The lead up to sending our daughter to school was honestly one of the most nerve racking anxious times of my life. Was I sending her to the right school? Were her support aides going to understand her needs? What if she has a meltdown, they won’t know how to help? Different scenarios constantly filled my mind.
I wasn’t expecting it to not be a magical smooth transition and was well aware that challenges and hiccups would happen along the way. However, the first time my daughter blatantly refused to go to school I was at a bit of a loss.
So what exactly is school refusal?
It is when your child gets extremely distressed and anxious about the thought of going to school, so much so that they begin to flat out refuse to go. When a tough love approach of “You have to go to school so you’re going” is almost laughable, as it definitely won’t solve anything.
My daughter with autism started kindergarten last year and throughout the year we had many I’m not going moments”. But they were more testing me for a reaction and voicing her feelings of genuinely not wanting to go. The hours of hugs and chats about her feelings and anxieties before school would eventually get her there. But then there have been a few times where she adamantly refuses to go, severe meltdowns which consist of screaming, crying, begging and sometimes physical outbursts towards me. The times where no amount of talking it through could register to her, she just couldn’t even comprehend what I was even saying. She was too far gone.
The first time it happened I was at a loss. What the hell do I do? What if I say she can stay home, will she carry on like this the next day and expect the same outcome? I couldn’t possibly send her like this though, could I?
The three times she has reacted this way. I didn’t send her. I think it would have been impossible for me to get her there. All three times I felt like a failure. I was so stressed and worried that this would just continue time and time again and was at a loss at what to do.
The school experience can be quite tricky for autistic children for so many individualistic reasons and school refusal is more common than not.
Signs of your child not wanting to go to school
Yes, obviously the distressed plea of Í don’t want to go to school’ but there can be signs to look out for and monitor to try to address before school refusal peaks.
-Mornings are getting more and more difficult
-Clinging and crying before school
-Extra stimming in the mornings to manage anxiety
-Frequently complaining that they are unwell
-Anxious on Sunday before a new week or the day before
-Hard time going to sleep the night before
-Showing high levels of anxiety
-Not showing an interest in things they used to
Possible reasons your autistic child doesn’t want to go to school
Perhaps there is something specific that has happened to bring out the new school refusal behaviour. However, often school in general can be quite an overwhelming experience for ASD children and here are some possible reasons why.
-Too many sensory triggers
-They may have difficulty connecting with their teacher or a particular teacher (support worker)
-The contrast between the home and school environment is too dissimilar
-Constant need to strive for perfection is exhausting
-Being able to achieve successful friendships
-Too many changes happening throughout the day
-Struggling with all of the transitions
-The unpredictable social situations
-Assemblies, too many people
-Feel alienated from peers
-Recess and Lunchtime overwhelming, too much social pressure
-Conflict with peers
-Struggle with particular classes (Sports/music/library)
-Aware of mental energy it takes to cope
What to do about school refusal?
Constantly having to encourage your child to go to school can be quite the daunting and overwhelming task, not to mention exhausting. Yes, it’s upsetting for the children, but it can be quite a worrying experience for parents. One that may leave you feeling distressed or even having some feelings of depression. It's something that needs to be addressed for both of your sakes.
The first step is to try to find out why your child is having such a hard time going to school. Sometimes it can be difficult for your child to just tell you why. Perhaps they aren’t even too sure themselves, they just know they are feeling worried and anxious about school. A good starting point could be to get them to rate different parts of their day, this may signal out parts of the day that are causing them stress. Or you could sit down with them and problem solve together to identify the issue. Here you could ask more specific questions “What is your favourite day of the week to go to school?” Why is this your favourite day?” “What do you like to play at lunch time”. Finding out the reasons is the only way to begin to learn how you can address the problem.
Another initial step could be to get in touch with the teacher. Have they noticed anything that is triggering your child? How have they been coping throughout different aspects of the day? I’m sure they would have some information to assist to start addressing any issues. Or if they haven’t noticed anything at least now they are aware of the struggles that have been happening at home.’
Here are some other tips and ideas that may be helpful in addressing school refusal issues.
-Work as a team with the school. Communication is vital and the key to implementing a school environment in which your child feels supported and safe.
-Start writing a diary. Is there a pattern? Are some mornings worse than others? Is their a huge come down some afternoons?
-Organise with their teacher to set up a safe space for when your child is struggling.
-Suggest to their teacher that they could perhaps benefit from more breaks to regulate throughout the day.
-Provide social stories. A general one about how school is a happy place or if you know anything in particular that they are particularly struggling with, make one about that. The school can probably help with this.
-Seek advice from the therapists that your child sees (behaviour psychologist/Occupational therapist).
-Create a worry book for them to add to when they are feeling any negative feelings.
-Seek advice from the support staff at school (school councillor/family liaison officer).
-Provide visuals at home to support your child to get ready for school.
- Provide help cards your child can use at school to encourage them to ask for help or to use when they are distressed, and they aren’t able to communicate.
When my daughter first refused to go to school, we had many discussions about the reasons why. Luckily for us both she was able to eventually disclose some things that were making her particularly anxious to go to school. The main factor that was causing all the distress was she didn’t cope at Recess and Lunch when her aides had to go on a break. A few of the days were worse, when a particular teacher came to relieve her support teachers. She was able to verbalise to me why and I was able to advocate for her. I had a meeting with her teacher, the Principle and the Special needs coordinator and the issue was addressed. It turns out that they were extremely grateful that I organised the meeting and said it was so beneficial for them to know everything that was happening so they could best support Willow. They encouraged me to contact her teacher as often as I needed so that they knew if any accommodations needed to be made throughout the day. Never underestimate the power of continual open communication with your child’s school.
School refusal is unfortunately something that many families with ASD children struggle with. Perhaps some comfort can be taken in the fact that you’re not dealing with the stressful situation alone. While sometimes it may feel like you’re at a loss and simply don’t know what to do, don’t forget you know your child best. Follow your gut at the time and address the situation to the best of your ability, seek guidance from professionals and have ongoing conversations with the school. As the saying goes ‘This too shall pass’.