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A Specialist Teacher’s Top Tips on School Avoidance

I first met Leo(*) in 2022 when his parents sought my help due to his school refusal, which escalated after the Covid lockdowns.

Leo’s parents first suspected something was wrong when he began experiencing frequent tummy aches at home and school. Things worsened when he began vomiting before school. Medical problems were ruled out. Yet Leo continued to withdraw from his interests, becoming increasingly isolated. Eventually, he began to lash out in anger when asked to attend school. After these outbursts, Leo would be inconsolable. He asked his parents ‘what is wrong with me?’. Leo was just seven years old, and he had been in this state for several months when I first met him.

School Refusal is a Growing Problem

Unfortunately, Leo’s situation is not unique. Exact rates of school refusal are difficult to pinpoint. However, reports are that between 2% and 5% of all children experience school refusal. In many countries – including in Australia, the UK, and the US – school refusal has been rising for at least a decade. School refusal can affect a child at any age, but children aged between five and six years old, as well as those aged 10 – 11 years, appear most vulnerable.

As an Independent Teacher, I have also observed the same trend of increasing cases of school refusal and anxiety. More often than not, by the time families contact me, the situation has broken down completely. A mental health worker is usually already involved. These parents have already exhausted all the available school-based options, and are now homeschooling. When I start working with families, I highlight there are four crucial tips that form the basis for resolving school refusal.

Tip 1: Understand That School Refusal is Not a Choice

The term school ‘refusal’ implies that a child is simply choosing not to attend school. In turn, this creates a perception that a school refusing child is simply lazy or spoilt. However, this perspective is incorrect.

School refusal is more than skipping a day because a child simply prefers not to attend. Rather, school refusal is characterised by extreme distress or anxiety associated with attending school. School refusal is not a medical diagnosis. However, it often occurs as a symptom or result of significant medical, mental health, school or social factors. According to the youth mental health organisation, Headspace, these factors can include:

  • anxiety,
  • being in an unsupported or unsafe school setting,
  • changes or transitions,
  • conflicts with teachers,
  • bullying,
  • friendship difficulties or exclusion, and/ or
  • disengagement from learning.

This means that children who refuse school do so because they are experiencing torment, rejection, loneliness, invisibility or fear in the school setting. As Eliza Fricker notes, school refusal does not occur because a child ‘won’t’ attend school. It occurs when they literally can’t attend.

Tip 2: Let Go of Self-Blame

Blaming parents for school refusal has become a predictable and fashionable part of political (and populist) rhetoric.

Even well-meaning professionals and family members can often mirror these parent-blaming approaches. Parents receive abundant advice about how to reward and punish the anxiety out of children, or tips to make home life more boring or unpleasant than school. These strategies are not only ineffective in managing anxiety and school refusal, but can also be harmful in many cases.

Moreover, blaming parents for school refusal is a deeply cruel practice. The shame and guilt only isolates families from effective help. As one anonymous parent aptly pointed out:

…imagine if the situation were reversed and a child was terrified to go home. Would people question what was happening at school, investigate inadequate school routines, and question whether the teacher was “tough enough” to get the child to leave the school grounds? Or would they investigate why the home was so scary for the child?

The same logic applies to school refusal. One of the most important things for parents to understand is that – while they can do things to support their child – school anxiety is not ever a result of faulty parenting. Not ever. It is a complex issue with multifaceted causes.

Tip 3: Focus on What Is Happening at School

I have worked with children and their families for over 30 years. In that time, I have never encountered a single person who genuinely expected school to be a ‘perfect’ place. Children simply need to feel safe and accepted, in order to be able to attend and learn. Safety and belonging are not unreasonable expectations or demands for “perfection”: they are a baseline.

Leo’s school was unable to provide a baseline of either saftey or belonging. Leo was both autistic and gifted. He had to cope with sensory overload almost continuously. To complicate this, he was persistently given work that was years below his ability level. To regulate his daily discomfort, he would slip out to the playground during class. Instead of receiving help, the school punished Leo for leaving the classroom. Eventually, the school did provide noise-cancelling headphones for Leo. However, other children in the class did not understand Leo’s headphones (nor some of his other Autistic traits). They began teasing him mercilessly. As a result, Leo began withdrawing from his classwork, his grades suffered, and Leo began seeing himself as a ‘failure’.

For Leo and hundreds of thousands of other children across the world, school is not merely a ‘less preferred’ activity. Instead, school is place of genuine fear, rejection, and meaningless tasks where aggregated data is prized over children’s authentic learning and belonging. This matters, because unless schools can offer the three core conditions of safety, acceptance and meaning, no amount of tough love will ever alleviate the extreme distress of attending school.

Tip 4: Alternative Approaches to Education Can Help Reduce Refusal

A neuroaffirming mental health practitioner who specialises in child anxiety, trauma, and school refusal can greatly assist children like Leo. Unfortunately, this support may not be easily accessible or culturally safe for every family. Wait lists, costs, or the rarity of skilled practitioners can all reduce accessibility. Moreover, if a child is resistant to engaging with therapy, accessing this sort of support can be even more complicated.

Therefore, the task of helping a school-refusing child often falls to the everyday people already present in the child’s life. Specifically: their parents and teachers. This task involves responding to two needs.

Task 1: Re-establishing the baseline conditions for learning engagement.

The first task is to do whatever it takes to re-establish the child’s sense of safety, belonging, and meaning in the learning process and place. One of the most effective ways to do this is through authentic play. However, this task extends beyond just ‘being nice’ or taking mainstream learning activities and making them ‘fun’ or adapting them to the child’s interests. It has nothing to do with letting a child manipulate, ‘get away with’, or escape the realities of life (although, it can look this way to outsiders in the early stages). Rather, this task is about re-establishing the child’s trust that their baseline needs are going to be met. The child needs us to soak them in the contexts where they feel safe and connected. It also involves noticing what experiences are meaningful to the child, and providing those experiences. Mostly, it involves letting go – at least for the time being – of goals that are centred around standardised curriculum outcomes.

Task 2: Recovering from the trauma.

The second task, involves recognising that a child experiencing school refusal, is almost always a traumatised child. Sometimes, the trauma has been one of the triggers of their school refusal. In other situations the responses to their school refusal has been traumatising. Often, the trauma is both a cause of, and a result of, school refusal. Regardless of its location, trauma is almost always present for school refusing children.

School refusal and trauma are almost inseparable. School refusal itself arises from the loss of safety, belonging and meaning in the learning environment. This transforms to trauma when the child – almost always – inevitably discovers that they have no power to restore those conditions. School refusal is, in essence, a consequence of terror.

This means it is not sufficient to simply re-engage children in learning through supporting safety, belonging and meaning in general terms. It means we must do this through a trauma-informed teaching lens. While this can involve many different elements, from a teaching perspective, it hinges on ensuring the child remains in control of their learning experience.

There is no set formula or fail-safe activity that will restore a child’s sense of control in a learning setting. For example, some children will benefit from total freedom of choice. Others will experience this flexibility as overwhelming, and will instead thrive with smaller range of choices. The critical element is not the activity, but that the activity does not distress the child. In this way, the essential activities (whether at home or in the classroom) are ones that the child can influence in a way that they are able to maintain their own sense of calm and engagement. In the early stages of recovery from school refusal, the child’s state of regulation is, I would argue, the essential consideration.

Leo’s Journey

In many ways, Leo was quite typical of the school refusing children I work with. Most of his ‘educational’ experiences had infrequent and tokenistic opportunities for him to exercise choice. He had even fewer experiences of being listened to by teachers when he did express his needs for safety, belonging or purpose. Therefore, it was not surprising that Leo was not able to communicate his preferences to me when we first started working together. This didn’t mean that he had no preferences or interests. Rather, it meant that had very few skills in expressing his ideas to a teacher, and no real expectation he would be listened to in a meaningful way.

First Steps: Making Room for Preferences

Our initial sessions were very low key. We met twice a week, for half-an-hour, and simply played with Lego. In the early days, I placed no demands on Leo, other than he should simply play in any ways he enjoyed. There was no ‘academic’, ‘compliance’ or ‘executive function’ work hidden in those sessions. I wasn’t trying to ‘trick’ Leo into standardised learning. My only goal was for Leo to gain confidence that I would listen to, and respond to whatever preferences he had. Gradually, Leo decompressed from the more obvious symptoms of his trauma. He became more comfortable expressing some of his simple preferences. For example, some days he wanted to build together. On other days he preferred to build independently, and for me to work separately.

Testing – and Trusting – the Teacher

As we progressed, Leo began to put me to the test. He would ‘take over’ our play, directing me with great detail and rigidity about what I was to build, and how I was to play. In these sessions, I imagined that Leo was really asking me ‘will you still listen?’, and ‘can I really trust you?’. The goal now was to let Leo know that I would always answer ‘yes’ to those questions.

Challenge and Stretch

As Leo’s trust grew, I began to challenge and stretch his desire to control all aspects of our play. Sometimes I would – for example – offer a more structured building challenge or game that was not of Leo’s choosing. Sometimes I would simply not ‘follow’ his directions, and play something different. Some days Leo devoured our challenges and begged for more. On other days I could see him beginning to withdraw at the mere suggestion of sharing control.

As teachers, our noticing of these cues, and our response in these moments goes to the heart of this work. A child who withdraws, becomes disorganised, unsettled, or increasingly seeks control has a clear message. They are saying they do not feel safe, accepted or purposeful. They are telling us they need to be allowed – and supported to – have a different experience. This work doesn’t require us to always have the ‘right’ activity. It requires us to listen, with the most tender of hearts, when a child sys ‘this is not OK for me’.

Leo Today

At the time of writing this, I am still working with Leo. I wish that I could say that there had been a ‘solution’ in which everyone’s lives had returned to ‘normal’. That Leo’s school refusal had become a distant memory for all. Sometimes it does, indeed, work out that way.

However, Leo’s story has gone in a different direction. Leo is now home-schooled full-time. He is no longer depressed, withdrawn and frightened. We continue to meet – now for two hours a week – and Leo has become one of the most voracious learners I have ever met. In our sessions together we cover literacy, maths, science and engineering and art. He both excels in and continues to grow in all of these areas. Outside of our time together Leo attends groups and clubs in his areas of passion: robotics and swimming. In just 16 short months he has emerged as a little boy who is highly motivated to learn. Now eight years old, Leo has all the skills, curiosity and persistence needed to initiate and drive his own learning experiences. And if that is not the point of real education that will last a lifetime, then I don’t know what is.

(*) Leo’s story is included here with his, and his parents’, permission. Names and identifying information have been changed.

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