Parenting When children refuse to go to school, parents' reaction is key.
The mother who was calling me for parenting advice was in a state of desperation. "My daughter has developed a phobia of school," she said. "She's an intelligent girl who is keen to do well, so she hates not going, but every day she is in tears as we approach the gates. She won't go through them." The problem, the mother said, had begun when the girl started secondary school. She had been bullied, which was probably the root of her anxiety. But that had been dealt with and still her 14-year-old child was refusing to go to school. The friends whom she had consulted bewildered her with conflicting advice. Some said be tough. Others suggested boarding school. The previous year she had tried home education but her daughter had found it boring and isolating spending her days alone with a tutor.
"I don't know what to do for the best," she wailed. "I never thought that, as an intelligent working woman, such problems would strike in my family." But they do. School refusal - or phobia as it is called in its most extreme form - is very common. According to some experts, one in 20 children has a problem with going to school. It's an issue that transcends social class and intelligence, and boys and girls are equally prone to it. It most commonly strikes at the ages of five and 11, which coincide with the move to a new school, but there's often another outbreak around the age of 14 when adolescents become self-conscious.
It's not a mysterious disease. Like most adults, I can well remember the terror of starting a new school. As a small child, the dramas were all about whether I would get to the loo on time, if I would get into trouble for using the wrong book or pen, and if anyone would talk to me in the playground. When the time came to transfer to secondary school it was just as agonising. I'd got used to being a big fish in a small pond. Now I was facing life in a place where I was one of the shortest and most insignificant people. The classes were bigger, the other children were unfamiliar and rougher, the cliques more tight-knit. And what if I couldn't manage all that homework?
With my own children, I have revisited all those fears and seen the patterns recurring. The first time was with my eldest child, a sensitive boy. He had enjoyed nursery but when, aged five, he moved up to the infants section of the same school, he no longer bounded out of the house. Often I found myself having to drag him to the classroom in tears. To begin with, I thought it was just transitional nerves but during the autumn term I realised that this was not a passing phase.
He wasn't able to tell me what he hated so much at school until one day he came home covered in bruises. Only then did I winkle out of him the information that, while the nursery children had their own playground, the infants had to muddle in with the juniors. He was competing for space with great big 11-year-olds and some of them had formed gangs and were picking on the little ones. I went to see the head teacher. When she defended her policy of having an undivided and under-supervised playground, I could see there was only one solution. Fortunately, I found a smaller, cosier, better managed school nearby where my son gradually learnt to feel safe.
Often there is a straightforward explanation, something which can be fixed if you can only discover what it is. Playgrounds are the most common trouble-spot, but assembly - that noisy, daunting, formal gathering - can also be intimidating. If alerted, the teacher can arrange for the unconfident child to sit next to her or hold her hand as they enter. Another common cause of anxiety is an undiscovered learning difficulty. If the child can't read as well as everyone else, or is always the one who drops the ball during physical education, then that child can soon develop an understandable desire not to be repeatedly publicly humiliated. Again, a discussion with the teacher can lead to more support.
While it's being sorted out, it is important to keep a child regularly attending school. The single day in which the child successfully pleads a headache or tummy ache can soon turn into a daily battle with the child constantly claiming to be ill. The longer a child stays away, the more entrenched the fear becomes. Then there's the additional problem of having missed so much learning and friend-making time.
Over-protective parents, who are too sympathetic or suffer from anxiety problems themselves, can find it hard to be firm with children. But this is the time for tough love, before ducking problems becomes a way of life. Adults who are plagued by debilitating irrational fears and panic attacks often developed the self-image of being someone who couldn't cope by refusing to go to school. But being tough isn't easy, especially with older children. I had thought I had mastered the art of getting a reluctant child to school with my eldest child, but I had to go through it all over again when my second child transferred to secondary school. She was thrilled with the prospect of a new, more exciting and demanding environment and for the first few weeks of term came home daily with news of all the new people she had met and subjects she was studying. But, as we approached the autumn half term, her confidence petered out. The other girls had found best friends and she felt left out. Their first pieces of work had been marked and she had got Bs while others were crowing about their As. She started claiming she had headaches at breakfast time.
Once or twice I let her stay at home, but soon I suspected her illness was either fake or psychosomatic. I consulted parenting advisers who told me that I was to insist she went to school, however unwell she felt, and to go to the school nurse if she really felt unable to cope. They advised against bribing her, but said there was nothing wrong with a reward for toughing it out. We agreed on a trip to a pizzeria if she made it through the next week - and she did. Gradually, she forgot that she had a problem.
In effect, I was amateurishly practising cognitive behaviour therapy, the technique sometimes prescribed if school refusal develops to the point of phobia and the child has to go to the doctor for help. This technique involves breaking the problem down into small steps and encouraging the child to focus on the positive achievements so that he or she becomes a little bolder each day. Hard as it may seem while a child is wailing, or resisting being peeled off the bedroom floor, it is worth the agony, as I told the mother who telephoned for advice.
Once she got into school, her daughter would almost undoubtedly be fine. Sometimes when I was most worried about my children, I would sneak past the school to watch what was going on at break time. The child who had been claiming that no one spoke to him or her was not standing on the edge looking miserable but part of a happy chatting group or football game. Children do often hype up their dramas for home to get delicious - but sometimes misguided - sympathy.