there for your child with a listening ear and comforting presence. Encourage open communication about their feelings and experiences at school.


As the summer break offers a much-needed rest for parents and children dealing with school-related anxiety, it also presents an invaluable opportunity to address these challenges head-on. By engaging with our young people ourselves, or with other therapeutic support during this period, families can lay the groundwork for a smoother transition back to school in September and reduced school anxiety.

Stay pawsitive and keep wagging those tails!

Woof and cuddles, Womble, the Therapy Dog 🐾