What Should Schools Know About Emotionally Based School Avoidance?

By Claire Pass

 

Emotionally Based School Avoidance can have a devastating effect on the lives of some students. Claire Pass offers some suggestions for dealing with it sensitively and effectively.

 

What is Emotionally Based School Avoidance?

The term Emotionally Based School Avoidance refers to the phenomenon of children being persistently absent from school. It has been on the rise for a few years, and with the government’s four-pronged bill to address the issue (including the requirement that schools now publish their attendance policies), it seems a pertinent time to consider what schools need to know.

The first thing to know about Emotionally Based School Avoidance is that the name is up for debate. Originally, terms such as ‘school refusal’, or ‘persistent non-attendance’ were used but these terms were criticised for framing school avoidance as a choice. Terms such as ‘anxiety-based non-attendance’ or the now commonly adopted ‘emotionally based school avoidance’ were introduced in order to try and move away from a within-child deficit model.

Avoiding school is not so much a choice as a response to extremely uncomfortable or distressing emotions associated with school. This places the focus on the environment, rather than just the child, which is helpful as we can work together with child and family to adapt the environment.

However, there are some criticisms of these terms too, as when young people were asked their views, they felt that both the term ‘refusal’ and the term ‘avoidance’ failed to accurately represent their experience, which they said was more akin to ‘not coping’. This has implications for how we support children and young people in building their capacity to cope.

What’s the difference between Emotionally Based School Avoidance and truancy?

In their handbook on school refusal, Thambirajah and colleagues provide some useful guidance about different types of absence from school. Putting illness aside, if a pupil misses school without the knowledge of their parent or guardian, it’s truancy; if the parent or guardian know about the absence and are not concerned, it’s parent condoned absence; and if the pupil shows significant distress in attending school, it’s school refusal – or Emotionally Based School Avoidance.

What causes it?

Put simply – there is no single cause. There have been links made to Adverse Childhood Experiences, and it’s true that many – though not all – pupils who feel unable to cope with school suffer from toxic stress (a consequence of ACEs which means that a child is unable to ‘turn off’ the stress response normally, which can cause lasting damage). This means that it might often be our most vulnerable children who are not attending school, and creating a sense of belonging and safety to re-engage these children in school is paramount.

It’s not always the case that ACEs are at play, however, and there is a complex array of push and pull factors interacting between the child or young person, their home, and the school. As Thambirajah et al put it, it happens when “stress exceeds support, when risks are greater than resilience and when ‘pull’ factors that promote school non-attendance overcome the ‘push’ factors that encourage attendance”.

Dr Tina Rae has spoken about Emotionally Based School Avoidance in a recent webinar for the Chartered College of Teaching and has provided a plethora of resources for some local authorities. She has pointed out that it is often associated with a poor experience of transition to secondary school, a bereavement, friendship problems or bullying, or prolonged absence…all of which came into play during Covid, of course, and probably explains why attendance has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Even before Covid, an estimated 5% of children were persistent non-attenders, and the associated long-term impacts on achievement, relationships, self-esteem, and self-efficacy are hugely problematic for these children.

Qualitative research has revealed that when asked about their reasons for not attending, pupils themselves identify problems within the school, rather than anything to do with themselves or home. Things such as problems with peers, a lack of support from adults, bad experiences of school transition or learning, and emotional and mental health needs have all emerged as common underlying themes for persistent absence. Interestingly though, despite the common perception that mental health issues are commonly at the root of school avoidance, there is also research to suggest that in many instances the avoidance of school comes first, in response to difficulties in the environment, and then emotional distress or anxiety emerges because of missing school.

The missed learning and feeling behind, the social anxiety of trying to reintegrate, the loss of a sense of belonging are just a few of the factors that lead to distress because of missed school but are not the root cause of it. This highlights that if potential problems are identified early, practical and supportive measures can be put into place to stop school avoidance becoming an issue to begin with. Mental health issues and ACEs are ‘outside’ things that can sometimes leave school staff feeling powerless, but friendship issues, learning difficulties, and ensuring pupils feel a sense of warmth and belonging in school – these are things we can work with.

What can be done?

So, now to what schools might consider the crux of the matter… what can we actually do? Well, perhaps not surprisingly, early identification is the best predictor of success for tackling potential school avoidance issues. It allows risk factors such as stressors during the school day to be tackled, and protective factors, such as positive relationships with key members of staff to be put into place.

Apart from the obvious sign of poor attendance, Dr Rae outlines other early warning signs, such as increased levels of anxiety or stress (which might be seen either in withdrawal or disengagement, or through angry outbursts), negative talk about school, or a decline in punctuality.

When there are signs of Emotionally Based School Avoidance, the longer it is left before any action is taken, the more difficult it is to have an impact. It has been shown that just by engaging pupils in a meaningful dialogue about what they enjoy and what they find difficult about school, attendance improves. Perhaps this is because talking, in itself, is empowering the pupil in a system where they may feel ‘done to’ or feel a lack of control; or perhaps it is because the act of having a conversation is taking a relational approach which builds that all important sense of belonging. The important thing is, it often works – especially when the intervention happens early enough.

There are plenty of prompt questions available online to facilitate this process of building a picture of what is going on for a pupil, and talking mats can also be particularly useful here. They are available in lots of different forms, but they all involve categorising each element of the time that the child is struggling with into a ‘good’, ‘neutral’ or ‘bad’ column. This means that you can get into granular detail about the exact moments that are an issue and come up with strategies or solutions to try and reduce the discomfort. For example, if the child has an issue with assemblies, you can unpick whether walking into assembly is the issue, whether it’s the singing, or the number of people, or not being near an exit. It can sometimes help if the moments are pictorial, but this isn’t essential.

Walking and talking has also proven helpful as it involves being side-by-side and can reduce the discomfort or unease of a face-to-face conversation. Ultimately, taking the view that the problem is ecological in nature (to do with the school environment, rather than the chid), as mentioned earlier empowers school staff to take action.

For pupils who are already struggling to get into school, the dialogue is possibly even more important and is likely to involve families too. The process here is likely to be one of graded exposure: simply getting the child to walk through the doors of the school might be enough for one day, gradually building to them spending longer in school, or attending on a part timetable.

What’s crucial here is that the level of challenge is raised bit by bit. Avoiding discomfort completely is not the goal – the goal is to raise the level of support so that it is always equal to the level of challenge and thereby help the pupil to tolerate the discomfort. In doing this, we help them to build their resilience, and as their belief in their own ability to do hard things grows, so does their self-efficacy and self-esteem.

Of course, maintaining this balance is every bit a tricky as it sounds. Supporting pupils back into schools is frequently a journey of two steps forward, one step back, but keeping track of a pupil’s journey can help them to see how far they’ve come: a step back doesn’t mean progress has not been made overall.

 

References

Corcoran, S. and Kelly, C. (2023), A meta-ethnographic understanding of children and young people’s experiences of extended school non-attendance. J Res Spec Educ Needs, 23: 24-37. https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-3802.12577

Thambirajah et al, 2008, Understanding School Refusal: A Handbook for Professional in Education, Health, and Social Care. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.

 

You can find other articles by Claire Pass here.

 

Author

Claire Pass is an AST in English with 21 years’ teaching experience. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education: Leadership and Management. She is also Co-Founder of Dragonfly: Impact Education, equipping those working in education with the information and strategies needed to support mental health and wellbeing.

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