School refusal stems from emotional distress and anxiety which could be related to a range of issues either at home, school or both. A recent study reveals that 1 in 5 British children experience phobia or school refusal which has shown to be more prevalent in children’s age groups aged 5 – 6 and 10 – 11 years.
The research also revealed that many parents were not aware of the conditions and those who were aware of it, experienced a major lack of information.
School refusal does and can bring about a range of physical challenges and symptoms for the child or young person and these include:
– stomach aches
– joint pains
From a behavioural perspective, the symptoms show up as: tantrums, threats of self harm, crying or angry outbursts. These symptoms are likely to subside once the child feels safe and secure, generally in the home environment and/or once they’ve been allowed to stay at home.
School refusal may be triggered by a number of reasons, children of any age may be refusing to go to school for fear of losing their last remaining parent (or main care giver). Their parents may have separated or they might be a bereaved child and the fear of even more loss, keeps them at home and in a ‘protective role’ and with separation anxiety.
As well as anxiety, other stress related situations at home, school or with peers may also be a trigger for school refusal.
From an emotional perspective, symptoms of school refusal include panic attacks, fearfulness, depression and occurs with both genders.
One of my sons had a change of primary schools and the new primary school that he moved to was a trigger for his school refusal right from the first day of school.
He was evidently emotionally distressed by going to that school, was crying and wouldn’t get dressed in the mornings. He said that the school was too big, which I didn’t understand but his deep reaction and distress to attending that school was more than enough for me to take heed. Within a week he had moved yet again to another primary school and was evidently happier, brighter with smiles all round, which brought about the swift end to his short-lived school refusal.
School refusal and a range of other behaviours from children and young people is merely a form of communication that something is not right. This calls for school staff and parents to look more closely at what is not being said. What is their behaviour telling you?
There is always a reason for children’s behaviour and it is invaluable piece of communication for adults.
How Can You Help Children With School Refusal Behaviour?
Doctors, Parents, Educators, and other professionals can all assist in supporting a child or young person back to school, individually or as a team.
Some ways of helping include:
- Identify whether the behaviour relates to school refusal for reasons such as those above or whether it relates to truancy. The distinction between the two generally lies on the child’s focus and/or interest in their school work once their anxiety or fear of school attendance and other related symptoms have subsided. That is, how do they behave once they feel safe and secure at home? Do they focus on their school work or is there a total dis-interest and general negative attitude towards school? Another distinction is the extent of their emotional distress relating to attending school versus being indifferent about school attendance.
- Explore best possible options of moving the child towards re-entering the school environment as quickly as possible, yet in a supportive manner. This could include making changes, where possible, to conditions at home which might be triggering the school refusal and engendering collaborative approach between parents, doctor, school and mental health professional/therapist. As some of the presenting symptoms are physical, it is important to involve physicians who may also be able to make referrals to relevant therapists.
- Research has shown cognitive behaviour therapy to be particularly beneficial and successful in helping pupils to manage their mindsets, depression and returning to school.
- Parental involvement to improve school attendance has also shown to be helpful.
- Undertake proper preparation at school for the pupil to be re-integrated and positively supported back into the normal school environment
- Foster on-going parent-school communication, collaboration and joint support of the child.
- Planned, gradual, assisted exposure to the school environment
- Relaxation remedies including visualisation.
- Positive reinforcements relating to school environment and attendance.