School Phobia 1: reducing anxiety

A day at school is not every child’s idea of fun. Where do you start your investigation of a school refuser?

There has been much discussion over the years about whether there is such a thing as School Phobia. Many Educational Psychologists use the term School Refusal, to cover all cases of children who do not want to go to school for whatever reason.

The word “phobia” means “an extreme or irrational fear”. Whether the fear or anxiety is rational or irrational is immaterial if the child perceives the school as a place to be avoided.

In my 27 years as an Educational Psychologist, I have found Nigel Blagg’s advice on School Phobia  to be practical and useful. I have also combined his approaches with what I have learned about Perception, Internal Motivation and the Quality World through my training in Choice Theory and Reality Therapy. In this post I share some of my views and experiences of these approaches.

In Reality Therapy, the job of the professional is to help the client to identify which of their basic needs they are attempting to satisfy by their behaviours. People come to Psychologists for,or are sent for help in the case of most children, because the behaviours they are generating are not helping the child and may be harming themselves or others. It doesn’t matter whether these behaviours are relatively mild, such as “calling out” or are severe, such as “self-harm” and violence towards others, the job of the Reality Therapist is the same.

In order to start to work with a school refuser, the Psychologist or Attendance Professional first has to reduce anxiety. Some people find this confusing.”Surely they need their anxiety raising, so that they go to school. They are too comfortable at home” is what I have sometimes heard. I started the anxiety-reducing approach after reading Nigel Blagg’s book and have not had reason to change this stance. Basic psychology tells us that when we are anxious our brains do not function well as problem-solving organs. In order to secrete the right chemicals for rational thought and creative problem-solving, we need to reduce anxiety.

Blagg recommends that we tell school phobics that they are not mad, and that we know of other children who have been through similar situations and their lives turned out okay.

I looked for research that looked at the life outcomes for school refusers who returned to school and those who didn’t and also the long-term outcomes for children with Anxiety disorders. Overall, results suggest that children with anxiety disorders are relatively well adjusted in young adulthood (however, a history of comorbid depression was prognostic of a more negative outcome) (Last et al, 1997). Research findings are mixed regarding long-term outcomes for school refusers, but suggest that there are some children who do not return to school and still have okay lives.

I ask families this question, “If I told you that sometimes children who do not return to school can end up as happy adults, would you stop trying to get your child to school?” No parent has yet said that they would give up trying to get the child to school. They see the detrimental effects on family and the individual in the short term and that is enough.

So, removing the additional pressure of long-term anxiety about the child’s future also needs to be addressed. I always ask if they, the parents, have considered home education. Sometimes they have and are happy to share their thoughts on this. I also always ask about family history of school refusal, “Has anybody else in the family had a difficulty attending school?” and listen to their story. It may be that non-attendance is seen as a normal part of childhood and this needs bringing out into the open if this is so.

If you have found this post interesting and would like to hear more about school refusal, please comment and I will write some more soon.

Now read: Choice Theory: 5 Basic Human Needs

Control Your Brain Chemistry

Reference: Blagg, N. (1990) School Phobia and its Treatment.  London: Routledge

Last,C. Hansen,C. Franco, N. (1997) Anxious Children in Adulthood: A Prospective Study of Adjustment.J . Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry, 1997, 36(5):645–652.

Valles E, Oddy M. (1984) The influence of a return to school on the long-term adjustment of school refusers. J Adolesc. 1984 Mar;7(1):35-44.

DeAngelis, D., L. (2009) Survey of School Psychologists’ Knowledge of School Refusal Behaviour and Intervention Strategies. A Dissertation  Submitted to the Indiana University of Pennsylvania School of Graduate Studies and Research in Partial Fulfillment of the  Requirements for the Degree  Doctor of Education

Image credits: Laurarama

3 comments to School Phobia 1: reducing anxiety

  • Sarah

    Hello, a very interesting article and very apt for a current story I have recently heard. I thoroughly enjoy reading each of your articles, and am particular interested in your applications of Choice Theory by Glasser. More posts on school refusal eagerly anticipated! Sarah

  • Jane Hayward

    What a refreshing read. Great website…it has sparked some of those dormant brain cells!! Thanks geraldine, will be sharing this with the other psychologists.

  • Helen Charlesworth

    This is something I am looking into as a reason for my daugher who keeps being upset going into school.
    I want to address her anxieties as she is due to make the transtion to secondary/high school later this year.
    Interesting reading and I look forward to you posting more.

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