Anxiety is a normal human reaction to stress and it actually serves a purpose. When we’re stressed, our body produces more adrenaline, allowing us to think and move faster and to speed up our reactions. In our caveman days, a good dose of adrenaline when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, would certainly help deciding that this is a dangerous animal and running away very fast would be a great idea. This is great in the short term and when there’s something we can actually do but it becomes a problem when the anxiety us long term and it seems there is nothing that helps. For some people, especially if they’ve not experienced much stress or anxiety before, the symptoms can be very distressing and can feel like something is seriously wrong. Symptoms include:

  • Palpitations/racing heart
  • Feeling hot
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Shortness of breath
  • Light-headedness/dizziness
  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Sleep problems
  • Being more emotional
  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches or backache
  • Sweating
  • Aggression

Experiencing a few of those symptoms together is going to make you feel pretty rubbish and it can be a surprise to find that they’re caused by anxiety, when you feel them very physically. Adults are regularly referred for counselling or given medication to help with anxiety and/or advised to take up exercise, meditation and sometimes given breathing or muscle relaxation techniques. Now adults have usually encountered a fair amount of stress and anxiety in their lifetime and will have usually, without realising it, have developed some coping strategies, talking to friends or family, having a glass of wine (maybe 2!), etc. When these don’t work, we head to our doctors.

Now imagine you’re a child. You have no idea why you’re experiencing these symptoms, you have no idea how to cope with them. It can be frightening and overwhelming enough for an adult who can call someone, articulate what they’re feeling, make a doctor’s appointment, search for it online etc. A child has no control in this situation.

There can be many different reasons why a child may start to resist going to school. It can happen gradually, or it can happen overnight. The reason can be obvious, or it can baffle both caregivers and school staff but when a child is frightened, adults must pay attention.

There is still relatively little research on the rise in school phobia or it’s causes but there are things you can do to help.

 

  • Keep calm. Easier said than done sometimes when you have a child who appears to being defiant or they’re upset and frightened but as adults, we have to model that there is nothing to be afraid of right in that moment and it’s very hard to have a conversation or reason with someone who is scared. Use a slow, quiet voice and keep talking to a minimum, encourage slow, deep breaths. Distraction and humour can be good tools once the initial anxiety has calmed a little but used too early on, this can cause a child to not feel believed and discourage them talking to anyone.
  • Ask the child where in the body they feel their worry. If they can, ask them to tell you what that part of their body would tell you if it could talk and what they would say in response. A child can feel almost separate from their body when they feel out of control and this helps to build a connection again between the mind and body.
  • Act at the first sign of anxiety around school. If a child expresses being unhappy or worried about anything related to school, ask to meet the school teacher and discuss any concerns. Try to explore what it is that’s causing the anxiety with the child. Sometimes asking children to write their worries down or draw them is more successful.
  • Don’t talk in hushed voices or whispers or allow others to, about your child. It’s normal to want to protect them and not make them feel awkward but it can cause more anxiety if a child doesn’t know what’s being said but knows they’re being talked about.
  • Make an appointment for the child at their doctors to rule out anything physical. This can also help reassure a child that nothing is physically wrong, but it also helps to have a record of concerns over anxiety.
  • The same techniques above for adults are also good for children (except the wine!).

Break down what they need to do in small chunks so that it doesn’t seem so overwhelming and reward every small step they make towards becoming calmer and going to school.

Refusal/Phobia

If the anxiety has escalated, a child can start to refuse to go to school altogether. This can be blatant refusal or by feigning illness or finding reasons and excuses not to go. It’s very important at this point that serious action is taken, and parents and schools need to work together. The quicker any issues are resolved and the more seriously a child feels they are being taken, the easier it usually is to get them back into school. A diagnosis of anxiety from a GP can be very helpful and at this point, often a referral to CAMHS from the GP or the school is wise. Waiting lists are long and if you reach complete refusal, that’s a long time for a child to be out of school. The longer they’re out of school, the harder it is to get them back. After all, if you don’t need the appointment by the time it rolls around, someone else will. Also, a diagnosis of anxiety means your child is entitled to more help as anxiety is a disability under the equality act 2010. If a child has a SEN, including a disability such as anxiety, a school MUST make their ‘best endeavours’ to identify and secure appropriate support. A support plan needs to be put in place the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) and the child needs to be added to the SEN register.

More information can be found here: https://www.ipsea.org.uk/what-you-need-to-know/school-duties

It is important to note however, that it is recognised how much strain caregivers are under by this point. Usually there has been a gradual build-up and a parent has already spent time with a child complaining of illness or becoming upset. They have often already missed a lot of work or even had to give up work (to which I can personally attest to). It usually starts on a Sunday evening, way before ever getting anywhere near school and can cause lost sleep, disagreements on how it should be handled between caregivers, issues at work and with siblings etc. The mix of guilt for the child, pressure from schools and heavy-handed threats of fines and prosecution does nothing to ease the strain on these families and is not evidence based. Relationships between caregivers and schools can start to break down as their priorities diverge at this point when the focus needs to be on working together in the best interests of the child. I have not yet met a parent that doesn’t desperately want their child in school, home educating aside. There is a mammoth gap between not making an effort to ensure your child attends school and battling with an anxious child every day. Many caregivers are in fact feeling forced into home-educating, often at great personal, emotional and financial expense.

Sadly, I am witnessing more and more caregivers experiencing mental health problems themselves as a result, even post-traumatic stress disorder. Schools can go a long way in supporting these caregivers by knowing the law, using the appropriate guidelines, making sure appropriate support is put in place as soon as possible and being understanding and aware of the stress this situation causes. 

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