Children can refuse to go to school at any age, and we are all familiar with adolescents ‘bunking off’ school. However, it is surprisingly common in the latency years too, the in-between years from 5 to 12. At any age it is often to do with an anxiety about separating from parents, and an eventual growing up into adulthood.
What can parents do? Firstly they need to look at the immediate school environment. Talk to the school teacher. Talk to your child. Is there bullying going on? Is there a hidden learning need that has gone un-noticed up until now? In other words, it doesn’t have to be about separation anxiety – it can arise from an issue that can be hopefully addressed by school and parents.
It can also arise from a more complex mixture of issues. For example, if a child is undergoing emotional difficulties at home, such as a parental separation, he or she might be more inclined to be bullied, attracting disturbance in other children. Concentration levels can reduce, leading to a decline in confidence and deterioration in work. It is really important to look at the whole picture. What is going on in the child’s world?
Having ascertained the problem, there is a choice of ways forward. Something seemingly straightforward like someone other than the child’s mother taking him or her to school can help. Children will often leave a father much more easily than they will a mother. Or set up a pre-school meet with a friend. Even breakfast together if you can get up extra early. Also, a Teaching Assistant meeting a child personally can be a comfort to child and parent. Examine how you feel as a parent when your child is unhappy about going into school. Who is more upset, you or the child? Be aware of how it was for you as a child going to school? Did you enjoy school or was it a painful experience? Children and their parents are so close that quite unspoken thoughts, feelings and attitudes pass from one to the other.
If none of the above work, adopt an open approach to jointly think about your child’s refusal with school staff, who are used to dealing with difficulties and can sometimes offer specialist services. Often a reduced programme of schooling can be set up with the school, with a gradual build-up to full re-integration. School refusers can be thought of as manipulative and controlling. If they are, it usually arises from a fear of powerlessness, and they need to be treated firmly but sensitively to help them to feel that the adults are safely in charge but that they will be listened to as well. Sometimes professional help needs to be sought, and a problem that seemed insurmountable can be turned around relatively quickly. Parents might not seek professional help because of a fear of failure, or because of the stigma around it. This is understandable but is unfounded. Many, many children pass through painful, difficult phases of childhood and grow up to be stable and successful people.
Some parents choose to educate at home, and provided those parents are able to adequately provide structure and routine, with a rich and varied social life, for their children, this can work well. However, the separation issue needs to be monitored. If you do choose this route, arrange lots of lessons and activities for your child away from you and the home. Also, as children grow, what you are offering needs to be monitored. It is much harder to home educate an adolescent than a younger child. Some parents might consider home schooling, but don’t have the luxury of choice, with other demands to balance.
Whatever your situation, it is surmountable. Painful and provoking, but with lots of input you can help your child through this difficult phase.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists