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What is Anxiety-Based School Avoidance (ABSA) and how can you help a young person struggling to attend school?

May 17, 2023  |  by Libby Astley

School can be a place that evokes strong feelings for many young people. Some love the opportunity to see their peers, learn about their favourite subjects and have positive relationships with teachers while others, really struggle to engage with the school environment and all that it entails. 

Our Schools Team regularly work with young people who are struggling to attend school due to feelings of anxiety. A young person who is experiencing Anxiety-Based School Avoidance (ABSA) may be facing strong emotional and physical responses when attending school or even when thinking about the school day. Whilst anxiety is an emotion that many of us experience from time to time, staying in a constant state of anxiety can deeply affect that young person and their mental health. 

Whilst there is not always an exact cause of school-based anxiety, and there are many factors that increase a child’s vulnerability to ABSA, there are often situations that can trigger the feelings of anxiety in these young people.

The ‘Mindfulness in Schools Project*’ noted the following four main reasons for anxiety-based school avoidance: 

  • To avoid uncomfortable feelings brought on by situations at schools e.g. fear of the toilets, busyness in the corridors, exams. 
  • To avoid social situations that are stressful at school e.g. bullying, reading out loud in class, working in groups, being left out. 
  • To reduce separation anxiety or gain attention from significant others e.g. family members. 
  • To pursue tangible reinforcers outside of school e.g. playing video games, going shopping, doing enjoyable activities. 


When we work with children and young people who are experiencing Anxiety-Based School Avoidance, we look to support them in several ways. Part of our sessions focus on educating the young person regarding the feelings and thoughts they experience around school and how the current cycle of avoidance can result in them viewing school as a place that doesn’t feel safe. 

Using CBT informed (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) techniques, we will look to identify their Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS) about attending school. These ANTs can be very persuasive and powerful, they can greatly affect a young person’s fears, self-worth and worries. Once these automatic thoughts have been recognised, we help to challenge these thoughts into more constructive thought patterns.  

It is important that supporting a young person with feelings of anxiety comes from all areas, and partnership between school staff and caregivers are vital in helping young people access school. We regularly see the great and thoughtful support schools offer through reduced timetables, time-out cards, buddy systems and pastoral support.  

If a young person you know is struggling with attending and engaging in school, here’s a few things to help you: 

  • Recognise the young person’s emotions and acknowledge them.
  • Listen to the young person if they want to explain their feelings and thoughts. 
  • Ensure you don’t dismiss their feelings and thoughts. 
  • Engage with the school to work together in planning your child’s support. 
  • Reassure them their anxious feelings are a natural reaction to a perceived threat. 
  • Help them to understand they are safe, nothing bad will happen, and they are supported.

How to access support: 

  • Contact the young person’s Head of Year / Pastoral Support within School 
  • Come along to one of our parent, carer and teacher drop-ins to get advice and support from our therapeutic and schools teams – www.islelisten.im/dropin

Did you find this helpful?

We have lots of other resources with useful information and advice on how you can look after and support your mental health and wellbeing.

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