Our Submission to the national trend of school refusal (avoid/can't) and related matters inquiry

We made a submission to the senate inquiry into why children avoid school and what lessons the education system have to learn from this behaviour.

You can follow the inquiry and read other submissions on the Australian Parliamentary website. 

March 2023


We welcome the opportunity to provide a submission to this inquiry. Meg & Tara client cohort include a significant number of families with neurodivergent children (for example autistic, adhd, anxiety, learning differences) and/or those who have experienced trauma, and are often experiencing significant challenges to attending school or participating meaningfully in the school environment. We acknowledge there are many barriers in children’s lives that may inhibit their ability to attend, or meaningfully participate in school. We recognise the way intersecting barriers to a safe environment include social exclusion, bullying, racism, poverty, mental health, gender identity discrimination, sexuality and other marginalised identities and experiences for families. In this submission we narrow our focus to the significant portion of our client cohort who are neurodivergent ( for example autistic, adhd, anxiety, learning differences ) and experience significant challenges at different times attending and participating in the mainstream school environment.

Our intention is to highlight how critical it is to examine the feedback this behaviour is providing to the current mainstream educational environment and relationships for children. School avoidance or “school can’t” and the significant challenging behaviours that are often seen when these children are forced to attend school, is communicating that school environments are not feeling safe or supportive. In addition to scaffolding skill development for children we need to support parents/carers and teachers to respond to the causal reasons for not attending school.

We believe strongly that it is important to refrain from pathologizing or problematising individual children and families, who, in our experience, are incredibly dedicated, committed, and willing to support their children to participate in meaningful relationships and learning.

About Meg & Tara

Meg & Tara is a business partnership with Meg McIntosh, a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and Tara Broughan, a Human Rights & Community Consultant. Together we facilitate parent group sessions, private family consultations, and professional development drawing from our professional and personal experience.

In the last 3 years Meg & Tara have facilitated over thirty 6 week parent groups grounded in the Tuning into Kids/Teens (REF) methodology of facilitating social and emotional competence in children and teens. We have adapted this content for our specialist cohort of families with neurodivergent children (including autism, adhd, anxiety, depression) and/or significant complex behaviours including the inability to attend school. Additionally we have provided professional development to allied health professionals, teachers and principals and early childhood learning environments.

Our focus is to support the development of safe, respectful, authentic and connected relationships between adults and children that identify and proactively respond to the cause of significant behaviours.

Meg McIntosh has been working with neurodivergent, and wonderfully complex families in public and private settings for over 12 years.

Tara Broughan is an autistic/adhd adult who has spent over 12 years working in human rights, community consultation specialising in children's experiences with UNICEF, government and community organisations.

We are committed to creating change within relationships, environments, systems and processes that support equity for all children, families, and professionals in our communities.


Firstly we would like to challenge the framing of children “refusing” to attend school which suggests a lack of willingness on the behalf of children to attend school and/or the willingness of parents to enforce reasonable boundaries. Rather, our experience with families when a child can’t attend school is that the child does not have the current capacity, or ability to attend school. Returning requires a relational, child paced graded response, that supports their reengagement, where this is the family goal.

“I don’t choose not to go to school! I just struggle, and it's really hard.” ~ 8yo child

Secondly, school attendance is a limiting goal. A more inclusive goal is the meaningful participation in social and educational experiences that support the health and learning of the child and the needs of the family. Forced attendance at school, in cases where this is even possible, in our experience often reduces meaningful engagement in learning and friendships for the children and erodes parent/teacher to child relationships.

Families and schools have often attempted many strategies before coming to us for support. This includes rewards and punishments, discipline, enforced attendance, with increasing distress experienced by the children.

We often find that regardless of physical attendance at the school, where this is possible, a lack of engagement in learning or social relationships is observed. Often the families we work with describe that these interventions result in children and young people who’s nervous systems are overwhelmed and enter a freeze, flight, fight or fawn response. For example;

  • Children in flight sobbing, begging not to be forced to leave parents/carers or go to school. Running from school grounds, hiding at home.

  • Physically unable to move in a freeze state, unable to speak, shutdown.

  • Children in a fight state behaving in an aggressive and violent ways with their families and in the school environment.

  • Children in fawn while at school being very agreeable and cooperative, not requesting any adaptations, and then having meltdowns at home when back in a safe space.

  • Children feeling so ashamed at they engage in self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Children and young people are reliant on the adults around them to co-regulate with them and keep them safe, they do well when they can.


  1. Fund professional development for teachers /support staff and support the prioritisation of connected and relational responses to children.

“The school’s strategy for drop off was for the receptionist to hold him while he screamed and assured me he was fine when I left. I was not impressed, it was traumatic. We then had my child start early and it was agreed he would be doing some things with the acting principal to help him transition, this didn’t happen as my child would be asking when are we….? So I knew what we discussed wasn’t carried through. We were not supported, we were told we would be.” ~ Parent to Grade 5 child now homeschooling

“The factors that allowed return to school were ​​that the teacher was willing to make accommodations that encouraged our son to feel safe and understood. So that he was able to begin to understand his learning needs and not feel criticised or ‘a difficult pupil’.” ~ Parent of grade 4 child returned to school

“Stuff that I find hard at school is that sometimes things just don’t make sense and I feel kind of unsafe and really uncomfy.” ~ 8yo child 

“Sometimes people don’t explain it the right way and sometimes making friends can be a bit hard.” ~ 8yo 

Children can only learn and establish reciprocal relationships when they have a felt sense of safety through co-regulation. Children are particularly attuned to the emotional state of the adults responsible for them. It is critical that the people responsible for children in school have excellent emotional intelligence and skills in co-regulating. A regulated state is critical for a brain to be able to attend, concentrate and learn.

Evidence based programs that develop self-reflection and emotion coaching strategies for adults to respond and empathise with children’s emotional experience while upholding boundaries are recommended. This includes programs that educate adults on the development of emotional intelligence in children and adolescents such as Tuning in to Kids and Tuning in to Teens and collaborative problem solving with children such as Lives in the Balance Collaborative and Proactive Solutions.

Children need to feel that they are held in positive regard by their educators, that their experiences and feelings are considered and acknowledged.

For neurodivergent or trauma affected children the school environment already creates additional threats and stress, both perceived and real. Teachers and other professionals at schools need to be supported to be skilled at proactively responding when the child is communicating this through their words, body or behaviour. This requires adequate resourcing and valuing of these skills equally to academic outcomes.

Emotion coaching and collaborative problem solving are skill sets that are evidence based and support the development of emotional intelligence skills in children. Identify the lagging skills that mean a child cannot meet expectations, deeply consider the child's perspective and collaborate with them to create adaptations that improve participation and wellbeing, and support their long term skill development.

2. Implement a developmentally appropriate environment and curriculum.

    “My child had difficulty attending school regularly from prep. When he was no longer able to take naps, found it difficult to participate in class and often cried as reported by the teacher.” ~ Parent to Grade 5 child now homeschooling

    “...... I am never ready for it. I never know whether it is the weekend or not, there are things I know I can’t do and it's hard.” ~ Grade 5 child

    The universal academic progress across age ranges without nuance for diversity in the school cohort, requires schools to enforce developmentally inappropriate expectations of children and their physiological and emotional needs. In classrooms we observe teachers being unable to appropriately respond to children who are experiencing difficulties, or slow down to allow children to grasp and integrate new learning because of the volume of content that they are told they must get through.

    Below are some examples of what a more developmentally appropriate school environment might include:

    • prep - grade 2 would include play-based experiential learning curriculum where any targeted “teaching” happens in short bursts, allowing space and time for teachers to engage those children that need different emotional and learning support.

    • Longer play times (recess and lunch breaks) where this time is valued and seen as crucial for learning and wellbeing outcomes.

    • Educators who have the time and the skills to proactively and respectfully problem solve with those children having difficulty in the school environment.

    • Dedicated spaces for rest opportunities for young children.

    • Play spaces both indoors and outdoors that provide opportunities to move and explore playing with nature and natural objects.

    • Play/exercise equipment and increased intensity of movement opportunities on the grounds of high schools.

    • Adult supported and structured activities or play spaces for those children still developing social co-regulation skills with peers.

    3. Scaffold children to develop the skills that allow them to attend and participate meaningfully in the education environment.

      “But once again I don’t think it is something she is choosing and if we push her to go she doesn't learn and just ends up (distressed). I mean there is not enough support for her and I mean even though she has a one on one support aid they are often supporting other people so she is often getting sent home because she is so upset, and it is unsettling fo a lot of the other kids especially the ones who are auditory sensitive.” ~ Parent of 8 year old (grade 3)

      Children have the capacity to develop skills when they feel safe, welcome and belong in the school environment.

      Their bodies and brains have the capacity to stretch or find the “ just right challenge”.

      This includes confidently attending school on most occasions. Neither punishments or rewards support children to develop skills, meeting the child at their current capacity or level of mastery and supporting them tot take the next few steps alongside a supportive person who can acknowledge how challenging that next step is while supporting the child to take it anyway provides the context in which children can develop confidence and mastery.

      Skills are not only academic but separating confidently from caregivers into a school environment. Continuing through a challenge when it feels too hard. Engaging in desired friendships are all skills that can be scaffolded alongside children.

      “The teacher attempted to meet his learning needs and provide a ‘just right challenge’. She is open to ongoing professional development in this area and is open to hearing our parental knowledge and strategies. This is ever evolving and she is so far willing to keep adapting to change. She communicates with me when she needs to and listens to me when I need to provide feedback on how he is going- even on a day to day basis, if required. Our son then trusts and feels more confident to attend. If the school leadership team did not support the teacher, this is unlikely to be possible. Again this relies heavily on the role of this teacher. Structural change in the education system is what is needed.” ~ Parent to Grade 4 child returned to school part time attendance.

      “I felt scared and worried and thought that I wouldn’t make any friends and I did, and I am happy about that, but I still sometimes get scared, still sometimes feel like I don’t have friends but I am happy with that, I am ok with that. I have lots of friends and I know I do.” ~ Grade 5 child

      “If the support that was clearly needed was obtained in a more timely manner, the disruption would surely have been lessened. The true cost will be told in future years as to the real impact of this disrupted Education.” ~ Parent to Grade 4 child returned to school

      4.  Provide integrated and collaborative support services between families, allied health professionals, support teams and schools.

        Families with children struggling to attend school are often forced to reach crisis with violent and aggressive behaviour, complete withdrawal or non-attendance before they begin to receive more intensive support.

        Collaboration between allied health practitioners, schools and at home supports differ radically depending on the school and family context. The more marginalisation a family experiences, including due to being a single-headed household or with little to no disposable income, can result in compounding barriers to overcoming the challenges their child faces in the school context.

        Integrated and proactive support is required before children and families are in crisis.

        Early in our time with the school we did not feel supported. In fact, it is only very recently that we do feel supported. Initially we experienced defensive and inflexible responses to our concerns and requests. We were often gaslighted and given the impression that our concerns were not warranted. The school only communicated when we approached them; they were initially never proactive. They seemed unwilling to discuss or take our concerns seriously until very recently. Recently, there has been a change of staff in key areas and support is more forthcoming. However, the support relies very much on strong advocacy from ourselves as parents and individual staff members within the school also advocating. So, I worry that this current level of support only prevails as long as these keen individuals are willing to remain open to change. That they remain open to inclusive education, neurodiversity affirming approaches and interest in creating safe and supportive environments for all.” ~ Parent to Grade 4 neurodivergent child

        “When I have an aid that I like, it helps alot, but not the one I have right now. It gives me support and sometimes it helps alot.” ~ 8yo child

        “I was working full time, I can now only work a 20 hour week due to the need to pick him up half way through the day and sometimes at other unplanned times. I do not know when this will change and I will be able to return. I see a psychologist to help me manage the stress of co-regulating my child and advocating for him in environments such as school. My son comes home after 4.5 hours and I have to manage his care needs whilst attempting to finish my work. We can not access support staff during this time as NDIS is not funded during school hours. Due to not being able to work as much as I need, we cannot afford to hire private staff to assist with extra tutoring or for support that would otherwise assist. The extra load on me is immense, I have to tutor and manage a child with dual disability, attend to my paid work (sometimes at the same time), coordinate his care across a number of practitioners, advocate and coordinate his administrative needs with school and somehow find time to just be a mother to him. Forget about being a partner to his father, that comes last.” ~ Parent to Grade 4 child

        5. Implement relationship based behavioural programs and avoid punishment and reward behavioural systems that reward those children who can easily conform and punish those who cannot.

          “.......because she was really in a tough point, that was at the point where she was throwing tables and chairs because her body was in such a troubled state. That phase has only happened once for us. But it has taken an hour of being really upset on arrival and then an hour to leave because she didn’t want to seem to leave. Didn’t want to go to school and she didn’t want to go home at that point she was talking about killing herself .” ~ Parent to 8yo child

          Avoid reward and punishment systems as these systems uphold ableism. The children who can succeed will do so anyway, these systems do not provide support for those who cannot meet expectations because they do not yet have the skills to do so. The children who are unable to meet these expectations are shamed for who they are and the skills they have yet to develop.

          The implementation of these systems fracture relationships and often increase feelings of shame (i.e. when someone's name is repeatedly written on the board as a warning, or when someone loses points or tokens for their group because they were unable to meet expectations of being quiet, etc). This in our experience, impacts the mental health and wellbeing of both the person implementing the system, and the child on the receiving end. It often increases school avoidance.

          6. Respond to children's challenges in the learning environment from a functional perspective. Determine what each child needs to participate meaningfully in their education.

            Avoid pathologizing children with neurodivergence or mental health conditions. Determine what are reasonable responses to a difficult environment and make changes to the environment, both physical and relational. Often verbal and behavioural responses are reasonable based on their experience.

            Ask more questions to identify why the behaviour or feelings are occurring. For example; What is happening for this child? What are their concerns? What needs are we not meeting in this environment? What do I need to change to better meet these children’s emotional and physical needs? How can we support and scaffold this child in this environment, to help them develop skills as well as genuinely adapting to better meet their needs right now?

            7.  Fund and support more integrated allied health and other support services to determine environmental adaptations in schools for neurodivergent and trauma affected children.

              “Another thing that has supported her return to school has been flexibility in her learning so she's allowed to have a brain break, or going into the hallway to squish her squishies, or even have them with her. Some of those small adaptations have really supported her. Rather than everyone having to do things in a particular way they supported her.” Parent of 8yo attending part time.

              This includes practitioners who are:

              • Lived experienced practitioners (Neurodivergent, trauma informed, etc).

              • Neuroaffirming Allied Health Professionals in schools with the skills to support teachers in reflective practice and collaborate to find meaningful adaptations that are more inclusive for all.

              • Tuning into kids training for all school teaching staff.

              • Tuning into kids/teens funded and offered to parents through maternal and child health services and schools.

              • Collaborative Proactive Solutions - Lives in the Balance, Ross Greene.

              8. Collect data on the identities and experiences of children who cannot attend school including neurodivergence.

                We need to understand the causal reasons for not attending school, not just assume anxiety with no further investigation into the reasons children are experiencing anxiety. This will include neurodivergence and in our experience undoubtedly provide important information about what is required in schools for these children to develop skills and have reasonable adaptations provided to support their participation in schooling. This is both the physical environment and the relational environment with children and other adults in the school context.

                9. Fund research and data into alternative learning environments for neurodivergent children.

                  Full time school in a mainstream environment may not be the ideal goal for each family and alternative schools and educational models should be funded and supported.

                  [Since homeschooling my childs’…] “Mental health is better. Sleeping better, less cold sore outbreaks. Trying new foods. Really hates reading but have got better at it. It is just very clear, school timetable and incremental measurement just creates a while bunch of stress. Rushing here, rushing there. The sensory overload makes it impossible for him to learn. But he misses his friends that are at his old school who we only see very occasionally. Parent to neurodivergent.” Grade 5 child now homeschooling

                  10. Fund and implement public education into neuro-affirming identity and practices to de-stigmatise this population of children and their families.

                    Urgently promote the strengths and positive contribution of neurodivergent people in our community and children in our schools. Not only the pathologization and infantilization of these populations. Educate the public on neuro-affirming language and identities that supports an inclusive society that is just and inclusive of neurodivergent identities and recognises the dedication of many families to supporting their children with respect, connection and belonging.


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                    Pastoral support: Emotion coaching Pastoral support: Emotion coaching (headteacher-update.com)