“I’m not going to school. You can’t make me!”
School refusal, a child’s repeated avoidance of attending school, is a very common and serious problem the world over. Estimates range from an average of less than 5% to as high as 28% of youth ages 5-17 who refuse to attend — or have difficulty going to or staying in — classes for two weeks or longer. Their stated reasons or excuses vary depending on the individual, but as psychologist Irit Schorr Sapir, explains in this article, the underlying dynamic is usually related to anxiety or rebellion.
“Children who refuse to go to school fall into two main groups: (1) children with school anxiety whose main characteristic is fright and (2) children with behavioral problems whose main difficulty is accepting authority and boundaries.”
As Sapir, a co-founder of the School of Nonviolent Resistance, explains, such fearful children are at risk of losing their ability to maintain social connections and participate in the outside world. The more rebellious children risk falling under bad influences and developing antisocial behaviors. But the more immediate harm of school refusal is its effect on the child’s sense of self and his place among his peers:
“A central part of his overall identity, a child’s identity as a student is tied not only to his studies, but also to the reality that the child spends a significant part of the day at school, has occupations and obligations connected to the school, is connected with other students, and has his calendar tightly connected with the school year.”
Whatever a child’s motivation for avoiding school, the solution is to help him or her regain the role of student. This is easier said than done.
Individual Versus Social Approach
Consider an imaginary child called Jack who has been avoiding school as much as possible for a month. The standard practice would be to focus on treating Jack and his parents in isolation. A school counselor or outside mental health professional would typically prescribe cognitive-behavioral therapy or even psychoactive drugs to help Jack deal with his anxiety, and then offer his parents suggestions on how to support and motivate Jack at home. That approach seldom works. Most often, parents find themselves helpless to change the situation short of bringing in the authorities — which can hardly be called a solution.
Another approach, Non-Violent Resistance, or NVR, appears to be more promising. This innovative, community-centered method for dealing with difficult and troubled children was developed by Professor Haim Omer and a group of researchers in Israel. Here, the focus would be less on Jack and more on mobilizing the social network around Jack to help him get back to school.
Social support is also central to a few other novel approaches to children’s problems, notably the Support Group Approach for swiftly ending bullying in schools developed by Sue Young in England, and the Kids’ Skills method I developed with my team in Finland.
This approach differs from the norm of threats and punishments on one hand or comforting and enabling on the other. Instead, it utilizes gentle and respectful social pressure, in which the child’s social network joins forces to send the child a powerful “we-all-agree” type of message:
We care about you. We understand that attending school can be difficult at times for all kinds of reasons. Many of us have had times in our lives when going to school has been difficult. We want you to return to school because that is the most important thing for your life right now. We are willing to help you. We want to talk to you to find ways to help you overcome whatever difficulties you need to so you can return to school.
The underlying mission of this message is to convey sincere concern while also refusing to accept the child’s continuing failure to attend classes.
Mobilizing Your Child’s Social Network
Following is a model I suggest parents try that is based on NVR and the social-network approach to helping a child return to school.
- Meet with your child’s teacher(s) to discuss the problem and propose the idea of mobilizing the child’s social network — i.e., establishing a support group for him or her — to help the child return to school.
- Create a list together of people you will invite to join this support group. The group should include the teacher(s), members of the child’s nuclear and extended family, at least a few friends and classmates, and any other people close to the child such as a sports coach.
- Compose a message together with the teacher to be delivered to everyone you will ask to join your child’s support group. This message should state the problem, explain the idea behind the support group, and contain an invitation to join the group.
Here is an example of an invitation letter:
We are Ellen and Jim Tann, Jack Tann’s parents. We are writing to you along with Ms. Jones, Jack’s sixth-grade teacher. As you probably know, Jack has been absent from school for more than X weeks/months this semester, causing him to fall far behind on his studies and missing many school events. We have decided to establish a support group to help him feel comfortable and motivated to return to school. We invite you to join us at a meeting to be held at Midvale Middle School at 7 pm on February 10, where we will plan how each of us can contribute to support Jack. Jack is aware of our plan and who has been invited to be on his support team.
Please let us know if you are willing to join our support group and can join our meeting. If you cannot make it to the meeting but would like to be part of the support group, please contact Jack [email address or phone/text number here] to let him know that you have received this invitation and want to have a talk with him over the phone, text, or face-to-face if possible. Please let him know that you want him to return to school and that you are willing to support or help him in some way. Our hope is that you will negotiate an agreement with him about how to help him.
Thank you so much!
The invitation message can be delivered to the invitees as an email or a text message. Alternatively, you can establish a messenger group in a suitable app, such as WhatsApp, WeChat or Telegram, that all or most of the invitees are likely to have on their phone in your country.
- Inform your child that you have talked with the teacher(s) and that you are going to invite several people that are important in his or her life to form a support group to help him return to school. Show your child the message you plan to send and be as transparent as possible about everything you are doing to help him or her. Nothing should happen behind the child’s back!
- Once he or she learns of the plan, your child may decide to return to school — in which case you can withdraw the plan and save it for later if the problem persists. Otherwise, proceed with the plan even if your child objects to it. As your child’s guardian, you not only have the right but also the obligation to take measures to help him or her return to school.
The next step is to convene the group for a meeting that can be held at your home or at school to create a joint-action plan for the support group and agree on specific actions each member will take to assist the child in returning to school.
Each member of the support group can contribute to helping your child in their own way.
- Classmates can talk to your child or send him a text message informing him that they miss him and want him to come back to school. Some of them may even be willing to drop by in the mornings to encourage him to join them in walking or riding the bus to school.
- Teachers can inform you every day of the homework that your child needs to do to keep up with the class. You and your family, in turn, may give the child the homework and make sure he or she does it and otherwise maintains a daily rhythm like that of children attending school.
- Grandparents may share their childhood experiences with school and encourage your child to gather the courage to return.
- Siblings may volunteer to drop the child at school in their vehicle.
- School counselors may offer to help the child find creative ways to deal with anxiety.
After these decisions have been made, each support team member can fill out a “Back to School Support Agreement form” something like this one. The form should have a place for the supporters to write why the child is important to them and why they would like to see the child back in school. The parents then give the child the completed agreement forms to keep.
Once your child is back in school, make sure to acknowledge all the members of the support group.
While new and not yet well studied, the NVR approach has several obvious advantages. Because schools often don’t have an effective system in place to handle school refusal, it helps put parents in the driver’s seat to do something. And it does so in a way that brings together everyone with a stake in the child’s academic success. It can also tap the power of social networking technology, one of the main ways in which today’s youth interact with the world and each other.
A social-support approach like this, with an emphasis on mobilizing the child’s network to help the child, is likely to have far-reaching positive repercussions. Not only is the project likely to succeed in getting your child to return to school but will also add more proof to the power of community, which can be used to solve many other challenges we parents face.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.