How to tackle school refusal

You get a sick feeling when the alarm goes off on Monday morning.  It's not the first alarm, the one that has you crawling out of bed.  No, this is the reminder to wake your child for school.  The child who doesn't really want to go.  You climb the stairs, take a deep breath, and enter.  Using a calm and positive voice you tell him the time and ask him to get up.  He simply tugs the duvet over his head.  But you know that this could mean anything.  So you try again in 10 minutes.  Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes the dance continues until the school bus has been and gone, and then you taste that feeling of bitter failure once again.  Mornings like these are guaranteed to make most parents feel helpless, hopeless and useless.

Your child will be feeling miserable too.  True school refusal is nothing to do with your child being naughty or bold, but more to do with fear and anxiety.   They know you want them to go to school and they may want to go themselves, but they just can't.

When your child isn't coping, you're both dealing with school refusal every single morning.  As a parent the same questions got through your mind every time:  Will he go to school today?  What should I say today?  Should I try something new?  Why is nothing working?  What am I missing?  It's very easy to blame yourself.  To wonder what you could have done differently.  And you live with that guilt all day.  It stares you in the face every time you look at your child who should be in school.

Few statistics are available, but there is some evidence that school refusal tends to start or worsen during the teenage years.  Anecdotally it seems that some teenagers blossom when they begin secondary school, while for others the combination of additional demands, lack of understanding and the uncertainties of puberty prove too much.  And school refusal does seem to be more common among teenagers on the autism spectrum.  They face so many potential difficulties in secondary school: from their hatred of homework, to sensory overwhelm, not understanding instructions, and the lack of supervision in corridors and school yards.

Many teachers in mainstream schools are interested, aware and open to accommodating pupils on the autism spectrum.  But some are not.  Some appear to believe that providing a special needs assistant magically removes all additional needs.  Or they may believe that it is better for the child to be treated the same as everyone else and not be marked out as "different".

There are no easy answers.  How each family tackles school refusal will depend on the family dynamic, how the child's school operates and whether there are any alternatives.  The following is what I've learned so far, and I'd love to add to it, if you have any thoughts.

Options for when your child is off school


1. Deny access to consoles and computers for the duration of the school day, except for supervised educational purposes.  The child may accept and understand this as he realises that he should be learning during the hours that he is supposed to be in school.

2. Make life at home boring. Some parents have solved school refusal by making time off school dull and demanding, insisting that their child does school work and chores.  But not every child on the spectrum responds well to demands and consequences.  Sometimes it's about easing your child back into school in a way that suits them.

3. Spend the time with your child, doing agreed activities and hopefully they will begin to feel less anxious and you will have the opportunity to find out what is really bothering them.

How to help your child go back to school


If your aim is to get your child back into school, then sooner is better than later.  Your child is missing out on their education and the longer the absence, the harder it is to go back.  The fear of being asked why you were out and trying to catch up with what you missed is added to the fear of school itself.  For parents each day of school refusal means that plans have to be changed, jobs and appointments deferred and employment becomes almost impossible.  Yet when you're all stuck in the moment, days or even weeks can pass by with little progress.

1. Sometimes the solution can be found in standard autism strategies such as reassuring picture schedules that show each step of the morning routine or a reward chart to encourage school attendance.

2. If your child has already missed more than the legally allowed number of absences a year then it can be a good idea to contact your local school attendance service (TUSLA in Ireland) and explain the situation - and they may be able to provide some help too.

3. Teenagers may have specific reasons why they are refusing to go to school, and may not go back unless these can be addressed.  Working with your child may be the way to solve the problem: my favourite method is in The Explosive Child, and any family can benefit from using the techniques in this book, not just families living with special needs.

4. You've probably already been in contact with the school and your child's service provider, but once you know what is really bothering your child, then you can hopefully agree a plan for them to return to school with the supports or changes that they need to feel comfortable again.  I'm discovering just how many school rules can be broken or bent if you ask the right people in the right way.

Of course sometimes the school-related problems are so great that a return is not possible or school refusal becomes so chronic that there seems to be no way to ensure consistent attendance.  But your child is entitled to an education and there are alternatives.  Here is Ireland they include home tuition, home education or finding a more suitable school (which is a lot harder than it sounds).  There are also outside agencies that can help such the Middletown Centre for Autism.

School refusal is both complex and head wrecking for everyone involved, and the stories I've heard would easily fill a book, but that's for another day.  Wishing you the very best if it something that affects your child.



NOTE:

The following is a very important comment from one reader who found the first two options harsh:

“I’m scared that some people will continue punishing their children for school refusal when the issues are far bigger than they realise, and I'm scared some of these children will feel NO-ONE is listening to them and will take their own life. This isn't being overly dramatic, sadly I've had to try and help several families whose children have committed suicide, so I take the CHILD'S cry for help very seriously here, and it's the PARENTS' responsibility to listen to their child.

I feel a loving, listening approach is a better place to come from than a banning, grounding one.

Sadly some people out there don't seem ready or possibly able to take responsibility, and many deeply distressed children may be faced with equal hostility and stress from their own parents which can lead to them feeling there's only one way out. Ireland has the highest number of suicides of young adults between the ages of 15-22 in the whole of Europe, and I feel the way the education system is, is a part of that.”

This is Part 1 in a series about school refusal, click on the links below to read the other posts:

Part 2: What Every Parent Needs to Know About School Refusal

Part 3: Alternatives to School for Teenagers.







42 comments:

  1. Or make your kid go to school. It IS possible.

    Your kid WOULD be going to school daily had you not chosen to indulge his whims. School isn't and shouldn't be optional!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sure it is possible, but if you MAKE your child go to school, they may end up angry, resentful and rebellious. As well as having low self esteem. That's what that kind of control did to me when I was growing up.

      Delete
    2. Suzanne when your child is physically sick at the thought of going to school, when his special needs teacher tells him he needs to break his arm to get help from his SNA, when the other kids bully him....the list is long. Make your child go to school? I don't think so.

      Delete
    3. I am currently going through this with my 6 year old son who has ASD. His anxiety is very real. He has bee in some form of education since the age of 2.5 and has always loved learning. I do not "indulge his whims". I listen to him as his true advocate, love him unconditionally and work my ass off to make things better for him. As we say in Ireland "I hope it stays fine for you".

      Delete
    4. Thanks for your comments and support, magnumlady and anonymous

      Delete
    5. Suzanne, Do you have a child with autism? Or stress/anxiety issues? Do the teachers treat him with kindness and respect or belittle him and put him down. Do they call you to pick him up 3-4 times per week because he was intentionally bullied and made fun of, called names, picked on, had items stolen from his desk, ganged up on in the school yard by a group of kids? Do the teachers stop the other children from bullying him? Do they include your child or seclude him? My child suffered torment and abuse and could not go to school. Make him? Recipe for self harm/suicide waiting to happen. My child wanted to die! After many unresolved issues from school, I removed him from school all together and home schooled as they were unwilling to accept that he had special needs and were not able to keep him safe. My child is very smart, he has high functioning autism and is gifted. His special needs are social and communication and other children find him a bit different so he was a big a target for others who are just plain mean, cruel and heartless. I could not be so heartless to "make him go to school" Fast forward a year and a half later, the school board has done all of the necessary assessments and he is now going to a school where his needs are met. There are a team of dedicated, caring teachers and school staff who make him feel like he matters and they do not let anyone hurt him in any way. Had I made him go to school it would have caused serious perhaps irreparable damage to him. We must support our children and advocate for them. We must find the reason why our child does not want to go to school and help them fix it!

      Delete
    6. I am truly shocked at the narrow minded response from Suzanne. I guess she's lucky that she's got the perfect children, or that she is the perfect parent - or maybe both together? School refusal is a real issue for so many families (particularly those who have children with PDA) and suggesting that it is just because the parents are not being strict enough just shows how uneducated she really is. Maybe Suzanne would like to go away and read The Explosive Child to broaden her mind, or discover The PDA Society website at www.pdasociety.org.uk.

      Delete
    7. I don't even know *how* you would force a child to school who really didn't want to go, once they've reached a certain size and strength. I mean once they're too big to physically pick up you have to rely on persuasion or punishment. You can only persuade or punish a child if there is something that matters more to them than staying out of school. We're talking about the sort of situation where the feelings about school are *so* strong that there's pretty much nothing you can bargain with.

      I only got my son to settle to school once he was old enough to realise that studying itself had something to give him. Once he started to realise he could do things if he studied that he couldn't do if he dropped out, that eventually became the thing that persuaded him. But it took forever!

      Delete
    8. Thanks Cheryl, Steph and JuliesMum: I agree that force is not the answer, persuasion is. And it's much more likely to lead to positive results in school x

      Delete
  2. Great blog...Suzanne anxiety isn't a whim and if only it were that easy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Una, and I totally agree about anxiety x

      Delete
  3. Good post and thanks for the link. However, I have to respond to Suzanne and say that in some cases it is NOT about indulging a child's whims. Forcing an autistic and very anxious child into school doesn't always work. It can create even more anxiety to the point that they can develop agoraphobia or other difficulties. Much better, in my experience, taking it step by step and building up their confidence. Even then school doesn't always work and alternatives have to be found but whatever you do emotional and mental wellbeing is so important because without that how can we expect our young people to learn? Deb

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for your brilliant response fo Suzanne's comment, Deb x

      Delete
  4. Great and very helpful post for many, I'm sure. I read up on this quite a lot when my middle child was going through anxieties. Although she appears to be in a good patch at the moment, she really dislikes school. I can't imagine her ever actually refusing but I am sure that the parents who are coping with a 'school refuser' would have said the same. What a tough thing to go through - both for the parents and the child.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment Suzanne, and your absolutely right, it's one of those problems that most parents don't think will happen in their family x

      Delete
  5. Insightful and informative post Blue Sky. I'm sure it is helpful to other parents experiencing this difficult situation to at least now that they are not alone.

    Suzanne (the first one) I know it really seems that parents in this situation are 'giving in' to their children by keeping them home. But to make the comment you just did signifies your lack of understanding, knowledge and empathy with children anywhere on the Autistic Spectrum who suffer (and I really so mean suffer) with anxiety. Sadly there are some teachers who think similarly too but I am hopeful they are in the minority. Teenagers self esteem, especially those with SN, are very, very fragile.....

    I don't have this issue with my son but I do have others and the answer (or part of the answer) is ALWAYS to listen to your child, let him/her express his concerns and plan together how to address the concern. Well, it's a starting point at least and the child feels that ONE PERSON hears him.... 'get's' him. xx


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Our children do not 'suffer' with autism, but yes they do 'suffer' with anxiety, such an important point to make. And I agree with listening to your child - I just wish I'd know all this stuff years ago xx

      Delete
  6. Such an important topic to bring up and talk about. I really feel for you and your son, Blue Sky. The teenager years are very tricky... doubly more so when you throw in autism and anxiety. Thinking of you both. xx

    ReplyDelete
  7. What an excellent post. My niece has Down's Syndrome and sometimes goes through this. I am forwarding it to her family now. xxx

    ReplyDelete
  8. As an autistic high school student, I've haven't really had a school refusal issue. However, I'd say to look for patterns in the absences and listen--really listen--about the issue. It could be the pattern of fire drills, a bully that shows up every so often, or a bad teacher.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for this - I really appreciate your comment and advice.

      Delete
  9. I live every day with the knowledge that my youngest girl (ASD/PDA) could refuse school; it's been like this ever since school started for her at the age of 4. I count my lucky stars every single day when she has gone in, knowing that if she really hated it, I would not be able to make her. Conversely, I know that I COULD make my eldest, typically developing girl attend school every day, whether she would thank me for it or not. There IS a difference, but sadly those who don't take the time to listen to others will never understand it, and never teach their own children how to be truly accepting of others xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hopefully if we talk and write and share on social media, more people WILL understand. Thanks for your comments and support Steph xx

      Delete
  10. An education isn't much use to someone whose mental health is severely challenged by school.

    My daughter is home-schooled after refusing to go to school. I was not willing to use physical force on another human being, every day, in order to get her into school. I am not willing or able to dominate another human being to that extent. I much prefer that her distress finally forced me to listen to her and trust her, and also to trust myself to know what is best for her.I was not able to cope with her meltdowns every afternoon and evening.

    Who says school is such a wonderful thing? I think we need to question our institutions much more than we do...schools, the media, the government, the banking system, all the institutions that make daily life happen, but that can also cause great damage.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that using physical force on children is almost always a bad idea (unless you're pushing them out of the way of an advancing car). And I agree that more people need to question all of our institutions, what they do and what they are for. Thanks for your comment x

      Delete
  11. Thank you so much to everyone who has read and commented here so far, I never expected so much interest: I had no idea how many people are affected by this issue. I know that some of you are not happy with what I've written, but at least I seem to have started a debate and that can only be a good thing xx

    ReplyDelete
  12. Can I also add that I no longer ban consoles or make the day boring. I was initially advised to try this by the 'education experts' but I soon realised that my son was too ill to respond to this. In hindsight I think my son had developed PTSD as a result of his schooling. Unfortunately the psychiatrist didn't recognise this and diagnosed him with severe anxiety. Even so, it was quite clear he was too unwell to respond to the strategies mentioned above and that it was a case of removing demands (including talking about anything to do with school), setting up a basic routine of getting up, eating and sleeping and providing time to rest. For my son, he lost his ability to talk and spent weeks/months watching chuggington but slowly with the help of medication and time to recover he started to find confidence to leave the house. I'm not going to deny that it was really hard work and some days/months I felt we would never get there but we did and now (six years later) he is in mainstream college studying IT. I am immensely proud of him. Now I'm going through a similar thing with my daughter who, in many ways, is suffering much more because of the lack of understanding of females with aspergers. She too appears traumatised as a result of her earlier education and again I'm having to focus on building her health up first. Its hard because as parents we are under pressure to educate our children but really we have to resist this pressure and focus on our children's health first. Its hard though; even second time I feel stressed at times and wonder whether my daughter will ever feel well enough to try formal education again. for now though; her health and happiness come first. Deb x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your wise words once again Deb, and yes I am aware of other children who have been traumatised by school, something I would never have believed possible even five years ago. Glad that your son is doing better and I really hope that your daughter will be following in his footsteps soon x

      Delete
  13. Thanks so much for this. I'm feeling very stressed today as we've headed back into another run of school refusal this week (before midterm!) and my fourteen year old son is at 29 days off school. There is no way you can force a teenager who is stronger and bigger than you to get up for school. Your description of the stress morning after morning and going up every 10 mins with a gentle and calm approach (usually) is just so apt, it's overwhelming at times. I have three other children who are affected by the shenangans (and made late for school) every morning. This last run came on the back of something that is bothering him (he admitted to this as he was generally being beligerent and hostile but he won't tell me what it is.) The best approach is a softly, softtly, hands OFF approach at times. We researched and brought him to the open days of other schools who have a better approach to Aspergers but he wasn't interested in having to travel (he wouldn't make it in time anyway!) I try not to let it get to me but the stress has definitely taken it's toll on the whole family. I don't think home schooling would work for him as his interests are narrow and I can't see him motivating himself towards a broader education. (He also thinks Wiki is the font of all knowledge) and would not take direction from me (v dogmatic). He and we (parents) have attended mental health services but they have been very poor and could offer no direct intervention with him (just parent support). He now is too embarressed etc to avail of any outside help (learning support team, psychologists etc). I find the lack of support services in general very difficult. Sorry for the long post, it's a trying time but I'm so glad you posted this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for your comment: it's why I keep doing this, and I'm so glad that this post was helpful to you x

      Delete
    2. I realise the replies on this are almost a year old!But maybe someone will see this.We have been going through this horror for the past 9 months.My son who has just turned 16 was diagnosed with asd(mild aspergers)last May.He did his Junior Cert the following month and his results were very good.It was extremely challanging to even get him to sit the exams but I managed it.I've spent my morning here ringing around educational boards to try and see where he can go from here.Hopeless is the word for it,it's like they've never came up against this situation before.He is getting a little better with sleeping and his appetite is returning but over Christmas he couldn't sleep for 3 days at a time and then on the 3Rd day he hit complete burnout and slept for 20hours straight.It's hard to understand are these traits of Aspergers or is it something else maybe depression but his mood is generally good.Such a change in my son in the last year.I miss him:-(

      Delete
  14. Hi there, I'm so sorry to read your post. I'm thinking that school refusal is one of those hidden problems that no-one talks about. But I have heard many similar stories to yours now. please contact me by email if you wish, and there's also a great Facebook group that might be able to help you: https://www.facebook.com/groups/schoolphobiarefusal/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the reply:-) .I will look up the Facebook group.It is definitely more common then we think.It's nice to be able to write it down,makes it seem clearer.

      Delete
  15. Hi, I'm a single mother of two boys 9 and 6. My 9year old just got diagnosed with Aspergers a week ago today. I'm still trying to get my head around things. I feel that because he's so smart the school isn't taking this serious enough. Told me that there's no way he'll get a SNA and for me to forget that idea ever happening. Life at home is hard and I've never said that to anyone. I have to repeat myself upto 6 times about one thing to my son. Its like talking to a wall. Yes he was bullied in school. I'm tired every night and I'm too tired at the weekends to go out. Is this normal. Now my ex-husband wants to get a second opinion. But since I've looked up Aspergers it all makes sense to me about my son. I'm thinking strongly about taking my son out of school and move him to a better one. Any advice would be appreciated xxxx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi there, thank you for your comment, and for asking for help. I'm no expert, just another mum. I get everything you say, and it resonates with me, including your description of how you feel. It's very hard at times.

      On the school thing, sometimes finding the right school can make all the difference. There are primary schools out there with asperger units, and one of them might suit your son. I did my own research but officially you are supposed to contact your local SENO.

      I would say the best place for advice would be one of the Facebook Autism groups e.g. Autism Mommies or Autism Mamai. Email me at stilllookingforbluesky@gmail.com if I can help any further and the best of luck xxxx

      Delete
  16. Nobody can help.I've went through this with my 16 year old son and now my 10 year old is showing similar signs.It's torture everyday and no one can help.I've tried everything

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sorry to read this, it sounds like life is very difficult indeed for you and your children. I do agree that often outside help doesn't actually help: almost everything that has made a difference here has come from me changing the way I do things. Wishing you the very best xx

      Delete
  17. Thank you for your kind words.We are a lot better then we were this time last year when my son first got diagnosed with high functioning asd(he's 16 and a half now).But unfortunately he never returned to school and would still get very fixated on certain things..but his future is looking brighter he has a course lined up and he's very talented creative wise.The meltdowns have eased though which is a good thing,I think that's down to the way I handle the situations now.To the single Mum who posted with the two boys,It took me a full year to come to terms with my son's diagnosis and I still have days were I get very sad,but it will get better.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad it is getting better for you xx

      Delete