Banned from Prom, but my school refuser son’s new future beckons

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What happens now…

A while back I wrote a piece about school refusal and gave some ideas that were hopefully helpful for other people experiencing a similar situation.

Our story has moved on and as of this June 2015, my son Ed who's now 16, officially left school. Not that he had actually been in attendance mind you!

I know some families have successfully managed to reintegrate their son or daughter back into school and I take my hat of to those who have been successful. Such a difficult time, so very well done to you all, especially to your young person. We were not so fortunate.

It may have been too little too late!

It may have been a case of too little too late, maybe Ed’s trust of the whole system was so damaged that it was the only way he coped by refusing to put himself back in an environment where he felt so… well, to be honest, I don’t know how he felt as he has never felt able (or wanted) to share this with us.

Recently, I was looking through one of my many counselling books about adolescents. In it was a half page, yes, an entire a half page, on school refusal and I was surprised to read that school refusal came under a topic of ‘environmental stressors’ and that while there can be many different reasons for a child who refuses to attend school, often the problem comes down to family relationships. 1

It suggests that families are either too involved with one another, causing the young person to not want to leave the safety of the family; that they are not involved enough and do not notice when a problem is arising or that the family unit is isolated and tends to shut the outside world off from themselves.

I gave these suggestions some thought, a lot of thought actually as I, like many parents, will willingly adopt the back-breaking role of bearing total responsibility for everything that has ever gone wrong in my son’s life and forever feel an element of, dare I say it, guilt! But I just couldn’t see where these suggestions were coming from.

And more worryingly, if this is the stance adopted by some of the many professionals that we have dealt with, then it's no wonder it has been so difficult to obtain any type of support.

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We're Flawed and that's OK!

Our family has its flaws: we're human! However we are neither over-involved, dysfunctional nor isolated (although we may have been a little bit of each at random times through our journey together) so I find these suggestions bordering on the ridiculous or maybe they hadn’t taken into account families of children with SEN.

Our son’s experience of school before the refusal began was awful, I found myself going through some of the paperwork recently from primary school and I wonder really how Ed attended as much as he did, the way he was treated because many members of staff were inexperienced dealing with a child with ADHD and social and communication difficulties. It was appalling, heart-breaking and, in my opinion, was almost certainly the trigger for Ed’s later refusal.

The information on school refusal also states that ongoing refusal could lead to long-term dysfunction for the young person. Worrying stuff! Or it would be if it wasn't for the fact that now Ed has finished his compulsory education years, he is working part-time, has secured himself a place at college and is actively looking forward to beginning his course.

Adding insult to injury

Ed was out of school for approximately three and half years. For both of us (and my husband) this was many, many months of stress, distress and worry. Many tears were shed. We are hoping college will be a fresh start and a brighter future. But his school hadn't quite finished with heaping the misery on our family.

All around me I've been hearing of leavers’ proms, discos and celebratory meals for all the Year 11s who attended school. Not for Ed though. Because his attendance was so poor, he was not permitted to attend any of the functions put on by school. Although Ed was received an emailed invitation to attend a year 11 celebratory meal, when we replied in acceptance, we were firmly informed by the Head of the school that, after careful consideration, a decision had been made to revoke Ed's invite. To us, this was yet another indication that those who were there to support Ed believed his school refusal was his own fault; that it was wilful and deliberate and an active choice. It felt like one last kick in the teeth for our son and I was gutted for him.

Ed told his school he didn't care about being barred from attending but he told me an entirely different story. I know he would have loved to have been able to say a “formal” goodbye. Indeed, it would have been beneficial for him.

Image: let go of the past
c. SNJ

The importance of a good ending!

So, there has been no final ‘closure’ to Ed’s schooldays, 11 years of his life without an “official” ending, which is pretty upsetting really. I feel sad that we, as his parents, haven’t experienced an ending either, as I believe they are so important.

Endings in life happen all the time and the way they are handled can establish the pattern for how they are handled in future. I was concerned that not being able to officially ‘close the door’ on this unhappy chapter of his life might delay his learning what a good ending can look like. I know and understand that this will be learned later in life but it doesn't prevent me from feeling unhappy that his chance of a good memory was taken away in what seemed like an unnecessary punishment. In effect, it was the school saying, 'This is what happens to kids whom we fail to help. They don't get to go to the ball!'

During my training as a counselor, I learned that a good ending can make way for a much more effective beginning to the next phase. As the school were determined not to give this to Ed, it is up to me to ensure he gets the closure he needs.

I'm making plans to do just this – to help him mentally tie up loose ends, talk to him as much as he will allow and arrange a day out to somewhere of his choice. It will be a way to enable him to shed the skin of the “school refuser” that he no longer needs so he can emerge ready for a new experience of being a young adult. I hope it will help him understand that that was then, this is now – a new beginning, a chance to reinvent himself into the young man that I know he has the potential to be.

  1 Kearney and silverman, (1995), cited in Geldard and Geldard, (2010).

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Angela Kelly

Psychotherapist & SEND parent at Emotions Counselling & Psychotherapy
Angela Kelly is a practising psychotherapist in Surrey. She is the parent of two sons who have autism and ADHD. Angela is Special Needs Jungle's Mental Health Editor
Angela Kelly
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11 Comments

  1. aspieinthefamily

    I totally get this. My son was a school refuser and missed years of his secondary education due to how he was treated at primary school. I won’t go into detail but the bigoted attitude of his SENCO blocked his access to support which ultimately led to him having, what I consider, a breakdown. He was so unwell that he could hardly talk (except to plead to die), became fixated on a cartoon which he watched over and over again and reacted with deep upset to anything connected with school. Such was his reaction that I banned any school related talk for months to enable him to mentally recover. The CAHMS psych diagnosed severe anxiety/agoraphobia but in hindsight I believe my son developed PTSD due to neglect at school. More disturbingly I recently noticed on his medical records that he had been noted as having a separation anxiety. Where has this come from, no one mentioned this to me. What worries me are the attitudes that lie behind this diagnosis, the idea that perhaps as a mother “they” think that I’m part of the problem. There is no consideration that school were behind my sons health problems, perhaps it’s easier to blame the least powerful person, me the mother, because that fits in with the general anti parenting discourse in the country.

    Fortunately we’ve started to turn things around. After a rocky start which involved some difficult discussions with college he has now started to settle to such an extent that he is teaching himself computer programming. He is far from dysfunctional.

    For my daughter however things are worse in that there is no school for her and I’ve been coerced by the LA into home educating her. Things have not gone well as she is anti learning and refuses formal lessons. I believe primary school has also damaged her and like her brother has now developed mental health problems. After three years and a showdown with professionals I’ve now got her under a CAMHS psychiatrist. In terms of her education it has been interesting to see her natural curiosity develop in areas such as politics and geography. As a result we have the most brilliant of conversations in which I can push her thinking without her realising she is, in fact, learning. However I am ver mindful that she is isolated and not going through what most of her age group are experiencing – I worry about the memories she will have of these formative years and how it’ll affect her later on in life. Your idea of a good ending is one I will try and use with my daughter.

    1. Angela Watts Kelly

      Hi there, thanks for your comment. There is so little research about the effect that school has on our kids despite the increase in mental health difficulties We also avoided the ‘S’ word as the reaction it created was so awful. I am so relieved we are hopefully moving on now and i hope you are too.

  2. Yvonne Hambidge

    This post makes me feel sad and angry in equal measure. When will schools understand that some children ‘can’t’ attend, it’s not a case of simply choosing not too! Personally, I applaud those families who make the decision to stop putting their children into such damaging environments and I agree with the previous comment about ptsd, I genuinely believe some of our children experience this as a result of inappropriate schooling methods and unsuitable environments. You must be so proud of your son and what he is now achieving, free from the constraints of statutory education. I hope he continues to fly….

    1. Angela Watts Kelly

      Hi Yvonne, thank you for commenting. We found that it was assumed it was a wilful act rather than a personal choice which was so sad. I am proud of him and I really hope he can make a success of college.

  3. Heidi Riches

    my son refused to attend his y11 celebratory meal so there was no official goodbye for him. His ed psych said it was amazing that he was still attending school – they have made his life hell for 4 years and refused to give him any learning support at all, told him off for stimming, did not deal with bullying and did not sanction a prefect that threatened to stab him, told him off when he had been confronted by a member of staff (just days after I had emailed to say a psychiatrist had told me to avoid all confrontation) and he needed a few mins alone, and was called just one child by the head. so I am lucky that I did not have the non- attendance to deal with on top of all other stress the school were creating (ed psych said school was to blame for his mh problems). It really really annoys me when I read about schools that do not understand ASCs and do not give the right support. All staff coming into contact with these children need training and any heads that like to rub salt in the wounds or refuse support for children need sacking. My son did pass all GCSEs despite the school and starts college this week. I am sure your son will move on and make a success of himself despite the school. This is the start of a new chapter in his life and with the right support will be way better than his experience of school.

  4. Chris R

    This is very sad. I have a 15 year old high functioning autist at a grammar school. She refuses to engage with anyone she considers either an authority figure, or with an agenda to ‘help’ or ‘support’ her. She has had days off from school and is now beginning to truant frequently.

    We do not know if she can’t go or won’t go. We suspect a mixture of both, being a very wilful teenager. School’s reintegration policy is to force her to attend a high-powered meeting, when ‘meetings’ are the very issue that has caused her to run in the first place. She must also sign risk assessments which contain threats (exclusion, banned from prom etc) if she does not comply.

    She refuses to contact us when we let her go into town so the police must be called. And then she refuses to engage with the police.

    We have suggested she drop a GCSE or two to take pressure off her, but such is her ‘control’ she won’t even allow that, despite not being able to keep up.

    CAMHS watch from a distance and try to advise us, but no one has any means of reaching her.

    Is her defiance anxiety driven? or rebellion driven? or both? Difficult to know how to respond when it’s impossible to tell….

    All very exasperating.

    1. Angela Watts Kelly

      Thank you for commenting Chris and sorry to read about your situation. Sounds very difficult for all of you. It is so difficult to know why our children don’t go to school and asking them seems to add to their stress buckets. Will your daughter communicate with you in other ways other than verbally? Via text message or email, it may give her more time to process what you are saying to her. There is a really good book that i have read and found some of it quite helpful http://www.amazon.co.uk/Explosive-Child-Understanding-Frustrated-Chronically-ebook/dp/B00GLS4XT4/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444030608&sr=1-1&keywords=the+explosive+child. Often behaviour is driven by anxiety. Are you a member of any support groups locally or Facebook groups as they can be a great source of support and advice. Best wishes to you all
      and I hope things improve,

      1. Chris R

        We have a small measure of success with text messaging, on basic matters such as not playing guitar at 2.30am or arranging pick up time from town. We are also members of the bucks G.R.A.S.P.S group for parents of autistic children. Will have a look at that book. Many thanks!

  5. Fran Conley

    This is our family story as well. We had to fight and fight and occasionally, we met someone who supported us. This was particularly troubling to me as I myself am a Senco and Deputy Headteacher-I couldn’t believe how difficult the school and the whole system made everything. We were blamed, reprimanded and threatened by people with no idea of what they were dealing with. Ironically, the headteacher who kept giving my son advice about how to deal with stress hung himself last year. The good news is that we held firm as a family and our son is now a happy and fully functional 18 year old, applying for university after being out of school for many years. So what was the problem? The secondary school. Not the family, as we were repeatedly told. When will the SCHOOL take responsibility I wonder?

  6. Fran Conley

    Angela, it’s so important people keep sharing their stories of school anxiety-thank you. This was one of the things that kept me going through the dark years-knowing that it wasn’t just my family. As a professional, please keep speading your story amongst your peers; I have done this as well and had success in raising awareness. I rack my brains every day about how else to help to help families with this devastating problem but, at the moment, I have no solution.

    1. Angela Watts Kelly

      Thanks Fran and sorry to read what your family had to endure too. So frustrating for us and devastating for our kids but as you say, awareness is key in changing attitudes and opinions. Glad to read your story has a happy ending and your son is now happy and looking forward to Uni.

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