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School refusal – What’s the alternative?

July 9, 2024, 10:46 GMT+1
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  • Forcing 'school refusers' to conform to adult expectations can lead to fear and distress, argues Dr Naomi Fisher
School refusal – What’s the alternative?

I’m often asked about school refusal. Specifically, what to do about children who are reluctant to go to school. By ‘what to do’, the adults usually mean ‘how can we stop them protesting?’

I tell them that I think a high proportion of school refusers have some sort of additional need. This makes school harder for them than for other children.

They’re disappointed in my response, because I won’t tell them how to get the child to stop making a fuss. But there are no quick fixes to create compliant children.

School refusal

I work with families of children who have had problems attending school, and they tell some concerning stories.

Sometimes their child is pulled off them, screaming, by teachers. They are told to bring in their child in their pyjamas if they won’t get dressed. Or to make life very boring for their children – if home life is dull enough, the child will return to school.

They say that schools see the problem as ‘refusal’ and therefore their interventions are designed to turn that refusal into compliance.

This is worrying because the strategies schools use to manage refusal seem almost designed to make the situation worse, and that is often exactly what happens.

Children become more anxious. It starts to affect every aspect of the family’s life. Every evening is spent dreading the morning, with Sundays being the worst.

School avoidance

Why does this happen? When children are forced into school, usually one of two rationales is given.

Some teachers tell parents that if they are anxious about school, avoiding the source of the anxiety will make it worse, and therefore missing school must not be allowed. This leads to the use of force.

Others say that refusal is bad behaviour, and that this must not be reinforced by allowing the child not to attend school. This also leads to the use of force.

The child’s perspective is not being considered. There’s no space in either scenario for trying to work out exactly what has gone wrong at school which has led to the child refusing to go.

Instead, the focus is on how to stop them refusing, whatever it takes.

Psychology of school refusal

But force has the potential to make things much worse, because of how our brains work. When we are afraid or angry, we store those memories in a different way from day-to-day memories.

We collect them in our amygdala, the alarm system of the brain and then use them as clues for signs of danger.

This response kept our ancestors alive. If you have a close encounter with a lion, you don’t want to risk another one. Your brain will be on the lookout for things that might be a lion – perhaps a lion-shaped rock or a person with lots of yellow hair.

They will trigger your alarm system and your body’s survival response, enabling you to fight or run away. The amygdala would rather you were scared than dead.

When children have repeated experiences of being forced into school in a state of high distress, it is priming them to respond to school as a place of danger.

I’ve heard of children who can’t walk past a school without panicking, or can’t open a reading book without fear.

This isn’t under their conscious control. It’s the inevitable result of lots of fearful experiences at school. The strategy which was meant to help makes things worse.

School refusal interventions

What’s the alternative? There is no shortcut. Adults must work out what the problem is. What’s changed for this child? What do they say about why they don’t want to go?

When did it start? What is their day like, through their eyes? How is the school managing their needs? Are there particular flashpoints for them – playtime, or the toilet perhaps?

What could be changed to make things better? And then they need to get alongside the child, and work with them with their consent. Re-integration should be done with, not to, the child.

Forcing may seem like the quickest and most efficient way to manage school refusal, but it’s a strategy with the potential to entrench difficulties.

Instead, we need to see refusal as a symptom. It alerts us to the presence of a problem, but the problem itself must still be understood.

Dr Naomi Fisher is a clinical psychologist and author of Changing our Minds@naomicfisher