Our son refuses to go to school – and we feel so isolated | life and style

The dilemma After the Covid lockdowns our primary school School-age son decided Retirement is what he needs, not be in school. At first he returned to school happy and excited. The school rushed learning, saying the kids were behind and he was struggling with that. There were disruptions in class that he was not used to, and he lost interest in school. He refused to go inside. We had three months to persuade, persuade and beg him to leave. We tried the hard-hitting approach of “Pull him in!” It backfired. We tried parental support, either his father or I sat in the school library. That worked, but we also have jobs to do. The psychiatric care for children and adolescents did not help us much and we received a letter from the district council threatening a fine and legal action.

He was slowly getting better until his favorite teacher retired in February of this year. He could trust her and she could control the class. After she left, he couldn’t take it anymore. Hysteria followed, real emotional grief. This led to a return to emotionally motivated school avoidance. Homeschooling is not an option. It makes us feel so isolated.

Philippa’s answer This will not be a quick fix and you are not alone. Not Fine in School is a support group for families with children who find it difficult or impossible to attend school. It was founded in 2018 with 100 members. After the lockdown, it’s now more than 30,000.

Persistent absenteeism has increased by 117% since lockdowns, accounting for 22.3% of all students in primary, secondary and government special schools. That’s 1,615,772 students. And what seems to be happening in the UK education system is that the individual student is being treated as the whole problem, rather than acknowledging that the school environment and unhelpful government guidelines on target setting are also part of it. Parents are also blamed. And in our education system, there is too much of an attitude that draconian sanctions like fines for parents are the way to go. That’s not the only way. One size doesn’t fit all. Many of our schools are not suitable environments for our children – they are too noisy, scary and overwhelming, while the resources are too scarce to do much about it.

It sounds like your son has been put under too much pressure to “catch up” and also doesn’t feel safe at school. Maybe that’s what happens when he sees a teacher lose control of the classroom. He was put back into this situation without a smooth re-entry, without being given the time to adjust and figure out how to belong and feel safe in this situation. Kids get extra stress when they’re told they’re behind and need to make extra efforts to catch up.

Professor Lucy Easthope, a veteran disaster relief worker, told me: “It breaks my heart to see how misunderstood we are. After disasters around the world, many communities make time for children to recover. They interrupt the curriculum and spend a few weeks outside. The UK took a different approach after the pandemic, catching up and pretending nothing happened. The smartest and most empathetic kids just don’t believe that.”

Many who have not previously suffered from excessive shyness find it exhausting to be around people again after isolation. It’s like socializing is like a muscle that needs regular exercise. Our social muscles atrophied during lockdown, and we were made to feel that if we got too close to other people, we could either kill or be killed. Such a message can be deeply absorbed by children.

They needed time to rebuild their social strengths by forming new friendship groups and reconnecting with teachers. Her son made progress when there was a teacher who made him feel safe, but that safety net dissipated before his confidence fully returned. And as you found out, nobody can be forced to be less sensitive or more confident.

Join with other parents to advocate for more flexibility in schools, more pastoral care, and a move away from the one-size-fits-all approach. And think in very small steps for your son and expect him to take a few steps backwards every now and then.

You have to put some pressure on the school to make them realize that he needs an adult there who can identify with him. Without a trusting, secure relationship at school, your son will find it difficult to reintegrate. You could also try a few short one-on-one dates to build his tolerance for interacting with others.

Take your son’s feelings seriously so that he feels heard and understood, but also show him that you are not overwhelmed by his feelings by remaining calm. In this way he will gradually learn that he can also contain them over time.

Literature recommendations: The orchid and the dandelion: Why sensitive people fight and how all can survive by W. Thomas Boyce and Cornerstones, inclusivity, compassion and accommodation, edited by Ian Gilbert. The book contains many helpful case studies and points out: “The problem with square pins is that if you force them to fit the round holes of the system, you end up damaging the pin and not the hole.”

If you have a question, email askphilippa@observer.co.uk
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