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The Richmond upon Thames School

The Richmond upon Thames School

Excellence Through Endeavour

Emotionally Related School Avoidance

Emotionally Related School Avoidance (ERSA)

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling of fear or impending disaster. It involves the thoughts, behaviour and bodily reactions a person has when they are presented with an event or situation that they feel they cannot manage or undertake successfully. Anxiety is a psychological (in our thoughts), behavioural (what we do or don’t do) and physiological (physical) state. 

Fear, anxiety or worry is such a normal part of our human experience that we rarely stop and think about it. In fact, lower levels of anxiety (or higher ones that are temporary) are useful to us as stress responses linked to survival. Anxiety can be thought of as an emotional marker for an event which has caused us harm or near harm, and thereby reminds us to avoid similar situations in the future. Anxiety helps prepare and mobilise the body for fight, flight or freeze by releasing a quick burst of the chemical adrenalin that produces extra energy, more muscle power and speeds up our thinking. 

Everybody experiences feelings of anxiety. It is a normal and natural reaction to something which is seen as threatening. However, when anxiety moves beyond short-lived experiences and begins to interfere with everyday life, we need to understand what is happening. When this happens, especially with socialising or going to school, it is given various names like: ‘anxiety disorder’, ‘social phobia’, ‘agoraphobia’, ‘school phobia’ or ‘school refusal’. 

These difficulties are surprisingly common, with Young Minds (2013) identifying that at any one time, one in six young people will experience significant anxiety. That equates to five pupils in an average class of 30.

Anxiety can be seen as having four main parts:


This may involve a feeling of overwhelming fear. Often when dealing with anxiety, it is also common to have feelings of anger, sadness, shame or guilt. 


This includes physiological experiences such as nausea, sweating, shaking, dry mouth and the need to go to the toilet. 

Cognitive (anxious thoughts) 

This may include detailed mental pictures of an awful event, or it may be a thought that the person cannot cope or is not good enough. 


This includes everything from refusing to speak to running away or self-harm.  

Why does ERSA happen?

ERSA is typically associated with emotional symptoms that often manifest behaviourally. There is often no single cause of ERSA. Researchers believe that there is likely to be a combination of factors which put a child or young person at risk of non-attendance due to anxiety. Below is a list of some of the potential factors known to be involved across different contexts (school, family, within child). When risk factors outweigh protective factors, then children and young people can be at risk of school avoidance. However, it is important to note that whilst there are identified risk factors, children and young people can experience these issues without developing ERSA. 

Each child’s or young person’s risk and resilience is defined by their individual context. It can also be helpful to think of different types of risk factors according to when they occur:

predisposing factors: those that make anxiety more likely to develop 

precipitating factors: those relating to things that have happened recently 

perpetuating factors: those that are likely to maintain anxiety 

Achieving for Children (AfC) have provided an ERSA information guide for parents and carers, please click on the link below to download the guide.

ERSA information for parents and carers