School leaders will already be thinking about pupils who may struggle to return, post lockdown, or whose attendance will be a concern. Within some very good guidance to improve school attendance, Milton Keynes psychology service identify common triggers for school refusal as follows:
- Transition between primary and secondary education
- Loss or bereavement within the family
- A change in friendship groups or bullying
- A prolonged absence
All of these triggers can be associated with the pandemic in ways that need no further illustration. We can predict, therefore, that many more pupils – and their families – will now struggle with this issue.
If schools are to respond appropriately to school refusal, then the starting point is to distinguish it from the other causes of persistent absence. Thambirajah, Grandson and De Hayes (2008) devised a simple flow chart for this purpose:
Each category requires a different response, with Thambirajah et al further defining school refusal as the situation which arises 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.
Updating SEND support plans
School stress is often rooted in SEND, identified or otherwise. Some autistic children will, for example, be extremely anxious about the prospect of confronting once again the sensory and social challenges of school life, having benefited from the safety of home learning during lockdown. Increased anxiety will need to be matched by increased support, if the risk of school refusal identified above is to be mitigated. This will need to be planned with families, a team approach always fundamentally important.
This comprehensive resource from the National Autistic Society provides examples of transition social stories, visual supports and reasonable adjustments that will assist SENCOs and families in carefully managing the return of children with ASC. It also signposts Full Spectrum Awareness – an excellent toolkit of short videos and activities designed to help secondary school pupils understand autism. ‘Bubbles’ will almost certainly feel safer for autistic pupils if their bubble-peers are educated. Such awareness-raising is also a good way to introduce a buddy system, which can be extremely effective in reducing the anxiety that comes with isolation from the group.
Pacing the return
School refusal may also be rooted in mental health difficulties. Whilst anxiety is a common emotion, the feeling may become long-lasting and intense. Separation anxiety is most often seen in younger children whilst adolescence is a developmentally sensitive period for the onset of social anxiety, the feeling of being closely scrutinised and evaluated by others.
It is important to understand the nature of anxiety and accept that, for those severely impacted, any process of reintegration post-lockdown will require small steps. Patience and time are critical. The pupil needs to have some control of their situation so that the plan moves at a pace they can cope with. It is also important that progress is not expected to be linear – a two steps forward, one step back approach with a focus on the overall trajectory, not temporary setbacks, is essential.
A key task for pastoral leaders and SENCOs as lockdown eases will be to identify this cohort of at-risk pupils in advance, so that proactive, collaborative planning can be undertaken with families. In many cases, pastoral leaders will know who to be worried about from an attendance and wellbeing perspective, but prior knowledge will not identify needs that have escalated during lockdown.
Surveys, though not fail-safe, are therefore a good idea. If these are framed as child-centred offers of support for transition, rather than school-focused attendance concerns, then they will be welcomed by families: the distress caused by school-refusal, or even the prospect of it, should never be under-estimated.
Non-academic virtual learning
For those children whose capacity to engage in cognitive work has been undermined by stress, it will be necessary to reduce or abandon altogether the remote setting of academic tasks, in liaison with families. Otherwise, a detrimental spiral can set in whereby tasks can’t be completed (because of cognitive issues related to stress, such as inability to concentrate), anxiety increases as pupils feel they are falling further behind and will never catch up, and that anxiety builds with every task that lands in the inbox and isn’t completed. I am happy to report that my daughter’s school responded immediately, but I saw this very thing happen; it was for a time hugely stressful.
The political climate around falling behind and the lost generation doesn’t help at all, but those who actually work with children and young people do understand that the hierarchy of needs cannot be safely ignored. Emotionally regulating activities such as walking and talking, gardening, art, sport – these will be more beneficial than the academic curriculum when wellbeing is a concern – and will ultimately improve academic outcomes by reducing stress and increasing access to the cortical brain. School leaders should feel able to give families the mandate to focus on these things, and fortunately most do.
Many schools are also sharing high quality wellbeing resources with families and I wanted to flag here this fantastic resource from learn.4mentalhealth. It introduces 30-3-30 activities, inviting children to try them out and then to complete a downloadable wellbeing plan, as below.
It is easy to see how such a plan might feature within transition planning, so that pupils are actively encouraged to continue to use within schools those regulatory activities that have been practiced at home (and for therapeutic change to occur, they do always need practising). The resource could also be used as the basis for a wellbeing survey mentioned above as it begins with a simple assessment.
Return to school will not be supported simply through access to counsellors, even if an army is deployed; these might help some children who are in a place where cognitive processing is possible, but actually the relational milieu, the therapeutic web of kind human connection, these matter much more. Further, the majority of children who are at risk of school refusal will need regulatory activities (as in fact all humans do if they are to maintain a healthy baseline of stress) consistent with Dr. Bruce Perry’s bottom-up model of therapeutics. The linked resource is a singularly powerful resource in this regard.
Schools factors that help
Every situation is different and complex and a one-size fits all approach to this area of work is doomed to failure. However, research confirms that the following school factors correlate with more successful return, overall:
- Early identification of the issues and a quick response to re-engaging with the pupil
- Positive relationships with educational staff
- Positive peer relationships
- Having a designated area in which to retreat if feeling under threat
- Having an empathic adult to talk issues through with
- Planned transition from primary to secondary school
- A trusted adult who can negotiate the timetable and support a more flexible approach
- Lack of bullying
- Opportunities to engage in extra-curricular activities
- A well organised and responsive SEN department
- Schools whose staff are aware of the issues and how to deal with them
Learning from lockdown school
The hope is that schools will be better placed to offer personalised support of this kind in the post-lockdown world than they were before it, because flexibility has become the watchword. School leaders will have new problems, for sure, but they will also have new solutions: lower staff-pupil ratios during the recovery phase, a curriculum with wellbeing at its heart, blended learning, an opportunity to pace transition and minimise demand whilst confidence increases, stronger relational approaches…it should be more possible over the coming months than it was in the past to personalise the deal for the ‘square pegs’ of the system.
This article about a Gloucestershire school emphasises the wellbeing benefits of the flexible lockdown school, its headteacher pledging to make changes after the pandemic, rather than simply returning to business as usual:
The school has ripped up timetables in a way no state school could normally contemplate. “We’ve said, we will be completely flexible to your needs,” says Kerala Cole, assistant headteacher. “We work in partnership with parents to personalise the deal for the students. It can be that they come in for just a couple of hours. And I think we are seeing huge benefits to that.”
One boy who had refused to attend for eight months, has been coming in every day, thanks to this flexibility and the attention he can now be given. Another year 8 child, “who arrived midway through this year and has been struggling … he’s been attending for four weeks now and he’s really benefited”, says Cole. “You can just see how his shoulders have relaxed.”
Clearly, there is something here to build on. Even as more formal structures and curricula are reintroduced, transition planning will be greatly enhanced by retaining some elements of the flexible lockdown school offer – lower demand and enhanced support, planned in partnership with pupils and families, for those who we might otherwise lose from the system altogether.