School Attendance and Pupil Welfare

Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) Support

It is important to note that not all individuals who show non-attendance or anxiety will experience EBSA.

What is EBSA?

Emotionally-based school avoidance (EBSA) is used to describe children and young people (CYP) who find it difficult to attend school due to emotional factors, mainly feelings of fear and anxiety. These factors can lead to long periods of school absence. It is important to implement support as soon as possible, as the longer the concerns are not addressed the more difficult it can become to change avoidance behaviours. Approximately 1-5% of young people are out of school due to EBSA. However, literature suggests the prevalence including pupils who are in-school but may not be attending all lessons is not yet known.

Signs of EBSA

You may notice some behaviour or physiological changes in the CYP that may be signs of EBSA. These may be particularly noticeable on Sunday evenings and before school.

These could include:

  • Worrying that increases when they are due to attend school.
  • Expressing negative thoughts or concerns about school e.g. coping with schoolwork, being judged by teachers or peers, being different to everyone else, something bad happening at school of they attend etc.
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches.
  • Symptoms of anxiety such as dizziness, nausea, shaking, increased heart rate, butterflies in their stomach, ringing in ears etc.
  • Difficultly falling asleep at night and getting out of bed in the morning
  • Being distracted or difficulties concentrating.
  • May appear short-tempered or fearful, especially when discussing school.

Anxiety and EBSA

Anxiety is a physiological response to potential threat and can feel quite scary. We need to support our CYP to recognise the early signs of anxiety and develop relaxation techniques or strategies so that they can manage their feelings.

A little anxiety or stress can be a positive thing as it motivates us to do things such as prepare for an exam. We actually perform better when we experience some challenge as it makes us more alert and task-focused. However, when the challenge outweighs our coping, and the anxiety builds to the point that we are feeling overwhelmed, this impairs our thinking and ability to reason rationally and cope with the challenges that life throws at us. This is a cumulative effect and it can then take just one stressor to ‘tip us over the edge’ to a point where we feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.

People can experience anxiety in different ways. The following feelings can be experienced individually or simultaneously:

  • Dizzy, lightheaded, or can’t concentrate
  • Tunnel vision
  • Blushing cheeks
  • Dry mouth
  • Difficulty breathing / swallowing
  • Tense muscles
  • Heart racing
  • Sweating, feeling like throwing up, diarrhoea
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • The need to urinate
  • Trembling / shaking
  • Feet running

When anxiety and EBSA is linked, the young person is likely to experience anxious and fearful thoughts around attending school or the ability to cope with school work. This leads the CYP to attempt to avoid the overwhelming feelings and situation that is invoking the anxiety and they will withdraw, possibly by refusing to get ready for school/leaving home or not entering the school. The CYP  could also present hostile behaviours in order to not only avoid the situation but feel as they have some control over a very ‘out-of-control’ situation (Thambirajah et al., 2008). The avoidance of thinking about or attending school is likely to reduce anxiety and create a sense of relief, which can lead into a cycle that maintains EBSA overtime, as described further below.

The EBSA cycle is the idea that the CYP’s anxious feelings about school could lead to increased school avoidance. This can be due to negative thoughts about school and the CYP’s own ability to cope, possibly leading to the avoidance of the situation evoking the anxiety, and the relief felt as a result. The potential immediate reduction in anxiety could also lead to increased school avoidance, where the anxious feelings around school are reinforced.

As a result of this cycle, the CYP may also experience additional difficulties: school avoidance may result in falling behind in school work, loss of friends and increasing isolation. In turn, this can increase the anxiety felt around school and emphasise the pleasurable activities available at home, therefore decreasing the CYP’s motivation to attend school.

Autism and EBSA

It is important to note that not all individuals with Autism will experience EBSA.

Feelings of anxiety are commonly regarded as an integral part of Autism. Anxiety may worsen during adolescence, as children face increasingly more complex social interactions and often become more aware of their differences and interpersonal difficulties. The world can seem very unpredictable and a confusing place to people with autism. Additionally, being out of school could possibly become the young person’s new routine. The desire for maintaining this routine could lead to the young person spending more time out of school. Sensory processing differences may also be a contributing factor to feelings of EBSA for young people with Autism.


Acknowledgments to Conwy’s local authority and West Sussex EBSA Guide


ID: 11563, revised 15/05/2024