Wikipedia's definition of school refusal goes as follows:
School refusal is the refusal to attend school due to emotional distress. School refusal differs from truancy in that children with school refusal feel anxiety or fear towards school, whereas truant children generally have no feelings of fear towards school, often feeling angry or bored with it instead.
In schools' quest to perfect their attendance records, I think they have lost sight of this.
The name "school refusal" is perhaps an unfortunate one and does conjure up images of defiant brats taking full advantage of their weak, ineffectual parents, and, heaven forbid, should there be two (or more) refusers in the same family, this is surely definite proof of naughty child vs. crap parents, but in reality this couldn't be further from the truth.
For my boys, (PDA boy and his older brother), refusal meant sheer terror of going into school. Neither had any choice in this dread, it wasn't a deliberate ploy to have a lazy day in bed, as so many people assume is the case, it was (and is) a manifestation of very high anxiety levels.
School refusal is very common when PDA is involved, and we are starting to wonder what the future is for PDA boy in school, as there are now no strategies that we can suggest, because all rely on him co-operating and doing things that he fears will mark him out as different, so all the difficulties he has with school have no solution that we can see at this moment in time, which is resulting in school refusal. There are little individual issues that we could deal with, he has received warnings for slapping a teacher’s hand away when they touched his head, probably as an affectionate gesture, not realising that this is very uncomfortable for PDA boy, but as this is only a tiny part of the much bigger picture, it would be a waste of our energies to focus too much on this. Being in school itself for him and many other children is extremely stressful, whatever the root cause. So far we are lucky, school are being largely understanding, I think the official diagnosis helps matters, as our experience with his undiagnosed brother was slightly different.
Our older son had a chequered school history, bullied from age 8, his start at secondary was difficult, he was targeted by one boy who brought him to the point of breakdown two months into the first term, we removed him from school, allowed him a few weeks to recover before starting at a different school. At this point we had no suspicions of any special needs, and no understanding of school refusal beyond him being stubborn and making poor choices (which we now regret as we have a better grasp of what was going on). School refusal was an occasional event, regular enough to bring attention to his attendance, but to start with not enough for flags to be raised.
In year ten this escalated to regular refusals, and more extreme behaviour at home. As so often happens, without a diagnosis there was very little support to be found, and when attendance started dropping dramatically, we were given what appeared to be veiled threats about being taken to court, about having to make more effort to get him into school. This on top of the immense stress of trying to get him in was very unhelpful and meant that the anxiety over school's reaction and requests to ensure he was in was prioritised over doing whatever we could to help our son (something else we regret). Eventually we realised that none of us could sustain this level of mental strain, so we deregistered him from school.
School refusal can be a symptom of many other things, bullying, anxiety, depression, bereavement, so many things it would be impossible to generalise about it, it is a very individual thing.
For us, and probably many others, the worst part of school refusal is the uncertainty and unpredictability we face when it comes to managing it.
We were keen to meet PDA boy’s school’s education welfare officer (EWO) when we first realised this was likely to be an ongoing issue. We went armed with printouts and individual information, ready to share as much as we could so we could show that we wanted to work with her and school to find strategies that would help the boy to overcome his fear and access an education.
The EWO gave every sign that she didn't want to be there, that she was disinterested in anything that might help our son. Her words of wisdom included "Just get him in!" And "Well, you chose the school, if you don't like it he doesn't have to be here!" which left my husband and I feeling helpless, misunderstood, unsupported and wary of any future involvement we may have with her.
Like so many incidents involving education and special needs show us, there is often a complete lack of understanding from those in a position of authority which puts families at risk of unfair assumptions and worse. Parents are taken to court and fined for their child's low attendance, which is grossly unfair. These children are not naughty truants (or more accurately; children who for whatever reason are disengaged with a system that isn't supporting them adequately either), they cannot be punished into submission, and neither can their parents. Punishments and pressure are not the answer when it comes to anxiety related school refusal.
Assumptions that we are being weak are unhelpful and wrong. When PDA boy cannot go to school, I get the impression that others are picturing the following scenario:
PDA boy: I can't be bothered to go in today.
Me: OK darling, you stay in bed and I'll bring you a hot chocolate. Anything else I can do to pander to your every whim, my dearest darling child, who I cannot bear to discipline?
The presumptions that others make are wrong. The scenario is far more likely to look like him being unable to get out of bed, sobbing uncontrollably, having violent meltdowns and hyperventilating.
Trying to force him in would result in us being attacked, and supposing we did manage to get him out of bed and dressed, what next? How do we get him on the bus? Or into the car? How do we peel him out of the car and take him into school itself? From experience we have found that this is impossible, and from the point of view of a distressed child, very wrong. Authorities quite rightly take a dim view on children being manhandled, which would certainly be necessary in order to comply with the EWO's "just get him in" wishes.
I don't know how this situation can be solved, but I suspect that for these children more understanding and less pressure would be more helpful. Understanding that their non-attendance is not a deliberate choice, and that their fear is very, very real. Understanding that pressure is more likely to have the opposite effect and push the child further and further away from being able to attend school.
If an adult was in this state about going into their workplace they would have options, they could leave and go somewhere more suited to them, they could be signed off sick by their GP to allow them to recover and be in a better place to make a decision. For our children, there just aren't the options available. School is seen as something that has to be done, not all parents are able to home educate, Drs are limited with how much they can do to help as CAMHS is the go-to organisation for our children, except they often don't accept referrals unless the child is self-harming or attempting suicide, and many referrals take months to be responded to, so us parents are having to learn on our feet, be our childrens' therapists at the same time as taking the flack from all and sundry assuming we're not being forceful enough.
In the meantime, it's important for us to continue logging the reasons why PDA boy cannot attend, the strategies offered and the boy's reasons for being unable to try them. We email school with details of his absence, as its important to have a paper trail and be able to prove that we are working with school in order rectify this little problem. We also leave a note for our GP so PDA boy's medical records are up to date and what measures we are taking, and speak to her regularly. Luckily she understands the issue, having taken it upon herself to learn about PDA and its various ways of manifesting itself. Once again we are very grateful to have the GP that we have.
Like I said, we don't know what the future holds for PDA boy and his secondary school career. I suspect home schooling, more specifically unschooling, is on the horizon, but whatever we do, we will do whatever we can to give PDA boy the opportunities he needs to reach his full potential.