Samantha Lea discusses how the right balance of academic and vocational opportunities in a nurturing supportive environment can provide even the most long-term school refusers the opportunity to flourish and achieve.
Why children become serial school refusers – understanding the situation
In order to find the solution, we must first understand the problem – once we have recognised the reasons behind a child’s refusal to attend school, we can begin to address them.
In the majority of cases when a child refuses to go to school it is because something has happened which they cannot manage, leading to them losing control of the situation. Their self-esteem and confidence spirals downwards and rather than face what they see as an impossible position, they side-step it and choose not to attend. As time goes on, it then becomes harder and harder to ask for help.
The experience of family members at school can also affect the way attendance is viewed. If the parents had a poor experience and the family has low expectations towards success in school, the child is typically not encouraged to attend – it becomes a vicious circle as the parents’ expectations are instilled in the child from an early age.
The reason for school refusal can also be very simple – falling out with a friend, or not being able to do the tasks set.
Things to look out for at home:
- Fabricating illness and refusing to get out of bed
- Getting ready for school, but then refusing to leave the house, get in the car or taxi or running away when it arrives
- Self-harming in order to be hospitalised and avoid school
- Not returning home at night so that when the child is eventually found by police they are too tired to attend
- Threatening behaviour and spitting used to intimidate parents or carers who, in order to defuse the situation, allow the child to stay at home.
Things to look out for at school:
- Avoiding getting down to work
- Refusing to work in the classroom
- Seeking out staff for a chat as a way to use up the time.
When a child displays extremely high levels of anxiety towards school, a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) is recommended, as is Cognitive Therapy.
The importance of the school-home partnership:
In order to get these children back into education the school must work in partnership with the parents or carers to form a resolution; with both parties working together, sharing expectations and acting in unison.
Parents in this situation may initially feel they have failed, so support is important in building the partnership. The school needs to recognise where the parents are coming from – they may have low expectations due to their own experiences in school, or blame the lack of attendance on a child’s Education Health and Care Plan – after all the child has been recognised as facing extra challenges or school is a struggle due to their academic or emotional difficulties. They may be intimidated by the child’s threatening behaviour, or they may have tried everything and simply don’t know which way to turn and are looking for that support.
Communication between home and school is key, with regular meetings at school and/or at home to monitor progress, discuss successes and challenges, and display a united front -‘we are all working together to help you’ – to the child.
Local authorities also step in when a child becomes a serial school refuser – something that can lead to parents feeling out of their depth. The school can support them or speak on their behalf. If the parent has tried different ways to get their child back into school, the child’s continued refusal is not their fault. The threat of an Attendance Order and fine rarely serves as an incentive to solve the child’s underlying problems.
If both the school and the parents or carers are seeking to understand how the child views school – what it looks like to them, and how they would like school to be – there are more opportunities for the child to share their fears and feelings. Teachers, parents and carers must always remain calm. A child refusing to attend school may seek out a negative reaction – it is difficult to talk about the reasons why – patience and calm will provide a safe space for sharing.
Returning to school is incredibly daunting and challenging for serial school refusers, it’s breaking a habit and forming new ones, so schools need to accommodate them. Start with an individualised timetable, just a few hours a week, and gradually increase learning times and expectations. Allocate a member of staff to support the child – that person who regularly liaises with the child and parents, monitors developments and offers support when necessary.
Above all the child needs to know that everyone believes in them and there is a support network there for them. Never give up on a child – the worst thing you can ever do is exclude them.
When Ryan Davis* first arrived at Crookhey Hall School, at the age of 14 – having not set foot inside a school for almost two years – he was ‘terrified’. As a teenager in care who had experienced a disruptive home life, Ryan had developed social, emotional and mental health difficulties that made a mainstream school environment too overwhelming, eventually leading him to become a ‘school refuser’. Fast forward two years, and Ryan’s attitude to learning has been transformed. Thanks to tailored support, he has achieved qualifications in seven subjects and has successfully transitioned to college.
Ryan responded extremely well to the bespoke support plan that was put in place along with firm boundaries, a high level of emotional and therapeutic support from staff and close liaison between home and school to encourage attendance. Starting with one lesson on the first day, progressing to two lessons the next and gradually building up the time spent in school helped Ryan to realise that learning could be a positive experience, and he made the decision to attend school full time.
Ryan went from being a young person who would stand in the car park refusing to set foot inside the school building to moving around the building chatting to staff and peers. We are extremely proud that he overcame his school anxiety with the support and guidance from staff, enabling him to achieve 100% attendance in his final year.
His newfound confidence and positive attitude shone through in his Year 11 work experience placement, which he completed at a photography store shortly before the first coronavirus lockdown. The branch manager gave Ryan full marks for his performance – including punctuality, attendance, enthusiasm, communication and ability to work as part of a team. She said, “It was a pleasure having Ryan with us in the store. He is a very likeable young man with an infectious personality. Customers even left comments on our website saying how wonderful he was.”
Now at College studying Performing Arts, another of his passions, Ryan is looking forward to seeing what the future holds. “Staff at Crookhey Hall were brilliant,” said Ryan. “My whole school day was tailored around me – it really helped me to see school differently. I was interested in photography, so staff created a new GCSE in this subject especially for me. And the emotional support was always there for me too. I haven’t decided exactly what path I want to follow yet, but I’m really enjoying my course – learning about all aspects of performing arts including acting, backstage and lighting. Being able to attend school has really boosted my confidence and opened up so many new possibilities for my future.”
*A different name has been used for privacy purposes