Can’t go…..Won’t go – The reality of anxious school refusing.

Here one mum explains about the complexity of dealing with “anxious school refusing”.

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘anxious school refusing’?
For the parents of a child who falls in to this category, judgements that are frequently passed usually include;
“it’s down to ineffective parenting, they’re being indulgent, they need to be tougher, and they just need to make him go”

Don’t worry we’ve heard them all!

Somatic ExperiencingAs for dealing with the child themselves, pearls of wisdom from well meaning friends and family include… “Have you tried a reward system?” Not the dreaded sticker chart I hear you cry! Some say “Force him to go, (how does that work?), tell him he has to, and punish him if he doesn’t (sanctions I think they mean). Tell him he won’t have a job or ever come to anything”.
I’m not sure how any of these suggestions can help, particularly the last one, this is a child who is scared of the future and doesn’t want to talk about it, who cries and says he doesn’t want to grow up. Who will accept no screen time, pocket money etc but this doesn’t fix the anxiety.

These judgements are not just passed by the school gate brigade, who could be forgiven for their ignorance in this matter, but disappointingly by the professionals in the field of education, special needs and in some cases health.

The reality of what we are facing is a boy who finds the thought of going to school a terrifying prospect. Who cannot sleep at night, cries and locks himself in the bathroom to avoid it. On a daily basis he develops an ever increasing list of physical symptoms from tummy ache and feeling sick, through to headaches and random pains in his body, saying he’s dizzy and faint and that he’s actually going to vomit.

Each day brings a different combination of the above which requires a response which must somehow combine nurture and compassion with an air of detachment so that it neither encourages nor scolds.

He concludes most days that he cannot go, that to do so would be too stressful and amongst his tears and distress he sadly remains resolute, on other occasions he will shout and scream, slamming doors and hurting. On these occasions his conclusion is he won’t go under any circumstance ever again. The very mention of the word ‘school’ on these days is the lighting of the touch paper, and leads to melt downs which result in family members running for cover (including the dog!).

He used to go to school at one time, but never happily. As a smaller boy he was taken from his bed, dressed and sometimes carried in to the car, at the other end he was extracted from the car with the help of teachers and sometimes other parents. Rightly or wrongly these methods got him there. Happily?…..No I don’t think so.

Now he is 10 years old and physically too big to be coerced out of bed in to clothes and in or out of cars. These options are not available and so we are left with talking, and encouraging which we have done endlessly. We have talked about his fears, about the realities, about pushing yourself in life to sometimes do things that are uncomfortable, but they are ok in the end.

But this is a child who did not have the start in life he deserved, whose early years were a backdrop of loss, trauma, neglect and frequent changes in carer, leaving him with no stability, consistency or sense of safety. We have had intervention after intervention from educational psychologists, post adoption social workers, specialist teachers, paediatricians, clinical psychologists, statutory assessment service and more. He now has a collection of diagnoses which we hoped would help him to get the help he need and for professionals to understand him better but these labels do not offer much comfort if educators are not prepared to act on the advice. All it provides is a list of acronyms.

As a practitioner myself, I know we need to work from a place of empathy and trust. As a parent I just want someone to listen without judgement. What does my son want?…to ‘feel safe’ he says.

Parents and schools need to work together to find a solution, rather than engaging in a blame game. In amongst the meetings, phone calls, assessments and medical appointments you do wonder if this is the only way?

Are there some children for whom school will never suit? Is the system at fault? Or is there a perfect school out there for every child? These are questions I ponder, but the alternative is home schooling, which seems such a monumental step to take, a leap of faith almost and the loneliness it could bring is a far cry from the scrutiny and surveillance we currently feel as a family. It would come without, PP+, EHCP’s and diagnostic labels possibly, but will they be needed? In an environment that can be adapted so perfectly to his needs, surrounded by people that know him better, than anyone else, where he feels safe, where it doesn’t matter about ASD, ADD or even OCD because he can be provided with TLC!

I don’t know what the future holds for him and I confess I am unsure as to which path is the best one to pursue, but I do know that society needs to reconsider the way in which families with an anxious school refuser are judged and dismissed. And how children with anxiety are treated so differently from adults whom, I assume, we would not advocate forcing them in to their car and dragging them out the other end if they are too anxious to go to work. Until such time, hey ho society will continue to conveniently apply the label ‘parents to blame’.

17 thoughts on “Can’t go…..Won’t go – The reality of anxious school refusing.

  1. Andrew

    A harrowing story that reminds me of my own issues as a child and going to school. The bottomless pit of anxiety, being so young and really being able to describe it. My overwhelmed, ill equipt family and so called professionals who thought they knew best. The anxiety at 40 has not left my body however I do now understand what it is and due to early trauma why it is there. My heart goes out to this kid and his family. Love kindness and a gentle approach to understanding will get him through. Be gentle on the path.

  2. Belinda

    A friends child was home schooled, with a mix of face to face and Skyped sessions. Her child wouldn’t go to school. So it was arranged to take the school to the child. Easy for my friend, she was a ‘kept’ housewife!

  3. Wendy

    Wow, what s wonderful parent you are – so caring! It’s such s shame there is no variety of choice with education – the schools are all similar and it’s either 100% home schooling or 100% school based education . No flexibility. I wish you the best of luck with your future choices!

  4. Sarah - The Puffin Diaries

    I have been through this very same problem with my son at exactly the same age. When we pulled him out of school, it was on a day I’d been asked to come in and support him and he was on his hands and knees hissing and growling at staff, obviously highly stressed and afraid. Relations with the school were difficult for a while but we found a way, with the support of Parent Partnership (think they are called something different now) who attended meetings with us and supported us, to get thing back on track. We found the very small things our son did like about school and just did those. At first he would go in for twenty minutes at play time or to eat his dinner with his friends and we gradually extended this time in tiny tiny amounts. He did have an EHC which entitled him to some one to one support which was very necessary for this process to work. I hope this helps a little. It was a very stressful time for the whole family here, so my heart goes out to you. x

  5. adopted2

    Thank you. Interesting to read this today as I have just struggled to get our 10yo into school. We missed sch Friday as he complained he was poorly but in reality he had made himself poorly to miss school. We acknowledged this with him and told we want to help and are ready to listen when he is ready. Today in school car park I requested support from school to help get him into sch, rightly or wrongly, but apparently only jerks talk about their feelings and whats bothering them. At the moment I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel but as a family we won’t give up and we will do all we can.

  6. Suddenly Mummy

    I’ll declare my bias straight out as a home education advocate and former teacher! I think it’s a shame that more flexible approaches to accessing school-based education are not universally embraced. There is ideological reluctance to accept a holistic approach to learning and such an insistence on sticking to pressurising children to make narrowly-defined progress regardless of what else might be going on in their lives that teachers, as well as parents and children, are under immense pressure. I am always glad to hear of schools that ‘get it’ but not surprised in the current climate there are still many that don’t. If you were to consider home education you might find that there is more local support than you think – my son spends several hours each week at home education groups taking the pressure off me. You would be able to get more information at Education Otherwise website which I seem to remember has a database of groups etc.

    1. adopted2

      Great comment and I agree as a teacher home education is an option. However our 10yo would not cope with that but our 8yo would love it. We have already made the difficult decision to move schools and send both to a different one (logistical nightmare) and this has helped both chn. The problem for 10yo is tests in his y6 class to him it seems like endless tests. I’m reassured by school that that is not the case.

  7. Jean woodbridge

    I have a similar situation with my 6 year old. I home schooled and it took all of the stress away (almost all) but he is a twin and his twin needed the community of a school setting, and he needed her, we are 2 weeks into a very small village school induction, hoping it’s the right thing. Go with your heart, no diagnosis or expert can beat that!

  8. jo

    For your son, home schooling sounds ideal. My niece is being home schooled and gets plenty of socialisation from home school syndicates and a local Forest School which she loves. Better still, last time her mother checked the local curriculum, she was ahead of her peers. There is no need to worry he will be isolated or socially stunted, and you may even get him to love learning again! Some museums and attractions also offer home ed discounts if you go along with a couple of other home educators. Wishing you all the best and hoping you find a good solution for him.

  9. emma

    Finally some one has put into words our mornings and the frustrations i feel around my daughters school refusal. My ten year old takes anti anxiety pills to help her for gods sake and yet school still see s her school refusal as her being difficult. My daughter too doesnt want to grow up, hates the way her body is changing and at ten is self harming . She begs to be home schooled and school holidays are the time i see her totally care free. We have the same pretend illnesses and i am at a loss as to what to do. Maybe some more specialist schools??? But with cuts in education etc will that happen?? I doubt it, i am scared that as my daughter gets older and is at secondary school she will just leave as she ll be able to.

  10. Hushabyemountainblog

    This is all so true, and something really needs to be done to change the heartbreaking experiences our children have of school. The saddest thing in all of this, is that us, the parents of our children, the ones that love them and support them through their fear and anxiety, often have a clear idea of what works and what doesn’t work for our children; and our children often have a good idea too. But all too often we are not just unheeded but blamed for our children’s behaviour at school. My son daily asks why I can’t be at school with him and is becoming unhappy about me and my ability to be the mum he wants because in his eyes, I am unable to protect him from school. I would love to HE or have a flexible home-school timetable, but have my hands tied by a micro-managing PASW who will not grant the AO until the ECHP has been completed so they can control his educational options. I hope you find the path to follow that helps all of you. Over the years I have learnt to trust my and my son’s instincts and go with those, despite the noise of all the other ‘professional’ voices undermining us.

  11. Janice

    We could have so written that piece. At the moment our ten year old is not in school . Home schooling has not been as isolating as we thought it would be. Both parents and child are less stressed. This seems to be right for us now but who knows what the future will hold. Today our child just needs to feel safe and to know we are listening to her cries.

  12. claire

    We are going through the same with our 10 year old son with ASD. He has been refusing school since April. We have received no help and no contact from anyone. It is a disgrace.

  13. Jean

    Such a interesting read, My little girl is 6 and has had trouble from the age of 3 with anxiety. She is currently unable to attend school as she has become so stressed and has melt downs. My family and I have felt so alone and have been advised to physically force her and use sanctions as well as sticker charts which does not have any affect. I am seriously considering home schooling as I can’t see the school or the authority giving my daughter enough time to re intergrate at her own pace.

  14. Tori

    So good to read this. Thank you. You’ve described how it is in our house almost exactly, right down to the physically forcing when he was little, and now mine’s 9, that’s not possible for us either, and also just isn’t the answer. It takes courage to write this, and I appreciate your call for parents and schools to work together and move away from the blame culture. Its so easy to slip into it, and so familiar to feel on the receiving end of judgements from all sides, and those well meaning suggestions from other parents. Its so hard with the pressure to get them into school to keep the right level of understanding, and daily fresh expectation that today he’ll manage it. Ahhh, its good to hear your voice. Thank you. Its an isolating existence at times! Sending you gratitude for sharing with a wish for you to have the endless patience, strength, resolve, and tenderness that we need every day. And for your boy to find his way to being in the world as he grows in himself. x

  15. Tessa

    Hello. I get it! Such a tough one.

    Have you thought about flexi-schooling? Might be the stepping stone that helps break the cycle. I’ve done it with 2 of my four sons (not my autistic child) as it seemed appropriate. Needs some flexible thinking from the school and a good relationship with teachers but not a bad halfway house. It made school more bearable for one of mine when he could see that there was home schooling involved too. You can easily cover what’s missed in class at home as it is a far more productive! Also allows you time away from him to breathe and reflect as not much time when the child is there all the time! Masses of luck.

  16. Angie House

    My son is 14 and has filled with this anxiety of going to school since he was in first grade. As I sit here typing this my husband is at the school parking lot with my son .talking to the counselor. I am at my Wit’s End, I don’t know what to do anymore! If anyone could please help


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