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Reframing Refusal: Supporting Your Child With School

Reframing Refusal: Supporting Your Child With School

Sending support to all families whose kids are having a tough time getting to, or staying at school.

When school is going well, it can be a great source of happiness, connection and community and when it’s not, it can be a huge source of stress for the whole family. If going to school is challenging or stressful for your child, I’m sending encouragement to be extra gentle with yourself and your kids. And an extra dose of support if you’re already being subjected to patronising ‘pearls’ of wisdom like;

"They’ll be fine once they get there...”

or

“They’re trying to manipulate you, you just have to make them go…”

or

“If you don’t get them there today, it’s going to be even harder tomorrow…”

Of course, some schools totally rock and are wonderful at accommodating the individual needs of their students. A shout out to our awesome hard working teachers who have been working under extraordinary pandemic style pressure over the last few years.

For many of the families I support however, school can be a regular source of stress and overwhelm.  

On the days when they do manage to get through the gates, it doesn’t always bring relief.  Parents often talk to me about being on edge all day, waiting for the phone call to say that there has been an incident or that they need to pick their child up.  Or that even if the call doesn’t come, that they are bracing themselves for what may be waiting for them at the end of the day, when they’re kids are exhausted from trying to hold it together.  Maybe you can relate?

If you’ve been navigating school challenges for a while, you’ll know that labels like ‘school refuser’, ‘school avoider’ and ‘challenging behaviours’ can weigh heavy on the hearts of both parents and kids alike. And here's what I want you to know:

Your kids aren’t refusing to learn. 

And they are not deliberately being difficult.  Labelling a child with 'school refusal' or  'challenging behaviours' makes it sound intentional. It’s not. It's a sign that your child’s protective responses have been activated.  That their inner personal alarm system has been triggered by a perceived danger or threat and their nervous system is doing it’s best to try and keep them safe, using the skills and resources it has available at the time.

Sometimes, this looks like not wanting to go to school or not being able to stay.

Sometimes, it looks like acting out in the classroom or the playground.  Other times, it looks like pretending things are fine when they are not and then exploding later from the pressure of holding it all in. Regardless of how challenges navigating school are showing up for your child, the bottom line is this: all behaviour is information about HOW they are, NOT who they are.

It won't matter how many times teachers or health professionals say school is ok - until the regulation needs of their nervous system are met, until enough cues of safety are received in the way that your child needs to receive them, your child’s nervous system will continue to do its best to try and protect them.  Just like it is supposed to.

I’m not saying that it’s possible to meet every child’s needs perfectly 100% of the time in the school environment (or any environment for that matter). Nor am I saying that children can't learn to navigate challenges. 

What I AM saying is that kids can’t learn or connect when they don’t feel safe.  Simple as that.

When kids feel safe they can access the part of the brain that supports learning. When kids feel safe, they have space in their nervous system for connection, for taking safe risks, growing their strengths and developing new skills. And what your child needs to feel safe, will depend on their unique strengths, preferences and challenges.

So, if you find yourself in conversations about how to get your child to ‘stop refusing school’ or to ‘stop acting out’ in the classroom, try some of these:

*What do you already know about what supports your child to feel safe? What are they doing when they feel safe? Who are they with when they feel safe? What parts of the school environment or experience support this?  Where are the gaps?

*How might the school be able to support your child to uphold their right to feel safe and secure in the school environment?  What adaptations or accommodations can be made?  

*How can your health professionals support your child to uphold their right to feel safe and secure in the school environment?

*What would it look like if the systems supporting your child were working together to uphold your child’s right to feel safe and secure in the school environment?  What else is needed to make this possible?

As Lisa, a magnificent Mum raising 2 wonderful neurodivergent boys shared:

Reflecting on our experience of school anxiety and trauma, I think that following my own intuition and accessing supports 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, we have built a very special team around us 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 symbolizes more opportunity and joy, than fear and trepidation.  

Final thoughts:

It’s ok to do school at the pace that is right for you and your child. It’s ok to do school in the way that is right for you and your child. It’s ok to expect that your child’s right to feel safe and secure is upheld.

About the author: 

Rachel Stefaniak is an Occupational Therapist with a fire in her belly about the rights of families raising a child with a disability. She 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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