When School Gates Seem Far and Unwelcoming - Understanding School Attendance

absenteeism attendance attendance action alliance ebsa emotional based school avoidance school refusal school support Oct 19, 2023
Daunting school gates with sad child experiencing EBSA

For many children and young people (CYP), the school stands as a place which encapsulates moments of joy and lifelong friendships. Yet, for others, the path to the school gate becomes encumbered with multifaceted barriers.

A young boy I recently saw (let's call him Alex), found the school environment an insurmountable challenge which filled him with fear. The question that remained in my mind is: How do we pave a supportive path that empowers and enables Alex, and others like him, to comfortably step through those gates?


Understanding School Attendance Difficulties

Navigating through the intricacies of school attendance difficulties requires a compassionate, and multi-pronged approach. The national Attendance Action Alliance introduced by the government to ‘raise attendance’ is set to trial local attendance action alliances in the attempt to bring together various services and developing regional pathways that parallel the national Attendance Action Alliance (AAA) initiatives.

The success of the government's initiative can arguably be augmented by a solid focus on children and young people experiencing school attendance difficulties. As explored by Dr Jerricah Holder -

‘Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) is a broad umbrella term used to describe a group of children and young people who experience significant and enduring challenges in attending school due to emotional factors; mainly feelings of fear and anxiety. The EBSA is more than just a child’s perceived dislike for school, it is rooted in emotional and physical anguish, and the child encounters significant distress when faced with the prospect of attending school.

Over the past few years there has been considerable effort by Educational Psychologists and other professionals to shift the narrative around EBSA, moving away from the language of “school refusal” to a more compassionate and person-centred approach that also considers the wider environmental factors that could be contributing to the EBSA. More recent research has also focused on the Voice of Child, shining a light on children’s experiences of EBSA and how they believe their needs have been perceived and conceptualised by others. Sadly, a theme throughout these studies has been one whereby children do not always feel that their EBSA is truly believed or understood’.


Ensuring Holistic Training: The Root System of Effective Interventions


Insights from EBSA Horizons

EBSA Horizons is a comprehensive course on Emotional Based School Avoidance by specialist Educational Psychologist, Dr Jerricah Holder, which develops our understanding of how EBSA emerges and is maintained, models of intervention, and strategies for working at the levels of the child, home, and across school. Initially developed for Educational Psychologists—who, owing to their unique position within schools, identified a rising number of children and young people experiencing school attendance issues— following multiple requests directly from schools, the EBSA Horizons course broadened its scope to directly assist schools. This adaptation highlights the need for scalable interventions and emphasises the importance of flexible and collaborative strategies to address the complex nature of attendance difficulties.

EBSA Horizons school training offers a shared understanding and a structured framework in supporting CYP like Alex, experiencing difficulties attending school / EBSA. This model, grounded in theoretical understanding and evidence-based research, encapsulates essential facets such as prevention, intervention, recovery, and participation, all while fostering a supportive and inclusive environment.


“A great overview of EBSA and the reasons behind it. Great strategies on how to support as a school and practitioner specialising in EBSA within school setting... this reinforces my belief that every school needs an EBSA specialist to work with families and young people"

EBSA Horizons Trained Teacher


With over 150 schools having joined the course in less than a year of launching, and an increasing number of local authorities offering the training authority wide, there is growing recognition among schools and services regarding the significance of cultivating a collective understanding of attendance difficulties.

It is important to note that not all children will thrive within our current education system. Our aim is not to ensure ALL children attend school, but to provide support to those children and young people who want to pursue their educational journey within a school setting.


Opening the Gates Wide with Empathy, Understanding and Strategic Alliances

The echoes of Alex’s story and countless others’ remain deeply intertwined within the vast labyrinth of school attendance complexities. As we initially navigated through the notion of welcoming school gates and the striking divergence in reality for many children, it acts as a reminder of our collective responsibility. Opening those school gates wide requires an alignment of systemic structures, strategic alliances, and most vitally, a permeation of understanding and empathy through every thread of our educational system and beyond. Our collective journey, through government initiatives and resourceful platforms like EBSA Horizons, serves as the stepping stones toward ensuring every school gate is not just accessible but genuinely welcoming for every child and young person navigating their educational journey.

In the multifaceted world of school attendance difficulties, an amalgamation of strategies, perspectives, and compassionate approaches forge the key to supporting children and young people with attendance difficulties.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):


How Can Schools Effectively Identify and Support Pupils Experiencing Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA)?

Understanding and addressing EBSA requires a nuanced, empathetic, and multi-faceted approach. Schools may observe patterns of persistent absence, reluctance to attend school, or physical symptoms related to anxiety or stress in pupils. Implementing a structured framework like EBSA Horizons, which encompasses prevention, intervention, recovery, and participation, can be pivotal. Moreover, fostering an environment where children and young people feel safe to express their anxieties and challenges related to school attendance is crucial. Engaging with parents, caregivers, and the pupils themselves to develop supportive and individualised strategies can pave the way for improved school attendance and emotional well-being.


How Can Schools Navigate the Delicate Balance Between Upholding Attendance Policies and Being Sensitive to the Mental Health Challenges of Pupils?

Striking a balance between maintaining adherence to attendance policies and being attuned to the mental health needs of pupils is indeed delicate.

Acknowledging the Legitimacy of Mental Health Challenges

Firstly, it's imperative for schools to acknowledge that mental health challenges are legitimate and can significantly impact a pupil’s ability to attend school. Creating an environment where they feel seen and heard, and where their struggles are validated, is the first step towards providing supportive interventions.

Training with EBSA Horizons: Empowering School Staff

Ensuring that school staff are trained and informed about mental health, its impact on school attendance, and strategies for providing support is crucial. This ensures that staff can identify potential signs of struggle early on and implement supportive interventions promptly. By empowering school staff with the knowledge, resources, and strategies to effectively support students experiencing EBSA, EBSA Horizons plays a crucial role in ensuring that schools can navigate the complex interplay between maintaining attendance and supporting mental health.

See the Checklist for Attendance Tracking and Support  from EBSA Horizons.

Transparent Communication with Families

Schools can engage in open dialogues with families, understanding the unique challenges they face, and collaboratively developing strategies that uphold the educational and emotional needs of all children and young people.

Collaborative Work with Mental Health Professionals

Working collaboratively with mental health professionals, such as psychologists or mental health support teams, can provide valuable insights into the specific challenges faced by children and young people and inform the development of supportive strategies. This might involve adjustments to the learning environment, providing additional resources, or implementing specific interventions to support the child’s mental health.

Implementing Flexible and Adaptive Learning Plans

Developing flexible and adaptive learning plans that can be tailored to the unique needs and challenges of each pupil is another strategy. This might involve providing alternative learning environments, utilising online learning platforms during periods of heightened struggle, or adapting the school timetable to accommodate the pupil’s needs.

Advocating for a Mental Health Absence Code

As recently advocated by Tina Emery, Co-Chair National Network of Parent Carer and the National Education Committee, a mental health absence code will acknowledge and validate mental health-related absences and this is something we should collectively advocate for. This not only provides a structured framework for addressing mental health challenges but also ensures that families are supported rather than penalised.


How Can Schools Collaborate with Parents and External Professionals to Develop and Implement Effective Strategies for Managing EBSA?

Collaboration is key in managing EBSA effectively. Schools can engage with parents and caregivers, understanding their perspectives, challenges, and insights into their child’s struggles with school attendance. Utilising frameworks like SPIRAL, which aims to ensure parents and caregivers feel ‘included, supported, and heard’ can be instrumental. Moreover, schools can collaborate with external professionals, such as Educational Psychologists, to gain deeper insights into the child’s challenges and develop tailored interventions. Engaging in continuous dialogue, sharing insights, and collaboratively developing, implementing, and reviewing strategies ensures a cohesive and supportive approach towards managing EBSA. This multi-systemic approach, which involves various stakeholders, ensures that the strategies implemented are holistic, supportive, and tailored to the unique needs of the pupil.


EBSA Horizons School Staff Training

EBSA Horizons School Training is a comprehensive CPD course for School Staff, which develops understanding and skills (alongside a lot of resources) to support children and young people experiencing difficulties attending school. This course has been updated for 2023 with a new chapter -

Chapter 6:  The Systemic Change Model of EBSA

Find out more about EBSA Horizons School Training here and register your interest to receive 3 FREE resources from this course.


EBSA Horizons Educational Psychologist CPD

EBSA Horizons is a comprehensive CPD course for EPs, which develops understanding and skills (alongside a lot of resources) to support children and young people experiencing difficulties attending school. This course has been recently updated for 2023 with two new chapters -

Chapter 6:  Supporting Autistic CYP Experiencing EBSA

Chapter 7:  Entrenched EBSA

Find out more about EBSA Horizons here and register your interest to receive 3 FREE resources from this course.



Department for Education. (2022). Attendance Action Alliance: A Comprehensive Guide for Schools and Local Authorities. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications.

Holder, J. (2021). Connecting With Children | (EBSA) Emotionally Based School Avoidance (edpsyched.co.uk)




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