The school refuser.
Defined as when children refuse to attend school, it arrives hand in hand with school anxiety and phobia. Serious emotional problems, they each present differently for different children. The language is painted with stigma and implies that the child has a choice when in fact they feel unable to go to school. Fear may reveal itself with tears bedtime, physical complaints like a stomach-ache over toast, or as you get to the school gate. It comes in the form overwhelming meltdowns, running back home and lashing out. It is hard not to like your child. For myself as an exhausted mother it took time to realise that this was not manipulation. Had absolutely nothing to do with behaviour, defiance or poor parenting. Nothing at all.
Leo is considered to be academically bright; he had a small group of friends and his behaviour in class is not disruptive. He says he does not like school.
The reality of a morning.
Alexa begins the day with her playful alarm. I’m cultivating a growing sense of dislike towards the robotic timekeeper. Tired feet find their way into socks as I peel back the curtains to reveal dark mornings. It is always worse in winter, in the rain and cold. The night has been shattered with nightmares recently and I often will spend part of it not sleeping on the sofa next to my sons’ bed. It is important to be dressed and have the baby up. Breakfast laid out and bags packed. Time before nine am needs to be structured. Think manageable steps rather than over regimented.
At 7.15 I gently go and wake Leo, raise the lights, put a song on quietly and stroke his bed warmed head. Different days bring different greetings, sometimes a half growl-half squeal, sometimes a shout ‘no I don’t want to!’ Sometimes a quiet voice saying, ‘I feel sick’. Our predictable routine offers a steady hand to guide us through. Get dressed, have breakfast, brush teeth and then there is time to play. None of these falls so smoothly after each other, each is filled with rejections and a cross face.
He howls like I am hurting him as I gently put arms in sleeves. Maybe for him it hurts but so cold outside.
Patience. I wish I had an endless reservoir, most days I calmly just methodically and encouragingly brush off the shouts. Guide feet into socks as they are kicked off just as fast. Sometimes I get frustrated and shout. Like others the worry of truancy, being late to work and the physical and emotional beatings are a heavy weight.
At the door is when things tend to escalate. Sometimes I think it starts as a game, but it descends into pure distress. Pushing his way upstairs, throwing his coat. Some websites say don’t physically force a child to school, but his advised us to try get him there, so he sees whatever he does this is the outcome. His younger sister is often wide eyed in the buggy. She doesn’t understand. We don’t swear at home but when this angry Leo will shout, ‘I am not bloody going,’ over and over. Loudly. All the time I try and keep my voice gentle, soothing. Talking reassuringly, about football, the weather, anything. He fits in the space between my arms and the pushchair safe or will dive into traffic in desperation. We walk slowly as he screams and elbows, being half carried. The bigger he gets the more punishing it is. I sport a lot of bruises. I’d lie if I said it wasn’t embarrassing, everyone eyeballing you, either tutting or asking if he is ok. The other parents supportive nods keep me going.
Once sitting on the comfortable reception green sofa, he immediately calms down. The hitting stops and he can spend time in a calming room talking about his feelings. In ten minutes, he will be transformed and laughing in class the staff explain. Slowly I walk home and calm the baby, mentally exhausted, my arms heavy. It would be lying if I said it didn’t make me cry. To see his pain, and to physically receive the evidence of it, fist by fist. In reality I need to return to work soon but how when the school run can sometimes take an hour?
Roots of refusal.
School anxiety and school refusal can emerge for a range of reasons. The causation multifaceted – separation anxiety, inability to cope with the curriculum, boredom, bullying, disagreement with teachers, low self-esteem, transitions at home, illness, social overwhelm from spectrum disorders can all contribute to a child’s difficulties at school. Look for patterns to absence or avoidance as it may be linked to lessons. Speak to a member of staff at school who knows your child well and ask for their help. Like Leo, your child may display different behaviour at home to that in school. Emotions are kept bottled up, ‘contained’ until the end of the school day and released when they are at home where they feel safe.
For us a frenzied little boy runs up and down stairs at 3.30, stamping and hitting at the walls.
So why make him go to school?
Some parents will think I am cruel for sending him. Don’t think I haven’t thought it myself. I get him there because avoiding a feared situation only increases the anxiety when you have to face it the next time. To me it’s important he be empowered to face things he is afraid of. There is of course the legal obligation. We considered home-schooling or Steiner and Forest schools, but money is a problem. If other parents are in the same boat, I can only hold out my hand and offer solidarity. I wish for a day.
For Leo, we are about to go down an ASD assessment route. I am not sure if I am hopeful that he receives a diagnosis, or that he doesn’t.
I desperately hope that the dread ends for him.