School days are the best days of your life, or so the saying goes. But that doesn’t apply to everyone, unfortunately.
Parentline is reporting a huge increase in calls from parents around school refusal since children went back to school in September.
When people think of school refusal, they often picture a child who won’t do as they are told, giving their parents the run around. However, that is very far from the reality.
School refusal is where a child or teenager is feeling anxiety to such an extent that they feel they can’t go to school or stay in school for the full day despite their best efforts.
Children experiencing this can range from mild symptoms, with unexplained tummy pains or headaches, or it can be so severe that a young person is out of school for weeks or months.
It usually happens for one of two reasons – either anxiety due to being separated from family or anxiety related to something to do with school such as academic difficulties, social difficulties, bullying, and issues with a teacher or the physical environment.
It can happen at any time, although it’s much more likely to happen during times of stress or change such as starting primary or secondary school.
While it’s important to remember that children are resilient and many of them bounce back from ordinary stresses and strains, 2020 is not an ordinary year.
Given the change, uncertainty and stress we have all experienced this year, it is no surprise that it is manifesting as an increase in school refusal. In early January and February, Covid-related anxiety began to feature in my clinic.
It began with children sharing their fears of dying or worries about parents dying. This fear then morphed into worries about passing it on to beloved grandparents.
And then the day came that schools were to close. For many children, this was cause for celebration, a welcome reprieve from overcrowded schedules, rules and school-related anxiety.
Like many, my own children thrived with the freedom. For others, it marked the beginning of anxiety along with the added pressure families were under due to home schooling, job insecurity and financial uncertainty without the buffer of grandparents, friends and after-school activities.
After much uncertainty, the day eventually came when it was time to return to school; only this time, there was widespread change and visible reminders of Covid everywhere you look.
Students entering first year faced additional difficulty – they do not know what many of their classmates and teachers look like without masks, reducing their ability to recognise faces.
Now we are once more in level 5, yet the schools have remained open despite overcrowded classrooms.
Windows must be kept open due to poor ventilation. Parents and educators are stressed and kids are too. There is only so much we can take before it all becomes too much.
For many children, this is manifesting as school refusal, beginning with tummy pains in the morning and tears at night and ending with outright refusal to enter the school building.
Avoidance is the hallmark of anxiety and, for many, this becomes avoiding going to or even talking about school.
As with most things, early intervention is the key.
Parents need to make sure that the day at home should be boring with no screens! Go back to basics and prioritise diet, sleep and exercise along with anxiety-management strategies such as breathing and working through fears.
Even if a child is not going to school, they should follow the school routine of wearing the uniform, completing school work and submitting it to the teacher for feedback.
Some children may be eligible to access home tuition or online learning through iScoil.
Children often experience school refusal because their brain and body perceive threat or danger even when they are physically safe.
The first step is to figure out the cause of the anxiety and then develop a plan to increase feelings of safety.
Building a relationship with a key adult in the school is essential. All stressors in school need to be identified and reduced where possible.
Additional support for learning or social difficulties needs to be put in place and any bullying behaviour needs to be addressed.
Getting back to school must be prioritised and the initial goal can be as small as simply entering the school building.
The target can be increased slightly each day so that the child can experience feeling safe in school and slowly work up to attending school for a full day.
I have successfully used this approach with many children in my clinic to help them feel safe in school, get back to education and increase their coping skills for life.
On a positive note, hope is very much on the horizon. Level 3 and Christmas are on the way.
Soon after, spring and, with a bit of luck, a vaccine. But this does not take away from the need for targeted investment in education and mental health services.
Even before Covid, we had significant issues with school-related anxiety and school refusal in Ireland.
Young people are more stressed than ever before and the fallout from 2020 will be felt for years to come.
- Catherine Hallissey is a child psychologist.