The do’s and don’ts of supporting a child with school based anxiety (aka school refusal)

Firstly I have deliberately framed ‘school refusal’ in this way because it is often forgotten that this is what it is – an anxiety (and even, at its worst, a phobia) at least in the vast majority of cases. When you frame it in this way you can see how ridiculous the way it is often dealt with by punishment or reward, threatening parents with prosecution or encouraging parents to forcibly drag children into school. If a child is afraid, even terrified how is any of this going to help? Much more likely it will make things even worse.

The best way I can explain it is by explaining my phobia of deep water. You see as a child I was anyways worried around deep water and at primary time was taken to improve my confidence and I was allowed to swim with my head up out of the water. When I went on to secondary my teacher was discussed at how far I’d been allowed to fall behind in my swimming. For some reason she thought it would be a good idea for me to jump off the diving board into 20 ft of water to improve my swimming! She then proceeded to offer me a pole to hang on to and as I reached for it she moved it. The whole experience was traumatic. It left me with a phobia and huge suspicion of my swimming teacher, I did all I could to get out of swimming after that,

As I got older I have learnt I am ok with deep water as long as I know where the shallower part or edge is, I have improved my confidence. School refusal often ends up with the equivalent of throwing a child into that diving pool day after day and expecting their fears to lessen when instead they know what’s coming and the fight and flight increases, trust and mental health is damaged. Changing the environment to a more safe and friendly one and building trust and starting small is like reassuring that phobic child it will be more of a paddling pool this time and proving it, so in the process building confidence and trust with supporting adults. All too often the ‘metaphorical‘ pool never changes and neither do the relationships around it, the emphasis for change remains firmly with the child.

My own son’s school refusal (or should I say school based anxiety) became so bad he was put into an interventions service at 9 and eventually was unable to engage in formal education so I now home educate him. I have at one time or another tried pretty much everything and so I can see the things that went wrong, the things that worked a bit for a while or may of worked if I had understood sooner. I certainly understand what does not work and only makes thing much worse! So here are my dos and don’ts for parents struggling to support their children through school refusal.

Don’ts

  • Don’t be fobbed of when you raise concerns about school anxiety
  • Don’t forcibly drag your child to school.
  • Don’t offer rewards and consequences.
  • Don’t feel pressured by school and pass that pressure on to your child.
  • Don’t expect things to change unless the causes of the anxiety are dealt with.
  • Don’t accept that your child is ‘fine’ in school if you feel they are not.
  • Don’t be afraid to go over the persons head you are currently dealing with.

Dos

  • Do talk to the school at the first sign of this happening
  • Do ask yourself, the school and your child what might be triggering this.
  • Do keep the preparation for school and journey to school as calm as possible.
  • Do have a daily communication diary between you and the school to record what is happening.
  • Do take your child to a GP and ask them to sign your child off with anxiety if needed.
  • Do keep in regular contact with the school (daily if necessary) about any problems.
  • Do email referring to conversations and clarify what’s been said so you have a written record.
  • Do ask the school what they are doing to make the classroom less anxiety inducing.
  • Do insure your child is given the opportunity to create strong trusting relationships with adults at school.
  • Do consider trying different morning routines when arriving at school.
  • Do check sensory triggers around uniform and in the classroom.
  • Do give a space safe for your child to talk about any issues at school.
  • Do think outside of the box and look for alternative solutions.
  • Do acknowledge that you know how hard it is for them to go into school.

Some strategy suggestions for school

  • First and foremost address any unmet SEND and have the paperwork and training in place to back that up. Insure any known SEND with an EHCP is appropriate and being followed by all staff correctly.
  • Use already existing trusted relationships to give the child confidence whether that be a peer, a TA, particular teacher, counsellor or whoever.
  • Buddy the child up ideally with a trusted friend.
  • Have a buddy and or trusted member of staff come out and meet the child outside the school building and give them a chance to relax before entering.
  • Rule out the possibility of bullying being the trigger in pupils and staff.
  • Rejig the seating plan so the child can feel safe and comfortable both in terms of the people around them and their environment. Involve the child and or parent or TA
  • Use child’s interests to build trusting relationships with other adults.
  • Use a trusted adult to introduce new potential trusted adults.
  • Give the child an escape route. A table near the door and a timeout card for example.
  • Make sure all adults dealing with the child are on the same page and up to date with the child’s plan/EHCP.
  • Try giving the child a position of power/responsibility. Some times being the one in charge of the register or the one who listens to the younger children read for example can build confidence and a sense of belonging.
  • Be led by the child. Do not try and force the child to do more as soon as they can do one thing. For example if they are managing an hour in school don’t try and push it to two rather try and engage them so much they want to stay longer and let them quit while they are ahead. This will build confidence and enthusiasm for returning the next day.
  • Don’t make a big thing of it if a child returns to school after a break and discourage children in the class from doing so. It can be overwhelming so friendly but understated welcome may be better.
  • Relax uniform policy for the child if they have sensory issues.
  • Don’t draw attention to a child who comes in late, this can be off putting for them and they have made it in after all.

I guess really what I am saying to parents and school staff is that the anxiety is just the symptom. Whether it be unmet SEND, lack of trusting relationships, the school environment triggering sensory issues, all areas need to be looked at and changed accordingly. If nothing much changes in the about the school experience nothing much will change (at least for the positive) about the child’s anxiety around going in, you need to look at the whole picture.

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