Jannine Perryman and Louise Parker Engels continue their series on the causes and remedies for school attendance difficulties by addressing the issue of bullying.
School attendance difficulties can be hard for parents and professionals to understand and support. What used to be known as school refusal or emotionally based school avoidance is more commonly referred to in the context of “barriers to attendance”.
Respond to all incidents of bullying and assault
“Schools, colleges, and Local Authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people. Schools’ anti-bulling policies should set out the actions which will be taken to prevent or address bullying, including racial and LGBTQ+ related incidents, as well as peer sexual violence and online bullying. SEND children and young people can be at an increased risk of being bullied.” (Define Fine Guide on School Attendance Difficulties).
Bullying can be a barrier to attending, and a very real cause for avoiding school
“Help With Bullying (kidscape.org.uk)” lists some of the common signs for parents and professionals in identifying where bullying is occurring. These include changes in behaviour and being scared to go to school or take part in usual school activities, with disturbed sleep, unexplained tummy problems and headaches.
Changes in school attendance patterns can be a result of bullying. A child who does not feel safe, feeling they are constantly in a state of fight or flight will find school attendance difficult, if not impossible. They may not be able to communicate what is happening to them.
SEND pupils are vulnerable to bullying
All children have a right to an education. For that to work, SEND children need to be supported and kept safe. Sadly, there is evidence of increased bullying for these children.
• 37% of pupils with SEND reported being bullied based on other pupils’ attitudes or assumptions towards their SEND at least once in the past year
• SEND pupils were also more likely to say they have experienced other forms of bullying (Wave 6 Research Report Summer 2019 – SNJ).
This is acknowledged in the Government Guidance ‘Preventing and tackling bullying’: “Some pupils are more likely to be the target of bullying because of the attitudes and behaviours some young people have towards those who are different from themselves. For example those with special educational needs or disabilities, those who are adopted, those who are suffering from a health problem or those with caring responsibilities may be more likely to experience bullying because of a difference.”
This is certainly consistent with our professional and lived experiences which include:
• Children who may look or behave differently – with physical characteristics, as well as stimming, shouting out, needing to move
• the reasonable adjustments highlighting differences – such as assistive technology, mobility aids, sensory toys
• children who struggle to process – with speech and language difficulties, auditory processing or other executive functioning difficulties
• sensory processing differences – those who are more sensitive to sound or touch
• children who are unable to attend regularly, then struggling to explain their attendance and feeling isolated from their peers, and missing learning and other school experiences
• children who miss social cues, or communicate differently
• children who mask, are demand avoidant, or oppositional.
Bullying affecting social, emotional and mental health problems can become a SEND issue
Bullying affects mental and physical health, sometimes leading to heightened levels of anxiety and depression. Some may self-harm and have suicidal thoughts, difficulty sleeping, low self-esteem and other PTSD or trauma responses. ‘Preventing and tackling bullying’ provides guidance when bullying has a severe impact:
“In some circumstances the consequences of bullying may lead to a child or young person experiencing pronounced social, emotional or mental health difficulties. Schools should ensure they make appropriate provision for a child’s short-term needs, including setting out what actions they are taking when bullying has had a serious impact on a child’s ability to learn. If the bullying leads to persistent, long-lasting difficulties that cause the child or young person to have significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of those of the same age, then schools should consider whether the child will benefit from being assessed for SEN.”
Supporting the most vulnerable children to be able to attend school
As with all attendance barriers, bullying needs to be acknowledged through school policies by developing a more inclusive culture.
There will also be a range of other local or individual factors that result in some children being more vulnerable to bullying and its impact than others. Being aware of this will help schools to develop strategies to prevent bullying from happening. It will also help schools be alert to those children who may be severely affected when it does occur.
In addition, children with special educational needs or disabilities can often lack the social or communication skills to report such incidents so it is important that staff are alert to the potential bullying this group faces and that their mechanisms for reporting are accessible to all.
• Take all reports seriously
• find ways for children more vulnerable to bullying to communicate with staff
• listen, observe closely, then observe some more
• what looks like playing or banter may not be as it seems
• vulnerability should be assessed, acknowledged and included in individual support plans and EHCPs.
The importance of modelling by teachers and other adults
Teachers set the tone for how a child might be viewed by their peers, meaning a difficult lesson can then result in them being singled out. Being mindful of this risk might be all it takes for a teacher or teaching assistant to make a difference and turn this around in the early stages before it becomes a habit or a pattern.
It’s more common than it should be for a child with additional needs to be kept back or reprimanded for not completing work as quickly or thoroughly as their peers.
Lessons that end on a negative note can leave a child or young person emotionally dysregulated as they go out on to the playground or home. This most certainly increases the chance of them making poor decisions or having lower tolerance for the actions of others than they might otherwise have.
An example of this is rejection sensitivity which is part of the executive function challenges associated with both autism and ADHD. Dysregulated emotions plus a recent negative interaction with a teacher leaves a child at a higher risk of negative outcomes and higher need of support and acknowledgement.
These children are going to feel the slightest of negativity more painfully than other children might. It might seem like an overreaction, but it’s not though, it’s a build-up. They’ll need help to calm back down and skills building so they can manage their emotions better.
Break and lunchtime supervisors also have a role to play in setting an example of inclusion and acceptance. A kind word goes a long way for any child, but for one who is struggling, even more so. Children see everything and positive (or negative) regard will never go unnoticed and is often replicated. Lunchtime supervisors seem to be a low priority for staff training because they aren’t contracted to be there for much of it and their availability can be problematic. But without an understanding of the risk factors for bullying, how can they be expected to play their part in preventing it? With regards to diversity, equality and inclusion, I would say the same. How can they play their part in ensuring it?
A comment from a parent: “School avoidance isn’t a new thing. It just looked different in the past to how it does now. Both myself and my daughter could have been viewed as having school attendance difficulties. V has autism, ADHD and learning difficulties. She reports hiding in toilets to avoid lessons and break times when she felt she was at risk from the bullies. She had mysterious tummy aches that she later told me was because of the anxiety around bullies. When I spoke to her school about bullying they told me she brought it on herself. How? I wish I’d known to ask that question then. But as a professional, I hear it now, and I do ask. The answer always boils down to this. They brought it on by being different – which means they didn’t bring it on at all and the school has work to do in addressing discrimination. My daughter wasn’t able to stay home because she didn’t have the voice to say what she needed and I wasn’t listening. So she went and she avoided attending lessons and breaks by hiding. I think there are many children like that in secondary school, or there would be if we didn’t have digital registration for lessons. The need to get away doesn’t disappear and may be even worse with the restrictions and controls of today’s educational system.” If a child or young person doesn’t feel they can tolerate the school environment, the only options are to walk out or not walk in. I raise this point as it seems to be viewed as a new or worsening phenomena when, arguably, it is a variation on an old and established theme. It is, and has always been the case, that difficulties around attendance are a form of communication, a sign of needs not being met. Our role is to stop and listen with a view to finding a solution so that the child gets a suitable education without jeopardising their mental health, or further trauma and difficulties relating to their specific educational needs.