“I don’t know how to explain it. It was so sudden, so unexpected; there didn’t seem to be a reason.” Susan* 45
In Year 7, 2019, Markus* was fine. He attended school regularly, was part of a school drama performance, and only missed a day or two due to sickness. But in early 2020, Year 8, Markus suddenly began to refuse to go to school.
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She reached out to the school to see if it was bullying-related. There were some boys in the class who irritated him and the class dynamic wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t seem to be the reason for Markus’s sudden anxiety.
“I was so perplexed as a mum,” Susan says. “There was a bit going on in the background of that year group, talk of self-harm online and things behind the scenes. A bit of that culture must have affected him. There were other pressures at the time: COVID, family dynamics, but no single reason I – or he – could see. I could see the anxiety set in, and I struggled with my child saying ‘I’m not going.’ But what do you do when your kid refuses? It wasn’t something I’d come up against before.”
Marisa Trio has over 20 years of experience working as a school psychologist in primary and high school settings in regional WA, Perth and Melbourne. She has a keen interest in working with students who experience anxiety and has undertaken specific training in the management of school refusal.
“It is important to note that children and adolescents experiencing school refusal may not be able to articulate, or even identify, the problem or trigger. And even if they do, it is not always as simple as removing that obstacle,” Ms Trio explains. “Rather than focusing entirely on finding the trigger, the key is really to develop supportive relationships and connections with students and families, so that the approach (if not ‘school’ itself) is less likely to be viewed by the child or their parent(s) as threatening. Families experiencing school refusal need to feel that they are not alone… because they really aren’t.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t often how it feels to parents experiencing school refusal for the first time, especially if they have never had contact with other families in the same position.
“The school was great early on. They sent out the year coordinator to the house and spoke about a modified timetable. But despite the move to online learning with COVID, the school didn’t send work home at that point, which was a failure. It was ad hoc, with limited resources for him,” says Susan.
“He always wanted to go to school. He would get dressed and we’d get in the car but then he’d just stand at the gate and he wouldn’t be able to go in. So Year 8 was a write-off.”
Ms Trio explains that this is the important distinction between school refusal and truancy. “The adoption of the term ‘School Can’t’ to describe school refusal, highlights the fact that for these children, attending school often doesn’t feel like something they are actually capable of.”
Susan did what most parents would do under the circumstances, she sought professional help. “I got a psychologist and psychiatrist involved, he was medicated, but when the self-harm started, I backed right off.”
Unsolicited suggestions from outsiders proved unhelpful. “They would offer advice without really understanding. I didn’t want their advice, I wanted help. Having family piling on the criticism just added pressure, and I already felt enough. I was missing so much work, but I couldn’t leave him.”
While the teachers never treated Markus’ non-attendance as a disciplinary issue, Susan still felt detached from the school community. “You become a number to them, a box to tick. Teachers need to know there’s more to the story.”
“When Year 9 started, he wanted to go, but he only made it through the gates two or three times all year. The year coordinator came to the house and let us know about SIDE (the School of Isolated and Distance Education) and we enrolled him online.” It was a breakthrough, and while she didn’t place pressure on him to study, with only a couple of months before the end of the year, he suddenly buckled down and completed the entire year’s worth of work and completed the transition to Year 10.
At the start of Year 10, the Education Department finally got involved and the decision was made to enrol Markus in TAFE to get his Cert II equivalency. “He worked online with a private tutor,” says Susan. “But more as a mentor than for academics. I couldn’t help but help but feel ‘Hope comes again’. Markus wanted to be at school. We ordered the uniforms and bought the books but I didn’t overtalk it because I didn’t want to add more stress. But then nothing changed.”
Susan explains: “He would occasionally leave the house – he came to a concert with me, he was able to go out with his dad. He could do stuff, but the day-to-day is challenging. Trying to get him to leave the house to walk the dog is hard. He wants to go back to school, he would try daily to get there… but six weeks into term and he still hadn’t made it through the gate, he sees how far behind he is, and the stress sets in.”
Ms Trio explains that for most cases of school refusal, the goal is to get the child back to school as quickly as possible. “As adults, we may understand that when it comes to anxiety, the only way out is through.” As with most things though, she adds, there are exceptions to the rule. “Sometimes severe mental health issues are present, or the demands on a family’s finite resources are too great to enable the consistent and supported approach to school refusal that generally results in success, regardless of how supportive the school is.”
“When it seems that ‘everything has been tried’ and the school refusal has continued for months and in some cases years, there is little point in doing ‘more of the same’. An entirely different approach may be required. Rather than the goal always being to get a child back to school, a useful re-framing of the goal in severe cases might be to keep the child connected to something outside of the home, to a support network, to some stable routines and healthy habits, to some form of self-directed or supported learning at home, and engagement with support services.” Marisa Trio
Susan admits that while having Markus unable to go to school for three years has been exhausting and there is much she would have done differently had she the chance, having access to the School of Isolated and Distance Education and TAFE options has been a godsend: “We are lucky that there are extra pathways for kids these days, you know there are always going to be options. He will come out shining, but it’s just not now. He’s not ready. I’m waiting for his penny to drop. There’s only so much I can do as a parent. I can offer support and boundaries but you can’t physically force a six-foot teenaged boy to school.”
“Your journey as a parent shifts from the balanced every day to a feeling of hopelessness, then back to hope, plus feeling supportive towards your child but also lost – all mixed into one. It’s a feeling a failure towards your child, but you keep moving forward.” Susan
Susan adds: “What I want teachers to understand is – when you see a student where their behaviour or their school refusal is not normal, when it’s an overnight change, you need to ‘pick it up and have a look’. I get that in high school it’s harder, there are lots of students and you don’t know them as well. But there needs to be more exposure of the issue from schools. Parents don’t know how common it is and that they’re not alone. It’s a normal thing. What schools could do better is educate parents. I get that at some point the education system needs to stop and the parenting system starts, but school refusal is also a school issue. Parents should be more educated about what it is and how it can be handled. Schools must see it all the time. It’s not about promoting it, but providing information to those who need it.”
*names have been changed for privacy reasons