21 Mar MEETING REPORT: Talk on School Avoidance
On 8th March 2022, NAS Surrey Branch hosted an online talk by Suzy Rowland from the Happy in School Project https://www.happyinschoolproject.com/ entitled School Avoidance: Truth behind the tears – from barriers to breakthrough
Over 130 delegates, including parents and professionals, accessed the live webinar or the post-event recording, demonstrating the prevalence of this issue in Surrey. Suzy spoke from her own family experience of ASD/ADHD, which has inspired her to write her first book S.E.N.D in the Clowns in 2020. Her second, which follows this November, is a practical toolkit for parents and professionals working with children who are experiencing school avoidance.
Suzy’s overriding philosophy is well-being first then learning will follow. She began her presentation by explaining that school avoidance is not oppositional or defiant; it is a complex and deep-rooted issue, which has an impact on both parent and child mental health. COVID has served to exacerbate this complex problem and school-avoidant children often experience a cluster of anxiety conditions, such as eating disorders and depression, together with their neurodivergent profile. School avoidance shows that the needs of the child are not being met.
For school-avoidant children, there are huge expectations at school – meeting key stages, understanding school rules, peer relationships, teacher and parent expectations, behaviour and social expectations, self-regulation and coping with demands and changes every day.
Neurodivergence may also affect speech and language, executive function, sensory and physical characteristics, leading to dysregulation and a lack of understanding between the child and their teachers, peers and parents. Children then begin to sense that they are not meeting these expectations and start to struggle in the school environment. They often feel separate or different to their peer group and they may have difficulty regulating behaviour. The combination of these factors places a huge strain on individuals, who all the while are trying to compensate, manage and cope and eventually may lead children to feel that going to school is an unsafe and traumatic experience.
Finding a way for children to communicate the difficulties they are experiencing is a crucial first step towards addressing needs. They may be experiencing intense feelings, including strong physiological effects and low self-esteem, but may not have the emotional language skills to express this. These emotions come out as external behaviours, such as meltdowns, outbursts or lashing out. Understanding that the things which seem trivial may in fact be extremely distressing and validate these intense feelings. Recognising that children are continually coping with stress and anxiety acknowledges their experience, but if they feel invalidated, they may stop communicating which impacts their present and future situations.
Children need support to learn how to communicate these anxious feelings and to develop coping skills. This requires the parent/professional to work with children to understand and identify the triggers so that adjustments can be made to help. When school-avoidant children don’t feel safe in the school environment, Suzy recommended the following approach:
Observe – “I have noticed that…”
Validate – “It can feel uncomfortable when you experience …”
Redirect – “Going to school is important, what are some of the things we can do to help you?”
Recognise and accept that sometimes a child is so distressed that they simply cannot manage that day. Don’t feel guilty and try not to increase the child’s feelings of guilt. You may have no option but to stay home that day – it’s important not to use physical force to get children into school, as that removes all agency and will reinforce their feeling of invalidation and trauma.
Moving forward is the best option, but address the important question, “Is this the right school setting for the child?” if all other approaches have been exhausted. If you agree that this is the right setting going forward, create a back-to-school plan:
- Ask your child about what is stopping them going. For example, it might be due to motor skills, such as tying shoelaces, getting changed for P.E, sensory issues, class seating, dining room smells, or it might be to do with academics, tests or performance, social issues or bullying.
- Talk to the teachers about what might be stopping them accessing school
- Discuss with the school how not being at school is affecting the whole family (having to give up work, the effect on siblings etc)
- Discuss specific strategies with the school identifying what works, what’s not working and what’s next
- Make adjustments in collaboration with the school such as a reduced timetable, specialist support, a class mentor. Identify a trusted adult for the child to go to if they are in distress.
- Look for ways to support emotions so that approaches are lasting and meaningful. Help to develop the child’s emotional literacy by recognising feelings, modelling a helpful approach rather than an instructional approach. Avoid words like ‘should’ and ‘must.
- Use calming techniques such as breathwork, meditation, yoga, mindfulness. Have a calming space at school, and don’t forget to look after yourself too!
- Make sure that the plan is not too rigid, keep a connection to school during absence through friends, teachers and other trusted adults,
- Visuals can be helpful shorthand for children to get help from trusted adult/SENCO when they are feeling distressed (emoji cards, red/yellow/green flags etc).
Remember they are S.C.A.R.E.D and need to:
- feel Safe
- be Calm
- receive Affirmation
- have a Routine
- receive Empathy
- help to Develop
In summary, Suzy said to remember that the child may be traumatised and that behaviour is communication. She spoke of the parent-school relationship as a meeting of equals, there being no shame or blame, and urged parents and professionals to find areas of agreement. However, know what is legal and what is reasonable to expect, keep notes of meetings and above all, keep the child central to the plan.