• Depression;
  • school refusal;
  • adolescence;
  • schoolchildren;
  • attention;
  • information processing;
  • memory;
  • assessment

We investigated semantic and emotional priming of lexical decision-making in 20 school refusers and 20 attenders aged 11–16 years, matched for sex and reading ability. We hypothesised that: semantic and emotional priming would be demonstrable in both samples; and that the school refusers would show emotional priming of school-related words to aversive primes. Both samples showed semantic priming; emotional priming was shown by the attenders and 11 school refusers without a history of depression. School-refusing children did not show emotional priming for school-related words. Nine school-refusing children with either current or past depression showed a general reduction in their priming. These results show that both semantic and emotional priming can be detected in this age-range. They do not support school refusal being typically associated with anxiety about school. The reduction in priming in those with a depressive history is similar to inhibition in information processing in depressed adults. Priming is therefore sensitive to at least some psychiatrically relevant states or traits in this age-range. It is concluded that priming could be a useful measure of information processing in this age-group, and further research is warranted.