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How to Identify and Support Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) in Students

Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) or Emotionally Based School Non-attendance (EBSNA) is when a young person experiences a negative emotional reaction around attending school. This can start gradually e.g. complaining of a sore stomach on days when they have PE, but can quickly develop to a point where a young person finds it very hard to set foot in school.

So how do you tell the difference between EBSA and truancy?

A young person who is truanting will often be outside of the house when they are not in school, meeting up with friends or doing more sociable activities and are often involved in anti-social behaviours. Young people experiencing EBSA tend to be at home during the time of day they are supposed to be in school.

The key difference is what is usually described as an extreme emotional reaction around attending school. Though this may begin as a stomach ache (as described above) it can lead to children and young people displaying more physically that they are too anxious to attend school e.g. inconsolable crying or not being able to leave the house. They may also find other aspects of everyday life challenging too.

How does it feel to experience EBSA?

When I deliver training I liken EBSA to a phobia. Imagine your biggest fear… Mine is claustrophobia (a fear of small spaces), to the point that I have always felt very anxious about getting in lifts. I would avoid them whenever possible. However, when I visited New York it was a bit of a non-negotiable, it was ‘take the lift or climb 54 flights of stairs’, and I'm no mountaineer! So that week I became more used to using lifts. I developed strategies to help calm me down before and whilst I was in them. Once I got back to the UK however, the old anxiety around them crept back in, to the point where I will now, more often than not, avoid them again.

If we bring this back to being in school, EBSA can develop gradually or quickly. For some young people it occurs after a prolonged period of absence, such as long school holidays or a physical illness. In that time the young person has not needed to use the strategies they used to use to help them get through the school day. This can make school appear more and more overwhelming. They will often find it challenging to go back as all the worries about attending have built up; e.g. catching up on work, friendships, school being too loud, finding it hard to concentrate. 

The longer the young person successfully avoids school the harder it is for them to return as what we call maintenance factors also begin to take hold e.g. if they have missed work then they feel that they won’t catch up or they will have missed out on common experiences with friends. We call this the cycle of avoidance and the longer a young person is able to avoid attending school the harder it can be to go back. 

How can I support a young person experiencing EBSA?

My first suggestion is to gain knowledge and understanding in the topic. Numerous local authority Educational Psychology services have created packs going into detail about what EBSA is and how you can support young people experiencing it. Below are a few examples:


  • Talk to the young person about what they are finding challenging in school (there are examples of how to do this in the above packs as often that question alone is challenging to answer).

  • Talk to school staff who are supporting the young person, explain that they are showing signs of EBSA type behaviours and ask if you can discuss ways to support them; often some small tweaks in the early stages can make a massive difference in the long term.

Take away 

Through my work supporting young people with EBSA, the biggest challenge they face is when adults supporting them agree on a certain time for them to go home (e.g. 12:30). However, when that time comes, the adults may perceive the young person to be calm and will call home to ask if they can stay longer. This is understandable as the young person appears to be having a nice time in school. Unfortunately though, it often leads to them not attending the next day as they have lost their trust in the adults around them because they did not do as they said they would. If we relate that to the phobia again, if someone said I would be in a lift for 5 minutes but left me there for 10 because I looked calm, I would not be getting in another lift any time soon. 

Educational Psychologist

Dr Vicky Mullan BSc (Hons) PGCE DEdPsych

You can find more details about our EBSA service using the link below.

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