parent opinion

'My 9-year-old son refuses to go to school. People say it’s my fault.'

My nine-year-old son hates school. He will beg us not to take him and to have the day off instead. Even on the weekends and holidays he often pleads to NOT go to school when it’s next on.

One day last year I had an appointment at the school with the visiting paediatrician and my son had to attend at the end to be weighed and measured. After the doctor was finished taking his measurements, my son sat behind me on the couch cowering and whispering to me, insistently repeating:

Please don’t make me go back to class.

Please don’t make me go back to class.

Please don’t make me go back to class.

Please don’t make me go back to class.

Over and over again. It was nightmarish and distressing.

He was highly distraught, and that made me feel very distressed. 

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I couldn’t make my son go back to class in that state. The paediatrician didn’t offer any help, and I didn’t know what to do. I was scared that the staff might forcibly detain him, so I just took his hand and walked out of the school gates with him. I called my work and told them I’d be working from home the rest of the day.


My son’s story is not an isolated one.

I belong to a Facebook group for parents of Australian children who "refuse" school and it has over 7,700 members. 

The group prefers to use the term "school can’t" rather than "school refusal" because we know our kids are not making a wilful choice. They literally can’t enter the school grounds (or must be picked up early) some or all the time. Some of these kids can’t leave their houses or even get out of bed, the idea of school is so distressing and traumatic to them.

Many if not most of these kids who refuse school have disabilities or are from marginalised groups such as our First Nations community.

An estimated 100,000 school-age children across Australia are currently not attending school. There are various reasons, but school refusal/school can’t is an important one.

So, is my parenting the reason my son hates and refuses school?

Most people, including schools, fellow parents, and Victoria's shadow minister for education, Matthew Bach, blame the parents by default when a child can’t attend school. 

On Monday, in an article in The Age titled "School refusal numbers are soaring. Parents need to show tough love" Bach blamed me for my son's school refusal.

The familiar but baseless rhetoric is that the parents are too soft on the child, they spoil the child, make home too appealing, are too anxious, that routines at home are inadequate, and that parents are not tough enough.


But think of that logic in reverse. If a child was terrified to go HOME, would people wonder what was happening at SCHOOL, whether school routines were inadequate, question whether the teacher was "tough enough" to get the child to leave the school grounds? 

Or would they investigate why the home was so scary for the child?

And if the reason for my son not wanting to go to school was my inability to administer tough love, how do you explain my otherwise successful parenting and schooling experiences?

I’ve been parenting since 1999. So far, I’ve helped raise eight kids (four biological and four step kids) and only one of them has had attendance struggles in primary school and found school terrifying - that’s my nine-year-old son with disabilities.

In fact, while my three youngest are still in school, five of the kids I’ve helped raise have finished high school and are now 'fully functioning' adults who are all working or studying.

So, I have a great track record of getting kids through school. This is not my first rodeo.

My two other primary school children are not terrified of school, yet they have the same parents and attend the same school as my son. But I’m still told by Bach and others that I should be doing things differently at home to "help" my son attend school.

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Should my son attend a special school instead?

My son has multiple hidden disabilities. He is autistic with ADHD and dyslexia. But he does not have any physical disabilities or a low IQ so there are no special schools in our area that are 'suitable' for him.

More importantly, research indicates that kids who attend special schools have much poorer life outcomes and end up socially isolated much more than kids with disabilities who attend mainstream schools. They are also less likely to live independent, fulfilling lives. 

Many leaders in the disabled community are calling for the gradual closure of special schools with the resources to be transitioned over to a truly universal education system.

Australian law, under the Disability Discrimination Act, says that kids with disabilities have the right to attend their local primary or secondary school. And that schools must make reasonable adjustments so that those kids can participate on the same basis as kids without disabilities.

This is the crux of "inclusive education". 

While "inclusion" is a buzzword and every state and territory has an inclusive education policy, here’s the catch:

Very few education departments, schools or people understand what TRUE inclusion means or practise genuine inclusion. And this is the real reason why my son can’t go to school some days. Because it’s not a genuinely inclusive place.

Incidentally, this is also the reason why disabled people are so marginalised in society.


In previous decades in Australia, the education system (and society at large) worked under an "integration" model of disability.

The aim of "integration" was to make the person fit into the current system and to essentially force disabled kids to act like they are NOT disabled: 

If they are too noisy, make them be quiet. If they move a lot, make them sit still. If they don’t comply, apply increasingly punitive behaviourist interventions until they do. That is, force a square peg into a round hole.

That model denied disabled people their dignity and humanity and does not work. You can’t make disabled people be less disabled by forcing them, but you can force them to "hide" their disability (to mask) and gift them with a hefty dose of trauma and self-loathing at the same time.

The "integration" paradigm is supposed to be dead and buried according to our laws and education standards. But schools and society in general forgot to attend that funeral. 

Schools, clubs, and society still try to change the child instead of changing the environment and call what they do "inclusion" when it isn’t.

The ultimate result of the integration model for many students with disabilities or from marginalised groups is anxiety, fear, trauma, shame, and ultimately withdrawal.

They don’t feel welcome, included, or supported. They feel bullied and rejected. They feel unsafe. 

This week, Matthew Bach made a tone deaf, integrationist 'call to arms' to parents of kids with disabilities and other marginalised groups. 


He wrote: "Some school refusers will swear at their parents, others kick – one parent showed me the deep bite marks. I said, 'Well done, we’ll take it from here.' Because, hard as it was, these parents got their children to school. And that’s the most important thing."

But there is some invisible text missing after his sentence and that is: "No matter how traumatising it is for them and their kids, or how unsafe their kids feel at school."

Genuine inclusion is a big, big concept to get your head around and I’m still learning, but inadequate inclusion is the key to why my son and thousands of other of kids with disabilities hate and refuse school in Australia.

Very few education systems, schools, teachers, clubs, organisations or members of society understand what true inclusion means let alone know how to implement it.

Our society still operates under the "medical model of disability" which is essentially: the disabled person is defective, and we must help them and society by making them more "normal"/less defective.

By contrast, the inclusion model of disability sits within the "social model of disability" which is a completely different lens. The social model assumes each person has inherent value and worth and that it is the person’s environment that is disabling. 

A simple example is if a school has no ramp, then that is disabling for a person in a wheelchair. A solution is to build a ramp.


Similarly, if a school insists on eye contact for all students, or insists that kids must sit still to learn, then that environment is disabling for an autistic child who finds eye contact difficult and who needs movement to regulate and to focus.

Schools that try to change kids with disabilities instead of accommodating them feel scary to those kids.

I’ll be the first to admit that accommodating a child with disabilities within the current education structure and culture is challenging. I’ll also admit that most teachers and schools seem to genuinely care about the students in their schools. 

I realise that schools are under resourced, that teachers work hard. Many teachers are feeling burnt out and leaving the profession.

Kids with disabilities are also suffering and so are their parents. Many neurodivergent parents and kids are burnt out, anxious and depressed trying to fit into the Australian education system.

Shadow Minister Bach, instead of giving out unsolicited parenting advice, please fight with us for true inclusion in all schools. 

Listen to children with disabilities and to their parents. 

Stop "able-splaining" why our kids are struggling and refusing school and instead work with the disabled community to fix our education system.

Disabled parents are exhausted from having to advocate for their disabled kids and from having to educate schools about their kids' needs.

You think parents of school refusers are not tough enough? If you walked in our shoes for one day, you would never say such a grossly inaccurate statement.


We are in a 'David and Goliath' fight for our children’s mental health, human rights, and psychological safety, every damn day. 

Instead of kicking us while we are down, please do some research: go and analyse some data on how many of the kids who are refusing school have disabilities or are from a marginalised group. 

And while you are at it, please compare school attendance rates, against school and education department inclusion policies and practises, as evaluated by people with disabilities or from marginalised communities themselves.

If you advocate for tough love, maybe apply that to the evaluation of our education systems and how well they genuinely cater for all Australian kids.

If you are so tough, help end the segregation of people with disabilities in our society: make a policy commitment to work towards the gradual closure of special schools and the resourcing of genuine inclusion of all children in our local schools.

If you want to join a community to get support, check out the Square Peg Round Whole Podcast Parent Advocacy Group or School Can't on Facebook.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

Feature Image: Getty.

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