School Refusal: when going to school or being at school is impossible due to stress or overstimulation.

Children who experience a lot of tension and stress around going to school and/or being at school may even refuse to go to school altogether, leading to absenteeism. Which school refusal signals can you recognize early, and how do you deal with them?

Physical complaints

Children unable to go to school for emotional reasons often report physical complaints. Such are often vague complaints such as headache, nausea or stomach ache. Once a child returns home, these complaints often decrease quickly: but that does not mean that those complaints are not real! 

The strong reluctance and fear to go to school can cause physical complaints in these children. These complaints can be used as a reason for school absenteeism but can also be early signals of a deeper problem. When school absenteeism is rising, it is essential to intervene quickly. With increasing absences, the threshold to go back to school becomes higher, and returning to school becomes increasingly tricky.  

The increasing absence from the classroom is at the expense of the school performance and the social-emotional functioning of the student because due to missing essential learning material and connection and interaction with peers. In addition, absenteeism also often causes increased stress within the family.

School refusal

Early Signals of School Refusal

It is essential to recognize the first signs of school refusal due to emotional reasons. The pressure builds, and the sooner you break it down again, the better. 

Some of the following signals may include increasingly late attendance, reduced work commitment and enthusiasm, or other visible behaviour changes. In addition, these children often have poor problem-solving skills and emotion regulation and difficulty replacing negative (unhelpful) thoughts about a situation with positive (helpful) thoughts.

Social isolation, social anxiety, worrying, performance anxiety, or depression are risk factors for developing school refusal. For children with a form of autism, fear of school can develop during periods of change, such as the transition to a new school or a different teacher. School refusal is also more often seen in cases of family problems or psychopathology in parents. 

While school refusal often occurs due to student anxiety, the school can also inadvertently contribute to the problem. For example, when the teacher offers insufficient support to the student or when there is a lot of bullying in the classroom. This reinforces the fear already present in the student. An unpredictable or poorly structured school environment also contributes to school refusal.

Predictable and Stable School Climate

It is important to ensure that the child feels welcome and seen as soon as they enter school. This pattern should happen every day. We must also look at how the transfer from home to school can be made as ‘softly as possible.’

When a student has taken the step to enter and has literally and figuratively crossed the threshold, it does not mean that the child is ready to start learning. 

Entering is part of the struggle, and often you see a high level of fear and overstimulation once the child is there.

To make the transition from ‘being inside the school building’ to ‘ready to learn,’ the following choices can be used:  ‘Share it’ (share it),  ‘Shelf it’ (park it) or  ‘Shout it’ ( shout it) to sink into tension and overstimulation. Let’s take a look at each of these components.

  • Share it. Whatever it is that bothers the student, share it. This can be done with the teacher, or the school counsellor, and by asking the student to write it down their thoughts in a school attendance journal. This allows the students to share and name their feelings and concerns to get them out of their heads and reduce the worrying.
  • Shelf itWhen there is no possibility to talk about it, the difficulties can be written down in a parking lot to address the concerns later. The teacher can then acknowledge the student’s concerns and fears by saying, ‘I acknowledge your concerns and want to listen to you, but we have to get ready for class now, so we’ll put it aside for later.’ The most important thing about shelfing the concerns is that the teacher is concrete and clear about when, how and with whom the concerns can be discussed: a concrete agreement must be made, and it must also be kept.
  • Shout it. Children who enter the school or classroom with an overload of tension-based energy, fear, frustration, or anger should be allowed to discharge. Instead of going into a fight or flight mode, they can physically discharge themselves. For example, kids can be provided with a Mindfulness Moment or selected body breaks to help with physical tension. Other options include singing, hitting a pillow, running or jumping jacks, or doing some heavy exercise. You give them a way to release this built-up tension, so they can increase focus afterwards.

Communication Matters 

Carrying out all expectations and agreements clearly and predictably requires consistent communication between parents and school, between the school and the child, the social workers involved, as well as with others. Everyone must know what agreements have been made and act accordingly, to support the child fully. Communication must be consistent with everyone. Everyone is on the same team, and it is important to realize that the struggle of the parents does not only start when going to school, but often already when getting up or the night before. 

Assign School Supports

It is very helpful for the student to have one or more trusted adults within the school with whom the child has a positive relationship and whom the pupil can rely when times are tough. 

The student can also agree on a signal with the teacher for ‘help’ without asking for support verbally. For example, when the tension, fear or overstimulation starts to rise, they need a break time. Knowing that they can report it themselves is helpful instead of waiting for someone else to notice. Here too, clear agreements must be made about what the response to this signal may be and what the expectations are.

Structure a Monday Morning Plan

See what can be improved in the daily structure and reduce things that have a negative influence. For example, breaks are often the most challenging. These can be too loud or too unstructured. 

Monday morning is the highest chance of not being at school. Therefore, create a ‘Monday morning plan.’ Determine what the role of the school is in this and what the role of the parents is. Describe what extra steps are needed to make Monday morning a success.

Role of the Parents 

Finally, realizing that the whole family suffers from school refusal is essential. The struggle to go to school often doesn’t start at the school’s doorstep but already in the morning or evening before. The school team must continue to realize how much energy it takes from the parents to get the child to the threshold. Celebrate with each other the successes when it succeeds and every small step in the right direction.

Supports to Overcome School Refusal

Some students need more help. External guidance or reintegration at school or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can contribute to a successful return. CBT can be combined with Nonviolent Resistance Training for the parents to implement customized parenting support strategies to elevate stress and frustration at home. Learning more about school refusal services through La Ronge Counselling can help your child get back to learning in traditional or nontraditional ways and reduce tension and stress at home.

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