My second column for Special Needs Jungle and I am very excited! I suggested to Tania that I write my next column on school refusal. It is a subject that is very close to my heart and one that can plunge me into the depths of despair within an instant.
It’s been six weeks now since the schools returned after the long and somewhat hot summer break, and 12 weeks since I had the conversation with my now 15 year old son about the importance of Year 10. All the while, I was trying not to mention the ‘school’ word as this has the potential to create complete shut down and gets neither of us anywhere!
I end up feeling completely isolated, helpless, anxious and worried (and in the early days of the refusal, angry too!) So if I am feeling this way I can only imagine how my son must be feeling. Not only has he got the pressure of not attending school, he now has the added burden of my feelings.
But it’s not that he doesn’t want to go to school, not deep down; he just can’t! He has the best intentions when we do talk and discuss the issues surrounding non-attendance, but when it comes to the crunch he just cannot do it.
I have spoken with many parents of children who are “school phobic” and refuse to attend and find the stories are similar: little or no support, threats of Education Welfare, an overstretched and under resourced CAMHS service, School that doesn’t know what to do and the local authority whose departments are so preoccupied with protecting their budgets that the needs of the child are unmet for often long periods of time.
So what can you do? Well, if you are a parent you can go and speak to the school, try to find out (if you don’t already know or suspect why the refusal is occurring) why this is happening to your child. Speak to a member of staff who you feel comfortable with and where possible, follow this up with an email to keep a track of the communication and a record of any attempt to liaise with school.
Try to be open and approachable. Schools are there to provide support to the child and in the majority of cases will want to support your child back to school. Ask school if there is a counselling service available to pupils as this may be helpful, enquire about any pastoral support available and look around for any local parent support groups for yourself – self-care is very important especially with this type of difficulty, as school phobia can be misunderstood and there are many well-meaning friends out there that will be telling you how to get your child to school and how they would be dealing with it if their child refused to attend!
Keep the paths of communication clear, even if you are feeling frustrated and angry and try not to respond emotionally to what may feel like criticism. However if this does happen, and it has to me, then take the time to reflect and process what happened. If telephoning feels difficult or daunting, then email or write a letter expressing what is happening, how you and your child feel and how you want the situation to progress. If you work with the school to try to improve attendance, this will demonstrate good will to Education Welfare, which can be useful if non-attendance becomes severe or permanent.
See your GP and again ensure it is a GP that you feel comfortable talking with. If that means waiting a few extra days for the appointment then so be it. Better to wait a few days and be heard, than to take an appointment offered and leave feeling judged and frustrated.
If the refusal is ongoing or you are worried about your child’s mental health, ask for a referral for your child to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) They are the service that are there to help when children are experiencing difficulties with their mental health and wellbeing. There will be a reason for school refusing even if it does not seem obvious. CAMHS are available in every area and have counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists, although you may have to ask about this service and there could be a waiting list. Ask about medication, could it be beneficial?
If your child has a statement, then you can contact your case officer and ask for advice. There are home tutors available if your child’s difficulties fit the criteria or online learning such as Academy 21 which would need funding via the school or LA. But you will need to ask what is available, don’t assume you will be told.
If you are employed by the SEN team from the LA and are reading this, take this opportunity to put measures and guidelines in place that are parent-friendly. You need to demonstrate that you are following the guidelines given by the DfE on school attendance and school refusal and be open and transparent with parents about what is happening and what needs to happen.
Lastly, be prepared for the long haul and be kind to yourself, small steps are better than no school at all. Depending on the age of your child and your circumstances, take any reintegration slowly. Build up and go at the pace of your child, listen to what they tell you they can cope with. It might be that you need to start
Above all keep calm and keep strong; it might not feel like it now but you will eventually find a solution that works for your family.
Have you had similar experiences? What are your tips for coping and helping your child?
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