School Avoidance

One of the biggest challenges we face in relation to school as parents, is when our child or young person ‘refuses’ to attend.  I now wish to reframe that sentence as, far from it being a ‘refusal’, so often it is a ‘can’t’.  
Anxiety can become so debilitating that, despite in many cases there being a desire to learn, actually making it though the school door is too much to cope with.

First Day Back

A poem from lived experience, by Julie, an En-Fold mentor/befriender

Every child I pass today looks so smart in their new array
Plaited hair and shiny shoes, meeting friends and sharing news
Mums all chatting,  kids all hyped. It’s really an exciting sight.
I feel the squeeze hard on my hand. My child’s in clothes that are not so grand.
Her uniform still in her room, not today, it's just too soon.
The clothes just hurt and prickled her skin, her shoes too heavy, there was no win.
She tried on lots of clothes in tears, just desperately trying to fight her fears.
Her senses on an absolute high, we take our time and I don’t ask why.
My child made it to school today, oh yes we did it, we're on our way.  
No plaited hair or shiny shoes and nobody asking her her news.
But that’s ok we do stand tall, uniforms are not for all.
Have a look by all means do , yes blue leggings and worn out shoes
But here we are and here we stand as actually she does look grand.
She fights her battles every day and I am with her all the way.
There was no uniform today but tomorrow is another day.


Strategies around emotionally based school avoidance

Sometimes, school can be really supportive and work with parents to look at options, and progress things slowly.  As a general rule school attendance issues related to emotional based school avoidance should not be treated as a parenting issue and professionals working together is certainly in the student’s best interest, creating a student-led support plan.  However, there are many parents that report their child/young person being described as ‘fine in school’.  I have to be completely honest here, as a parent having experienced this description of their daughter; if she was ‘fine’ in school she would not be unable to go in!! Here we once again see the all too frequent perception of females on the Spectrum, as they desperately hold it together, masking and mimicking so they fit in and ‘appear normal’.  

‘Not Fine in School’ is an organisation for and by parents who have experienced some level of school avoidance within their child, and who offer information advice and support.  Their website is definitely worth a look:

It is so hard to know what to do for the best as a parent, and throughout supporting your child through the education system you will be faced with a range of often conflicting advice.  The question I find myself pondering is whether I am doing the right thing by my daughter taking her to school, to have a major peak in anxiety to come home again as it is just too hard, versus knowing that the longer we don’t get through the door the harder it is to get in again.  This is further compounded when other behaviours creep in to enable some control, such as eating issues, and again professionals offer conflicting advice on the best approach.  

An interesting article worthy of a read:

Some of our top tips and thoughts for approaching emotionally based school avoidance:

·      Recognise it early – the sooner you identify the anxiety and start putting in place some strategies, or increasing existing strategies, the better.

·      Develop a clear plan of action between family and professionals – reflect and review regularly on what is working well and what the triggers might be.  Using the Assess, Plan, Do, Review approach will give you evidence to use later should you need to request further support.

·      Social story personal to the child’s school day – If the day has been shortened or a different entrance is being used, make sure you account for that.

·      Gentle transition – recognise that transition can be difficult for those with ASC.  Is there an option of meet and greet where the young person can come into school and regulate before going to class?  Could they bring a transitional object from home into school?

·      Rewards chart – For some this approach may assist but don’t forget in extreme anxiety it is not a behaviour of choice, it is a response to overwhelm.

·       Review the negative experiences physically, emotionally and sensory, but focus more on the positive experiences which may be harder for the young person to identify.  It may be worth asking school to record some positives so you are aware of them at home to reflect on.

·      Designated quiet time out area – A safe space that can be accessed easily (just displaying a card) to allow decompression time.

·      Buddy system – Using a buddy system of friend to offer peer support can be effective as so often our young people don’t want to be noticed, so this can be more subtle than have an adult to support.

·      Ensure access to appropriate emotional wellbeing support – Is there student counselling, or does a referral need to be made to CAMHs or community paediatrician?  There is also the Educational Psychology team who have an emotionally based school avoidance programme they can refer young people to.

·      When at home/off school – Try and maintain the school day routine Mon-Friday – up at the same time, engage in home learning (the school should provide you with this).  Bear in mind that they are off due to high anxiety so regular sensory breaks and ensuring the environment is calm for learning will help. Keep fun activities for after school hours, although getting some fresh air and exercise will be beneficial.

·      Further action – Sometimes the situation doesn’t improve despite the best efforts of the team around the young person.  In these cases, it may be necessary to apply for an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) and think about the right sort of environment for your child to learn in.

Young Minds also have a guide that is worth looking at when supporting a child with difficulties at school:

Finally ...

Remember … you know your child better than anyone else, and your opinion matters. We are very aware of the additional strain that having a school avoider puts on families; from the parents juggling work commitments and attempting to educate their child, to the siblings feeling somewhat put out they are still at school!  

Of course, we must not forget our child/young person, who will be battling with all sorts of feelings.  Not only the anxiety around school itself, but then the guilt and sense of failure for not managing it, the perception of being a burden despite you telling them they are not a hundred times, and the general uncertainty for their future. Our children our brought up knowing the importance of education in becoming a successful adult, even if our message is ‘as long as you do your best that is all that matters’.

Finally, remember to look after yourself.  As cliché as this may be, it is so true (she says writing at 11.35pm due to there not being enough hours in the day!).  I genuinely know how hard it is to find time, having 3 children, as I do, 2 of them with ASC; it is hard to find space to do anything.  In any child-free moment there are 101 jobs that need doing!!  If we don’t look after ourselves then we won’t be able to support our children effectively – make time in the diary for yourself!

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