8 Top Tips to Create Safety for Children Who Have Stopped Attending School (EBSA)

February 8, 2023
trauma informed school non attendance

At TICS, we are asked a lot about how children and young people can be supported back into school when they no longer feel safe in that environment. There are a number of terms used to describe that point where a child no longer feels safe in the school and each of them somewhat unhelpfully locates the problem within the child.  School refuser, Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) and anxiety-related absence offer little context into this situation which can cause untold challenges to families and others trying to support the child or young person.

The term EBSA however does provide us with an opportunity to think about the emotional response to feeling unable to attend school and enables us to focus on the emotions that are most associated with feeling safe. When we focus on the underlying emotions, thinking about how we can help becomes much easier.


The data tells us that the attendance rate across the academic year to date (January 2023 so includes Winter and associated illnesses) was 92.3%. The absence rate was therefore 7.7% across all schools. This has risen since pre-pandemic levels which the data recorded as 4.5% across the academic year 2018/2019.

There can be numerous things that have contributed to a rise in feeling unsafe at school which might include covid restrictions, prolonged periods at home, mask wearing, fear of viruses and the implications of passing them on to relatives. We might also throw into the mix the intensification of outcomes based learning, rigid behaviour policies and less resources in schools to meet the needs of the ‘just about coping’ children and young people. Whatever the reason, the lens of ‘seeking safety,’ which is the first Trauma Informed Principle, supports us in helping education settings be places that children and young people want to go to.

Creating Safety For Children and Young People Who Feel Unsafe

Eight Suggestions to ponder, reflect on and think about for your community are:

  1. It can feel like stating the obvious but how is the school’s relationship with the family? Phoning home for the good stuff not just to ‘report an incident’ goes a long way. What activities happen in the school that are inclusive for parents and carers? How are they made inclusive? Is language considered, or childcare, or activities that are connecting rather than shaming (who wants to attend a ‘parenting skills’ course)??
  2. Not all children are living in places and spaces where they have a parent who can continuously liaise with the school, feels safe at the school themselves or is available during school hours. What communication mechanisms are in place that build better relationships and support a sense of ‘wraparound’ care? Some children might be reliant on their social worker or the Virtual School to connect with the school and be the key relationship. How is the school’s relationships with them? Building relationships with all those connected to the school community benefits children and young people.
  3. Working on emotional literacy with the whole school community creates coherence. This includes working with parents, carers, governors, all school staff and other key people working in and around the school.
  4. In working on emotional literacy with children, focus on embodied understandings to feelings. For example, ask children to define anxiety. When you have a shared understanding, ask different children where they feel anxiety in their bodies. This is different for everyone so making it explicit that it can be felt in the body, in different places can help a child/young person know what the emotion is behind the feeling in the body. This enhances self-knowledge. Self-knowledge strengthens the ability to let others know that all is not ok right way in ways that adults find easier to listen to. Behaviour is, after all, communication.
  5. Go at the child/young person’s pace. If they can only manage an hour a day in school, do that until it is 2 hours a day. If they need to be walked to their classroom by a trusted adult, do that until they can walk half way to the classroom alone. And so on. Pushing is futile and does not create a sense of safety. It exacerbates the situation rather than makes it better. It can be difficult to do this logistically, but if the end goal is to support the child or young person back to school, then it is going to take time, creativity and individualisation.
  6. Create an environment that focuses on cultivating belonging. This wonderful book is full of practical ideas that will really help create a space of belonging for all those in the school community. Bristol has also helpfully created a strategy on Belonging in Education which you may find helpful too. When we feel we belong somewhere, we stay there.
  7. Transitions. All of them. How are they managed? Develop models of meet and greets, consistency, avoid last minute changes, support organisational skills without shaming when these skills need work. Floorplans and maps and buddy systems all help reduce underlying anxieties about managing moving from one space to another.
  8. Well-being is not an add-on but something that needs to be integrated into every aspect of our lives. How is this modelled in the team? How is this modelled for children and young people?

Finally, leadership buy in is essential to any kind of culture change and the list above may have a lot within it that would require a significant shift in culture. Working together is essential but remember together we can change lives; it makes a massive difference for children and young people who may find themselves outside of the ‘system’ and it might just help to build trust where trust has been eroded.

Relationship, ‘with-ness’, care, curiosity, compassion, moving from fear to flow takes time, effort, flexibility and courage. One final great resource is a book full of case studies, solutions, empowerment and collaborative hope called Square Pegs! Designed specifically to support any child facing attendance barriers.

We hope this article has been helpful and if you’re looking for any training or consultancy in your setting on anything mentioned in this article, please do contact Lyndsay, our Working Together Lead, on hello@ticservicesltd.com and she will help to support you on your journey.

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