In my last article, “School Refusal Part 1,” I told you about the long struggle we have had getting my son to attend school regularly. He has what is known as “school refusal.” There are four causes of school refusal. But for each reason, there are things that can be done to help—because fighting back will help your child get through it. My son is a tough case because he has all four reasons. But I am so proud of him and the progress he has made. He has been going to school without more than a couple major meltdowns for the last five weeks. So, I wanted to share a few things we have done to help him.
Before I go on, I need to quickly clarify that overcoming school refusal is a long process. You will have setbacks. It’s a “two steps forward and one step back” kind of thing. But with patience, time, and tenacity, you will prevail. I honestly have to put myself into the mindset that I won’t allow this condition to win. When I am beyond sick of my kid fighting me, I try to put myself in that mindset—and once I do, I’m usually able to see it through. But get your school and therapists on your side, so that when you walk in the door to school (after all the screaming and struggle), you have someone there to help pick up where you are leaving off.
Fighting Reason #1: The Fear of an Event at School
To combat reason one, the teacher has the kids do a modified show and tell. They get to bring a favorite thing to show the class. My son brought the vacuum cleaner. He loves that thing.
Also, when the school day is over, and he has had a good day, he can get out the school’s vacuum and clean the room. He loves that, and it motivates him to want to be there. His teacher and his aid keep an eye on things, and when they can tell my son has had a tough day, they encourages him to bring another loved item to school the next day. That has helped a ton.
For assigned class presentations, the teacher gives a lot of notice and encourages parents to help. When my son had a poster board presentation to do, he was so proud of what he and I had made together that he totally didn’t even think about being shy. He wanted everyone to see his hard work!
To help with tests, my son’s teacher is using technology in the classroom to make things more interesting. My son gets so excited to play the games that he forgets to be worried about tests sometimes. Other times, to help his anxiety, I will stay with him till his test is over. His aid helps him with his tests and the class is given extra time to take the tests. I love that his teacher understands and is willing to make the changes my son needs.
Fighting Reason #2: The Fear of Someone at School
My son was bullied a few years ago, so the fear of someone at school has historically been a big issue. He will get sensitive when a teacher is too harsh. Even when he loses a game at recess, he takes it too personally. This one was clearly a tough case for us to tackle.
We started by building friendships with the other kids at school. He has a small class, so that made it easier. We also made sure the teacher understood the importance of bonding with my son, and we were blessed with a teacher who cared. He works with my son to make sure he connects with him. My son also has an aide dedicated to helping him through difficult situations. When there is confrontation, she will help diffuse the situation and give my son the tools to work it out.
Part of every school day is teaching the kids coping skills for stressful situations, along with social skills. They play conversation games and allow the kids to express themselves. There is no bullying at all at the school. The kids accept each other, and when there is a conflict, their therapists are right there to help walk them through a solution. I have seen a major improvement in my son in the months he has been working with this team.
Fighting Reason 3: Wanting to Spend Time with Mom or a Loved One
This one is where I have to hold my ground. Consistency is key, and every time he fights me, I have to be strong. When my son is home from school, we don’t do special activities. I don’t even take him with me on errands. I have to clear my schedule and stay home.
He must lay in bed. I don’t let him have the computer, gaming system, or any electronic media. If he is legitimately sick, I will let him watch TV. But when I can tell he is faking, then he only has books. He hates that, so it is a great motivator. The school also added a rule that he has to get to the school and get his assignments for the day. Then if he won’t stay at school where his therapists will help him with his work, he has to come home and do it all by himself. That is a really good motivator too.
When he is home refusing school, I make sure not to give him any special attention. This only works when I know he isn’t sick, because a sick kid is a clingy kid—so I have to be diligent to gauge the situation first or we have meltdowns. However, since he may want to stay home just to spend time with me, I have a couple tricks. First, I have been rewarding him for school attendance. When he goes for 10 days without missing a day, I will take him on a special mom date. We visit the zoo and get his favorite McDonald’s foods or do something else he loves. So when he is staying home, I can remind him that we won’t get our fun activity if he doesn’t go to school.
There was a time when I would let him have his electronics back after school was over. But I have learned that is a mistake. If he doesn’t go to school, I have to be firm and keep the rules in place: no games, no computer. In a lot of ways, this is punishment for me. Heck, I am already having to cancel my whole day when he won’t go to school! But I have learned that if I want him to really see school as his job, these sacrifices are necessary.
Fighting Reason 4: Wanting to Do Something at Home More Than Going to School
Let’s be honest here: most kids have something they love to do at home. But with the firm rules I have established and followed in fighting reason three, the fun stuff that would entice him to stay home are taken away already. But if your kid isn’t staying home to spend time with you, but is instead in love with LEGOs, etc., then it’s vital that they not be allowed to play with the LEGOs.
Again, it is really tough to be the bad guy. But keeping the preferred activity locked away unless they go to school will help them see the benefit of school attendance more quickly. Even when we were homeschooling, he had to wait to play video games until lessons were completed.
I have to warn you, there is usually what the therapists call an “extinction event” when you start implementing these rules. In other words, your kid will behave worse than they EVER have before. They are fighting back. But when my son saw I wasn’t going to back down, he eventually decided to go to school. We will still have times when he fights school out of the blue. But each tantrum is less intense than the extinction event. And I have to remind myself to be strong or I will lose all the progress we have made so far.
There are other things that can help aside from the things I’ve listed. Giving a child a job, a buddy, or some reason to be at school can also help. For my son, it helped us get over one refusal spurt when his friend who sits next to him in class needed a ride to school for a few weeks. He didn’t complain once while his buddy needed him. It gave him purpose, and I loved every minute of that.
It is also key that you and the school act as a team. When I have fought and struggled and done everything I could do to get him in the door, I desperately need a school team who could take over and engage my son. I have had times when I got him there only to have a distracted teacher who was too busy to care and the therapists I needed to get him to stay in the building were nowhere to be seen. That is such a letdown! But when you are able to work as a team, your support system is there to “catch” you both as you stumble in the door.
Talk to the school therapists as much as you can, because communication will help you find and fix the causes that may vary from day to day. Just last week, my son was refusing school because he felt overwhelmed by assignments. But when we all sat down with the teacher, we learned that he needed to ask clarifying questions. He had assumed he was supposed to do everything that was handed to him, when it was usually just one page of a packet at a time. It has really made a difference for him to understand that.
If your child is struggling with school refusal, know that you aren’t alone. I am here with you! It stinks, but you are strong enough to get through this. I have confidence in you. Know that God trusted you with your child who has this struggle because He knew you were uniquely qualified to help him or her get through it. It will be hard at times… But the rewards at the end are wonderful. I keep that in mind every time he is fighting me. My son may never be thrilled to go to school—but all I have to do is ensure he goes.
Abby is capable and caring. She is learning more about Autism and parenthood every day. And even though she is the first to admit she makes a lot of mistakes, she is so grateful to be on this journey. She comes from a family with many autistic members. She invites us to join her, as she shares her adventures. She wishes to emphasize that Autism is a difference not a defect. If you or a family member have autism yourself, Abby wants you to know that this isn't a bad thing. And you or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will teach the world this new language.