So this post is not about the common “school-aroo-stay-home-is” (thanks Mom, for the decidedly wacko label for it!) that I and my sisters occasionally suffered from as kids. This is not the, “gee, I really don’t feel like it today so I’ll stick the thermometer in my hot oatmeal” shenanigans that all kids get up to at one time or another.
No, this is another beast altogether. An increasingly common one among young children, too. This is a post about school refusal (also called school avoidance or school anxiety). This is a phenomenon that looks suspiciously like the regular old hijinks you and I might have gotten up to as youngsters, trying to fake out mom and score a day on the couch. But at its heart it’s very, very different.
I’m speaking to you from a place far down the road of school refusal, a place past the last fork in the road, the last detour, the last u-turn, the last emergency telephone. I’m sending you a message, so you can be a little wiser and a little better prepared if this hydra raises its ugly head in your household.
Words to the wise: school refusal/avoidance is, in fact, a symptom of anxiety. Your child may suffer from ongoing separation anxiety, and therefore can’t bear the thought of being away from you, so she fakes ill and refuses to go to school. Your child may suffer from a more generalized anxiety, and the stresses of being “on” at school (and yes, it does drain a tremendous amount of a child’s emotional reserves to be at school) may be too intense, so he gets debilitating headaches every weekday morning. Maybe it’s more specific: maybe there is an inter-personal conflict with another child or teacher…maybe there’s bullying going on…maybe something bad happened once and your child hasn’t been able to process it and move on…
Whatever the root cause, if your child is consistently afraid to go to school (not just bored, and trying to scam the odd day off), don’t ignore it! As a mom who has struggled with this problem for five years now, let me tell you that brushing off your child’s complaints/concerns is the same as sweeping dirt under the carpet. It doesn’t go away, it just multiplies and pops out at you later when you least expect it, bigger and dirtier than ever!
One of my biggest frustrations at this point in my child’s progress is that her problem was not taken seriously by anyone until she was in grade four, and was regularly missing 2-3 days of school per week. This despite me calling every agency from the school board to the children’s hospital to social services literally begging for support. But here’s the thing: schools are underfunded and have a whole long list of “bigger” issues to deal with than a kid who just doesn’t like school. Community services? Ditto. Children’s mental health services? Even more ditto!
I will never forget being told by the intake worker at a paediatric anxiety clinic that my daughter (who had just missed 40 – yes FORTY – days of school) was not a high priority case, and would be placed on an EIGHTEEN MONTH waiting list to even be assessed. When I complained, she said, “I’m sorry, but we’ve got kids here who have attempted suicide, your daughter just doesn’t like school.” My snarky response? “So, should I call back when my daughter attempts suicide? Will that be enough to get her in?” Did that go over well? You tell me. We still haven’t been called for our first appointment.
In the end, we have decided to invest thousands of dollars (maybe tens of thousands by now…I truly cannot bring myself to count) in private therapy. It’s working…but very, very slowly. Still we wait for the call up to the big show (the anxiety clinic that is paid for by our provincial health care!), but until then we fight the battle every single day in the trenches.
And the advice that I have gotten from every single practitioner along the way? Don’t let it get this far. Deal with the cause of the fear at the beginning, and above all, keep your child in school. Kids need to (slowly, safely, carefully) work through their anxiety. Avoiding fearful situations will make it worse. Educate yourself, go into the school and — if needed — force them to partner with you on keeping your kid in school in a way that helps them build positive experiences and emotions. For example, I heard of a case where a young girl was invited into the office every morning to help track the attendance for all the other classes. Mom dropped her off right in the office for her special “job”. It made the girl feel important, safe and special. Once the attendance was tracked, she happily went to join her classmates. Eventually, she didn’t need this detour in order to feel safe at school. Often it is the smallest things that will help a child to cope – especially in the early stages. In another case, a little boy who was grieving a parent’s death was allowed to spend 10-15 minutes each morning in the principal’s office colouring or reading a picture book with him. The principal walked out every morning to greet the little boy and brought him indoors for their special time. Now this young man is regularly attending school and excelling!
If only I had known all this five years ago, things might look so different for us now.