One of the most challenging and frustrating areas for both parents/carers and educators to navigate is the school refuser. This is something we talk about often in our support group with other adopters as it is a constant daily challenge to get our children into school or college. This doesn’t seem to get easier for some children as they get older. Mine for example whilst they never refused pre-16 one certainly has post-16.
I have spoken before about my dislike towards the 100% attendance awards, mainly because I know it’s not as straight forward as that. There are many complex and varied reasons why children might not attend and many of these reasons can’t be ‘fixed’ by an award.
So, what might be the reasons for children refusing to come to school? Here’s my opinion from experience of those around me. There isn’t necessary a formula to help with this but understanding goes a long way towards supporting a family who might be struggling with this. It’s worth saying as well that it is the whole family who will be impacted by a child school refusing. It’s the hardest thing in the world to see a child distressed daily and to not be able to alleviate that distress. It also can be all consuming in a home which makes the atmosphere difficult for all children and adults present.
- Fear. Some children are consumed with fear due to their past experiences. They may be highly anxious around other children and adults and not trust that they will be safe. Why would you put your life into the hands of strangers when you have experienced the worst a child could experience? I know for some children you may not see the early trauma and they may be living in relatively peaceful homes now, but the impact can make a child hypervigilant and paranoid. For some children it will take a long time to trust and this needs to be built through intentional relationship building, on the adults’ side.
- Shame. Again, as part of a child’s early experience they may have an intense feeling of shame at the core of their being. Feeling like a failure is a daily occurrence and being in an environment that focuses on achievement and success can be too much for a child. Instead of telling you of course, their behaviour will communicate that to you through running away, hiding and refusing to come into school. If they are then made to feel bad at school, when they do try, they may react in ways that include refusing to come in the next day. For some children some wounds can be so deep that they affect their whole outlook on education and can cause them to give up very early on in their journey.
- Anxiety. Heightened anxiety leads to powerful control issues. If we feel out of control in one area of our lives, then we often need to control what we can control. For children who have experienced a chaotic, abusive or neglectful life they may need to control as much as they can in order to feel safe. That might be telling others what to do, it might be toileting issues or food problems, it might be whether to come into school or not. The more anxious a child feels, the more controlling they may become. It’s a sure indication that there’s other things going on – when a child heightens their need to control.
- Bullying. For some of our children being teased and laughed at causes incredible stress. Sticks and stones is not true – they all hurt incredibly – sticks, stones and names. I know some children and young people who withdraw and refuse to come into school because of intense bullying or a feeling of being singled out. We all know too well from stories in our media of children who have taken their lives as a result. We have to take this so seriously. One of my friends’ daughter is in a special school and often refuses to go for lots of different reasons. Today is one of those days and she’s been sent messages online from other children in the school, even while she’s off school, to intimidate and bully her. It is not on. We have to create environments for our children to feel they are safe.
- Family issues. There are some children and young people of course who find coming into school difficult as their family situations are more of a priority. As adults we know education is important but for children whose parents may not be coping with life – they may be sick, have mental health issues, learning difficulties themselves, the priority is not learning. We have many young carers in our communities who may be caring for parents, or other siblings and education is not a top priority for them.
There are many more reasons I’m sure, but these are the ones I see the most. Any of the five above are sad stories or children and young people struggling to cope with our modern education system. What they need is compassion and understanding not more expectations, shame and punishment.
Just as I was writing this blog post I came across a video from a lady with a child with special needs talking about school refusers. It’s a challenging video as she explains her feelings about some of the misconceptions around school refusers. Take a look and see what you think.
My plea to all educators today, especially those in senior leadership, to look beyond the behaviour of school refusing to the cause. The pain the child is experiencing cannot be ignored. As a parent we need to work together with schools to try to help our children to manage and when they can’t we need the support and understanding of professionals to work through that process. I was with a lady from a school yesterday who told me about her son who in Secondary had a year when he wouldn’t go to school. He was a bright boy, no trauma to speak off but something made it difficult for him to attend. When we’ve done all we can to encourage them all we can do is be there and support them.