Understanding School Refusal: Supporting Students with School Phobia
Before we begin, it’s important to clarify that the term’ school refusal’ is not a helpful one. Usually, it is not a child’s conscious decision to ‘refuse’ to attend, but more that they simply feel unable to for a variety of reasons. That’s why the term ‘school phobia’ is increasingly being used.
Supporting students who are school phobic is hugely difficult for everyone involved. The parents are struggling to understand what is going on for their child, and how to make things better. The teachers are trying to support their student whilst still meeting their educational needs. And most importantly, the young person is feeling enormously overwhelmed and unsure of how to even begin describing what is going on for them. Getting support for the young person as soon as possible is vital, and this can only happen if we can all put the judgement to one side, and take the time to understand school phobia.
The reasons behind school phobia
As our brains do not mature until we are 25 years of age, it’s important to remember that behaviour is a form of communication. At that moment, the child is experiencing something that means home (or anywhere else) feels safer than attending school. There can be a whole host of reasons why a child might feel unable to attend school; some may feel quite direct, whereas others might feel more complex or harder to understand. Some examples may be:
- The child is being bullied
- They are feeling anxious about leaving a situation at home, such as an ill relative or parents who are separating
- They feel that they do not fit in, perhaps because they’re struggling with friendships and feeling lonely, or they feel different because of identity issues or neurodiversity
- They have low self-esteem or negative thought patterns (e.g. feeling that they are ‘not good enough’ so there’s no point in attending)
- They have social anxiety and fear being around other people
- They have academic difficulties such as dyslexia, which leaves them feeling misunderstood or unsupported
- They’re being exploited in some way (sexually, emotionally, labour, criminally, county lines, etc.) and needs to be protected
- They have neurodevelopmental issues, such as (diagnosed or undiagnosed) autism, and their social, emotional and sensory needs are creating a barrier
It’s also worth trying to find out about their sleep routine as they may have a reversed sleep pattern, which leaves them struggling to wake up for school. This could be because they’re staying up online gaming or on social media, or they could be staying awake as an avoidance response to other ongoing social and emotional difficulties (which the ‘escapism’ that online gaming or social media offers, may also reflect). Excessive tiredness can also be a symptom of depression, as the body shuts down to protect itself, which may also contribute to difficulty waking in the mornings.
A child may be experiencing one or more of these issues at once, or there could be any number of difficulties that have not been listed. Hopefully, this gives some insight into how non-attendance is not necessarily oppositional or defiant behaviour, but rather a global shutdown or state of overwhelm that makes school feel impossible.
Support students with school phobia
Schools are busy places, where teachers must juggle the responsibility of supporting students’ wellbeing alongside the demand to raise their academic progress. With so many students in one class, however, it’s not always easy to spot when a child is struggling, particularly if that child is good at masking their difficulties. And it’s even harder when the child isn’t able to attend school. For the child, school is often more about the social experience than the academic benefits, so if they feel alone or unseen, this can feel unbearable. For a child unable to face school, they’re likely to feel invisible, lonely or that no one cares.
It’s important that school staff work with the student at their level. That is, to truly listen to the child, without judgement or punishment. It’s important to encourage open conversation about what is going on for them, what their fears are and if they have any ideas on what could help. Then, focus on what the child can manage, and build on that. It’s important to note that often children find it incredibly overwhelming to speak up in large meetings full of teachers and their parents/carers. They may manage better speaking to someone they’re comfortable with beforehand, who can help to advocate on their behalf. Simple things can make a big difference, such as:
- Letting the child know they are not alone and they are not in trouble. Tackling this issue from such a ‘together’ perspective can be comforting and encourage the child to trust in the problem-solving process.
- Identify a particular space the child can safely go within the school when they are struggling. Consider what this space is also used for, for instance, exclusion areas for disruptive or misbehaving students are not very welcoming if you’re having a mental health crisis.
- Consider a subtle way that the child can ask to access this space if they are struggling in a lesson, such as by using a ‘time out’ card.
- Work with the child to identify a member of staff they feel they can talk to when they are struggling. This doesn’t have to be a counsellor, or even a teacher, just someone they really connect with. Creating a sense of safety, support and comfort for the child is key.
- Try to find resources that might help the child to feel comforted, such as a fidget toy if they are anxious or another object they can identify with.
Supporting the families of students with school phobia
Parents are not trained to deal with difficult situations, so may feel overwhelmed by what their child is going through. They may feel powerless and might turn to the school for help. Often they need a bit of reassurance, and some guidance on how to support their child:
- Remind them that they are the people who know and love the child best, and their child will look to them for support and answers (even if they pretend they don’t need them).
- Encourage parents to be supportive and truly listen, that is, make time to listen away from the interruption of everyday distractions such as phones or a busy environment.
- Let them understand the importance of asking open questions, without challenging or denying what the child is feeling. They don’t need to solve the problem, just show that they’ve understood it.
- Help them to focus on what’s important. Missing school is a symptom of a mental health issue, so rather than worrying about what learning their child is missing, it’s more helpful to focus on supporting their wellbeing. Only then, will they be ready to face school again.
When to seek help
If a student is currently facing difficulty in attending school, it may be that they would benefit from speaking to someone in a non-judgemental space, where they can be listened to and supported to explore and understand their feelings. It can be helpful for sessions to start at home, where they feel safe, and once they’ve built a trusting relationship with the counsellor, they may then feel brave enough to have the sessions in school. This can be particularly successful with online therapy, as the virtual setting for the therapy remains consistent throughout.