What happens when things go pear-shaped mid-term?

How to help students when the novelty of the new school year wears off

In the weeks leading up to school going back this year, there was a flood of articles in the media about how best to help students who were anxious about returning to school. ‘School refusal’ and ‘school can’t’ are becoming greater problems, complex issues that can cause significant distress both for the individual student as well as their family.

But what about the student who embraces the start of the school year, who attends willingly only to come apart midway through the term? School News spoke with Marie Yap, Professor of Psychology at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health and the School of Psychological Sciences at Monash University, about helping students who show signs of struggle after a strong start.

Things Fall Apart

Most of us would remember the Roadrunner who runs straight off a cliff but takes a few moments to realise he is no longer on solid ground. Could this be a comparison for students who make it through the excitement of the first few weeks of school before reality hits?

“This analogy would certainly apply to some students who struggle with attending school due to emotional distress,” agrees Professor Yap. ‘Reality’ might be “the stress of school work or related expectations may pile up as the term progresses, or they may experience particular setbacks or challenges at school (e.g. peer relationship problems, bullying), home (e.g. family conflict) or elsewhere which affect their ability to attend school or engage at school.”

It’s important, therefore, that teachers and parents don’t simply breathe a sigh of relief after the end of the first week or two and assume that everything will be smooth sailing. When the novelty has worn off and students adjust to their new routine it’s vital that students are still closely monitored.

“As trusted adults around students, parents and teachers can play a really important role in supporting students’ ongoing progress at school, not just academically but also in other aspects of life like their relationships with teachers, peers, and engagement in co-curricular activities of interest. Life has its ups and downs, so having someone they trust and can turn to when they face challenges is really helpful for students,” says Professor Yap.


Signs of struggle

Professor Yap explains some of the signs and behaviours educators should look out for in children who might be beginning to struggle after a strong start: “Changes in behaviour that negatively impact their engagement in their learning (e.g. unexplained, repeated absences, not attending during lessons, not submitting work or submitting work of poorer quality than usual) and interpersonal relationships with teachers and peers (e.g. withdrawing from others, cold or abrupt, disrespectful behaviours that are uncharacteristic of them) are important red flags to look out for.”

There is also a risk that a ‘struggle’ can develop into school refusal or school can’t. “This can vary across students,” explains Professor Yap, “and be sudden for some – with or without an obvious trigger – and gradual for others – like the final straw that breaks a camel’s back – when the coping strategies that might have helped them keep attending school just don’t seem to be enough anymore.”

“Although it is widely used, the term ‘school refusal’ is not universally accepted,” adds Professor Yap. “The word ‘refusal’ can imply a child-motivated defiance, but there are numerous individual, family, school, community and other circumstances that can contribute to a child’s difficulty attending school. Many young people may desperately want to go to school, but feel they can’t. For these reasons, some families and professionals prefer alternative terms such as ‘school can’t’, or ‘school avoidance’.”

How to help students showing signs of struggle

Professor Yap has researched extensively in the area of school refusal and says that the common tendency to avoid things that are making us anxious – such as allowing a child who is showing signs of anxiety about school to stay home – can actually make the problem worse.

“Avoiding what we are anxious about often helps provide immediate or short-term relief from the anxiety and distress (e.g. student feels better when allowed to stay home from school that day), but in the longer term, avoidance tends to increase and prolong anxiety,” says Professor Yap. “After missing a few days of school, the student might worry about what others might think or how they would explain their absence to peers and teachers; they might struggle to catch up or keep up with school work… making the prospect of returning to school even more anxiety provoking for them.”

When teachers or parents notice a change in a child’s attitude towards or experience of school after the mid-point of term, there are a number of approaches they can take.

“Try to have an open conversation with the student. Express that you have noticed the changes and are concerned, and would like to support them in any way possible. Initiate a conversation with the student’s parent(s) where possible, and work together to support the student (with the student’s agreement if possible),” says Professor Yap.

“If there are mental health problems underlying the student’s school-attendance difficulties, it is important to help the student access professional support as soon as possible. A strong student-centred partnership between the school and family, as well as with health professionals as required, is key to supporting students to overcome school-attendance difficulties.”

Additional specific guidance for parents in responding to school reluctance or school refusal is available from . The strategies provided in these guidelines are based on the consensus of international experts and the best available research evidence.


Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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