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Reflections on school anxiety - By Lisa Petersen

Reflections on school anxiety - By Lisa Petersen

The metal school gate which sits under the gum trees at my boys' primary school represents many things.  

It represents joy, inclusion, happiness, friendships, growth and learning.  But it has also been a catalyst for intense and crippling anxiety for my autistic son who struggled in grade 6 to manage the growing demands of puberty, socialising with his peers, class curriculum and all the expectations around “preparing for high school”.  Despite the goodwill on the other side of the school gate from teachers and a supportive well-being team, it wasn’t enough to help him navigate through all the challenges that grade 6 presented to him in a mainstream school setting.  

Some mornings after arriving at school he would be crouched down in the back seat of our car in a little ball of distress, 

trying to will himself into the school gate whilst I stood trying to remember to breathe, watching and waiting and saying positive things to myself and to him. Some days he would make it through the gate, doing what other people thought was right (and what I also thought was the right thing to do at the time) forcing ourselves to push through.  Some days getting through the school gate meant staying at school when he was distressed.  By the end of that school year I realised we needed to simply down tools.  We would often sight the gate and then decide it wasn’t the day today, and simply go home again.  We started going to local cafés to cheer ourselves up, turning our backs on all the expectations and well-meaning professional advice challenging us to persevere, stop ‘avoiding’ and ‘build resilience’.  By the end of grade 6 in 2019, both he and I were completely exhausted and burned out from all the trying.  

Now it’s 2022 and my son is in Year 9 at high school

doing a dual enrollment with VSV (Virtual School Victoria).  The metal gate at his bricks and mortar school still sits under familiar ghost gums but he now meets it in the morning with more confidence and a sense of safety and ease, knowing that the school day is meeting him where he’s at, in much smaller, more manageable chunks.  There’s plenty of time to build in preparation and recovery, lots of breaks, a modified curriculum that harnesses his special interests and more funded support through PSD funding at high school (Program for Students with a Disability) and significantly reduced contact hours.   

Reflecting on our experience of school anxiety and trauma, 

I think that following my own intuition and accessing support for myself with 1:1 coaching has helped enormously to explore and shift the narrative of what school means for us as a family and the expectations that we had placed around it.  

Over the last few years since the grade 6 experience, we have built a very special team around us, at both schools, and have engaged professionals that are aligned with our values in supporting mental health and safety as a priority for my son. We have also listened deeply to the autistic voices of those who have travelled this path before us.  I feel more confident and informed these days to tune into what my son needs to cultivate a sense of safety for learning and I think that’s how that's shaped what we are doing now.  

By reducing expectations (both real and imagined!) and putting energy into building the right supports for him at both home and school, we have changed the way we approach the school gate, and it feels much more positive and healthier for all of us.  We still have our challenges, and there’s a lot of work behind the scenes but we meet those challenges from a different place these days, and I’m happy to say now that the school gate symbolises more opportunity and joy, than fear and trepidation.  

About the author:

Lisa Petersen is a magnificent Mum to 2 neurodivergent boys.  She coordinates the Northern Autism Network in Melbourne.

About Create Vitality:

Create Vitality is committed to connecting families with practical strategies that respect the demands they face and align with their values and preferences, so that they can find relief from stress, exhaustion and isolation, have more ease, feel more connected and in control and confidently support the whole family to thrive.

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