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School Avoidance and Anxiety: A Collaborative Approach

anxiety school refusal May 15, 2024

School avoidance and anxiety are intricate challenges that necessitate a collective approach, uniting the child, family, school, and mental health professionals. In my experience, triumph is rarely accomplished without this joint effort.

The Emotional Toll of School Avoidance

School avoidance is an emotionally laden issue that can inflict significant distress on all parties involved. Parents often vacillate between feelings of confusion and frustration. One day everything appears fine, the next it’s in chaos. We might find ourselves exclaiming, ‘We’ve been through this!’, ‘You went yesterday’, ‘What’s the problem now?’ (expressing frustration rather than seeking the problem), ‘I need to get to work’, ‘Stop playing around. You are being selfish’, ‘This is unacceptable’, ‘If you don’t get in the car, I’m going to have to drag you kicking and screaming’. The guilt that ensues from such encounters is immense - we feel like we’re failing because we can’t get our kids to school. It’s easier to capitulate, but the minute we start down that path, the harder it is to revert.

Teachers, too, can become frustrated - they have a classroom full of students to manage and their colleagues may have called in sick. However, it’s crucial to remember that teachers don’t have to be the sole support for the child. It could be another adult in the school. Kids are not always reliable, especially when dealing with anxiety where reducing the risk of inconsistency is crucial. Adults may not be consistent either, but a stable adult with insight into what’s happening and the ability to temper their emotions while supporting the child is far superior to a fickle, flighty child or buddy.

Understanding the Child’s Perspective

The emotional impact and trauma on the child, who is not deliberately trying to be difficult, should not be overlooked. They are struggling too. Yes, there are times when kids deliberately avoid school because they want to do something else like play video games - that’s entirely different from school phobia - but it’s not always easy to tell. Typically, you have to identify a pattern of avoidance, emotional upset when crunch time draws near, stomach aches, headaches - all understandable fight/flight/freeze responses when something we fear approaches. We need to understand that our kids’ brains are being triggered into this state of fight/flight/freeze. Until they can experience this feeling dissipate in front of or in the midst of fear, their brains will start to rewire and recalibrate. So, it certainly doesn’t help when parents lose their temper - it does not aid in their recalibration!

Co-regulation is important, albeit not easy.

The Role of School and Relationships

Remember, school is unnatural. I, for one, believe it’s not always necessary to send kids to school - a controversial statement, I know. But how can it ever be natural? That being said, there are advantages and benefits of going to school that I want my kids to have access to - the skills they learn, the resilience they grow, etc. are all valuable assets that will stand them in good stead. But I need to always keep the relationship at the forefront of my interventions and everything I do when it comes to my kids. The relationship, through connection and empathy, is how we reduce their sense of stress and increase security when they are taken closer to the feared stimulus (i.e., school). Having a strong relationship is protective.

Strategies for Managing School Avoidance

At Home: Establish a consistent routine at home that includes a regular sleep schedule, healthy meals, and time for relaxation. Encourage open communication about school and any concerns your child may have. Practice relaxation techniques together, such as deep breathing or mindfulness exercises, to help manage anxiety. You need to model this yourself (one often important but often unspoken and perhaps not politically correct thing to say is that helping your kids begins by first helping yourself)

It is also really helpful to track and measure the intensity of anxiety in various situations - but isn’t it just school avoidance all the same? NO. we need to try to understand as much as we can about the nature of the anxiety; granted we sometimes don’t get there especially if you have a non-verbal child or one that has mutism - but it is not a reason to stop trying. why we want to break down various scenarios is so we create opportunity for discussion, talking, empathising, understanding (increases securyt, they feel seen/heard/understood/they matter/they’re not just being silly) This is especially useful for talking points and also designing a gradated programme of exposure. for example - a child might find that their anxiety increases when they think about riding the school bus but not so much if mum and dad drives to school to drop them off, a child might find their anxiety increases if they have something like school swimming or cross country at school.

During Transitions to School: Make the transition to school as smooth as possible. This could involve driving your child to school instead of using the bus, or arranging for a friend to walk to school with them. You could also establish a morning routine that includes positive affirmations or a calming activity before leaving for school. Remember to keep track of their anxiety levels - get them to rate it after every intervention. And track this for some days or weeks. Kids will feel chuffed if their anxiety reduces and they can see it on a chart. If it doesn’t reduce, they can still be celebrated for staying with high anxiety - how did they do it? ask them ‘what strength’ did you rely on to stay? this increases their sense of agency and again the sense that you see them, hear them and want to support them.

During School: Maintain regular communication with the school and teachers. Ensure that they are aware of the situation and are supportive of your child - this goes without saying but it must be said. It’s absolutely critical to have a collaborative approach here. If possible, identify a trusted ‘safe’ adult at school who your child can turn to if they are feeling anxious - it does not have to be a teacher.

After School: Provide a safe and calm environment for your child to return to after school. Encourage them to engage in activities they enjoy and that help them relax. Discuss the school day, but don’t press if they’re not ready to talk. Patience and understanding are key.

Find opportunities to teach problem solving skills e.g. the STEPS protocol for example. Breathing technqieus, Relaxation strategies.

Professional Support: Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if school avoidance continues. A mental health professional can provide strategies and interventions to address school avoidance and any underlying issues, such as anxiety or depression.

Remember, every child is unique and what works for one might not work for another. It’s important to be patient, understanding, and flexible in your approach. The goal is not just to get your child back to school, but to help them feel safe and supported while they’re there. It’s a challenging journey, but with the right support and strategies, it’s one that many families successfully navigate.

Download my resources about how you can more effectively communicate through anxiety and distress. Why? Because we all need someone supporting us. But make sure you have a stable internet connection - it's a hefty zipped file with a white paper, audiofiles, and pdf docs.

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