If you haven’t read our last post, feel free to head there now as the strategies you implement to help your children readjust to school will vary depending upon their reasons for school refusal. If your child reports feeling sick, ensure that you first visit your GP to rule out physical health issues.
For children that want to avoid general school-related distress or fear of judgment from others:
- Educate them about the experience of anxiety or emotional distress. Visit Beyond Blue Healthy Families for a range of age-appropriate information. Remain supportive, understanding, and empathise with their experience.
- Help them develop awareness of their thoughts and feelings. Ask them what it is they are afraid of happening, and what they are feeling. For example, your child might feel anxious about attending school because they have the thought “I’m going to mess up my speech in front of the class” or “I’m going to get in trouble from my teacher”.
- Help them draw the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Explain the difference between unhelpful versus helpful thoughts, and how these lead to different emotions and behaviours. An unhelpful thought might be “I’m going to mess up in sport” leading to anxiety (feeling) and avoidance (behaviour) of school, whereas a helpful thought might be “I might make a mistake in sport, but it won’t be a big deal”, leading to mild anxiety (feeling) and school attendance (behaviour).
- Help them to use questions to challenge their unrealistic or unhelpful thoughts. Some helpful questions might include:
o Am I completely sure this is happening or will happen?
o What is the worst thing that could happen?
o Even if the worst thing happened, would I be able to cope?
o How would I feel an hour later? What about one week or a month later?
o What happened last time I worried about this?
o Has this ever happened before? What happened last time?
o What would I say to a friend who was in this situation?
- If your child’s fear of school attendance is more severe, they may benefit from a graded approach in returning to school. On day one, you might start by taking them to school to familiarise them with the area. The next day, they might attend a quarter of a full day, followed by half and a full day. In each situation, ensure that your child receives praise, encouragement, and an appropriate reward for completing the step. Further information about this process can be found here from Anxiety Canada.
For children that avoid school to seek attention from significant others or gain tangible rewards outside of school:
- Establish a clear step-by-step morning routine detailing the tasks required before going to school, ensuring that it allows enough time for potential refusal and complaints of physical symptoms.
- Modify your interactions with your child while they are distressed. Attention from adults, even when negative, is a powerful reinforcer for children. It is important to refrain from yelling, lecturing, or excessively reassuring your child. Instead, try to ignore minor inappropriate behaviours such as whining or complaints about physical symptoms, and praise any steps towards getting ready for school.
- Establish rewards and consequences for school attendance/non-attendance. Rewards could involve providing more attention to your child, letting them pick a favourite meal or movie, or having a later bedtime. Consequences could involve reducing the amount of attention your child gets for not going to school, such as reduced time with you, earlier bedtime, or missing out on another activity.
- Give brief and clear commands that tell your child exactly what to do (e.g., pack your lunch box in your bag), and praise compliance. Remain calm and use a neutral tone, as this prevents providing unintended attention and reinforcement.
If your child requires further support, you can get help from a professional. Treatment with a psychologist will involve a thorough assessment of your child’s presenting problems, and a tailored treatment plan that accounts for the complex contextual factors that influence school refusal behaviours. Talking with your GP is the best place to start. After discussing your child’s symptoms, they can direct you to a psychologist near you.