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School Anxiety & Refusal

School Anxiety & Refusal

School Anxiety & Refusal

This information is taken from the Young Minds website:

It’s normal for children and young people to feel worried about something that’s happening at school – for example, when starting a new school or during exams. Sometimes, however, school can become challenging, stressful or distressing over a much longer period of time.

If your child is feeling anxious about school, or not able to go, it can be exhausting for both of you. Mornings in particular can become really stressful for the whole family, as you try to juggle your child’s feelings alongside the need to get them to school and get on with your other responsibilities such as work. Even if you manage to get your child to the school gate, you might know how difficult they’re going to find the day – or know that you’ll be facing the same problem tomorrow morning.

When anxiety builds up to the point that a young person cannot go to school, this is often called ‘school refusal’ – and you might hear the school or other professionals using this term. However, many young people and parents do not like this term because it implies that ‘refusing’ school is a choice, and you may prefer to use terms such as emotionally-based school avoidance (ESBA) or anxiety-related absence.

What makes young people feel anxious about school?

Young people can feel anxious about school for lots of different reasons. They might be worried about making friends or fitting in, find schoolwork or lessons confusing, feel pressured to learn in a certain way or find their relationships with teachers difficult.

Sometimes, going through difficult experiences outside of school – such as bereavement, an illness in the family or being a young carer – can also make it harder for a child to feel settled at school.

For some young people, the school environment isn’t right for them, and trying to fit into it can create a huge amount of stress. This might be the case if they are struggling with their mental health, or have a neurodiverse condition or Special Educational Need (SEN) such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia. This can make the school environment anxiety-provoking and exhausting, especially if their condition or need is undiagnosed or not being well supported.

Young people might show they’re feeling anxious about school by:

  • not wanting to get up and get ready
  • saying they can’t go
  • worrying a lot about small issues, such as having the right equipment for a lesson
  • feeling sick, or having stomach aches or headaches
  • not sleeping well
  • not doing schoolwork, or their grades dropping
  • being angry or upset, or acting out – at school or at home
  • withdrawing – seeming low, quiet or depressed

Finding out what’s going on for your child

Sometimes it can be difficult to work out what’s making your child feel anxious, and the first step is often helping them to identify exactly what’s worrying them. Once you understand the problem, you’ll be in a much better position to make changes that can help.

Young people can find it hard to explain what’s causing their feelings, and might not be able to answer direct questions like ‘what’s going on?’ Using an anxiety iceberg can help to open up the conversation – giving you a more relaxed way of exploring together what’s causing their anxiety.

If you’re making an anxiety iceberg with younger children, you might want to draw images on the iceberg, or encourage them to write simple words. With older children and teenagers, you can ask them to write key words and phrases on the iceberg, or do this as a mind map, with ‘school’ in the middle and all the things they’re finding difficult around the outside.

Through this exercise, you might identify worries such as arriving at school, finding the environment noisy or overwhelming, finding lessons confusing, feeling lonely through the day, or feeling uncomfortable during specific subjects.

Making changes at school

Once you understand what’s going on for your child, you can use their anxiety iceberg or mind map to communicate with the school and ask for specific changes.

Follow these steps to start a conversation with the school:

1. Ask for a meeting with the class teacher or tutor group lead, the pastoral lead or the school’s SENCO.

2. Make notes of what you want to say beforehand, and during the meeting go through the specific things your child is finding difficult. You can also ask the teacher whether they have noticed any situations that seem particularly challenging for your child.

3. If you and your child have already identified some things that might help, ask for specific changes. If you’re not sure where to start, you can ask them what changes the school can offer – or have a look at our ideas below.

4. Take notes during the meeting, agree any changes you’re going to try, and follow up with them afterwards by email. You could also ask for the changes to be formalised in an Individual Education Plan. This is a plan schools can use to make sure your child is given consistent adjustments across all of their lessons.

5. Arrange a time when you will check-in again to see if things have improved, allowing some time for your child to try out the new change or routine.

6. If the person you’re speaking to isn’t helping, find someone else who will – such as their head of year or the deputy head. If you need to, you can also escalate the problem to the head teacher, governors, academy trust or the Local Education Authority.

Here are some examples of things you can ask the school for:

If your child finds arriving at school difficult:

  • Younger children might find it helpful to arrive ten minutes early and have a job to do like tidying the classroom or setting the first lesson up. This gives them a calm start to the day with a clear purpose.
  • Teenagers might like to have a safe space where they can sit at the beginning of the day with a staff mentor, such as someone from the pastoral team. They can then return to this space if they need to at particularly difficult moments through the day.
  • Having a flexible start time can help to take the pressure off.
  • Having a friend meet them at the gate can reduce anxiety around walking into school and getting to the classroom.

If your child is finding things overwhelming or confusing:

  • Being given a visual timetable, with pictures to represent registration, different subjects and breaktimes can help give them a clear structure.
  • Having a ‘now, next, then’ card, which your child can edit through the day to keep track of what’s coming next, can break the day down into smaller steps.
  • Being given written instructions when they’re asked to complete a task can help if they’re finding it difficult to hold spoken instructions in their head.
  • Providing support when moving between lessons, and being given a warning before the next transition, can reduce how overwhelming it might feel.

If your child feels anxious or uncomfortable through the school day:

  • Linking your child with a peer buddy or mentor, or a staff mentor, can give them a safe person to talk to and make sure someone is regularly checking in with them at school.
  • Being given a safe space, such as a wellbeing room or the pastoral team’s office, which they can drop into when needed, can help them to manage difficult moments.
  • Having an ‘exit card’ that lets them leave a lesson if they’re too anxious, and a safe space or person to go to, can help them know they have an ‘out’ when things get too much.
  • Having a flexible or reduced timetable can take the pressure off.

If your child is feeling isolated or finding relationships at school difficult:

  • Having activities and clubs they can do at break and lunchtimes can provide some structure and reduce feelings of anxiety about what they’ll do.
  • Being part of a club, or being given a responsibility such as library monitor, can make them feel more involved.
  • Linking your child with a peer buddy or mentor can help them to feel there’s someone at school who cares about them.
  • Some schools may run groups about things like making friends, which can help your child to meet peers in a smaller group and think about these issues in a safe space.

Remember that even though this situation can be really tough for you and your child, it’s a good idea to maintain a positive relationship with the school. Recognise the support they’re offering and any changes they’re making. This will help you work together to make things better for your child.


Strategies you can try at home

Create a morning routine or timetable – Having a routine for getting up, getting dressed, having breakfast and leaving the house can create a sense of security and reduce stress for you too. Try to prepare things like checking their timetable, packing bags and laying out clothes the night before. In the morning, focus on the one thing they need to do next as you work your way through the timetable, rather than thinking about a big goal like ‘getting to school’.

Think together about how your child can manage their anxiety- Younger children might like to take something from home, like a favourite toy, into school with them – or use a worry box at home to help contain their anxieties. Teenagers might like to fill a box with things that help them feel calm.

Encourage them to do things that help them relax – Having time to unwind after school can be important. This could be spending time with friends and family, listening to music, going for a walk or run, playing sport, baking, drawing or watching a favourite film.

Recognise small achievements – Notice small successes such as getting out of bed at the right time or handing work in at school – and tell your child you’re really impressed with them.

Try to take the pressure off- On some days your child may not be able to manage schoolwork or homework. Remember their mood will go up and down and you can always try again the next day.

If your child isn’t able to go to school at the moment

If your child isn’t going to school at the moment, this can be incredibly stressful and exhausting for you – and really tough for your child. You might be worried about whether they will be able to get back to school or the impact on their education. Or, you might feel overwhelmed because you’re juggling this alongside work and other family commitments.

If your child’s anxiety about school has built up to the point where they can’t go, it’s a good idea to get them some professional mental health or SEN support

Helping your child return to school after an absence

Getting back to school after weeks or months may feel extremely difficult for your child, but you and the school can help make it more manageable. Here are some things you can do to help:

Set small, achievable targets, such as visiting the building outside school hours or attending one lesson.

Request a home visit from a school staff member so your child can check in while feeling safe, see that the school cares and discuss any strategies that might help them.

Ask for a reduced timetable, with regular reviews to discuss building back up at a manageable rate.

Discuss changing classes or sets if your child thinks this would help.

Focus on qualifications needed for what your child wants to do next, perhaps dropping a less relevant GCSE to reduce stress.

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