How to support a child who is refusing to come to school.

Refusing to come to school can be a very common occurrence with many of our children and is something that I am asked for support on quite frequently in my Q&A sessions on Instagram. There are many factors that can influence or lead to an increase in refusals. For many children, the physical task of coming to school can be incredibly stressful and anxiety inducing. Even with having strict routines and schedules in place, for some children there will still be a real sense of the unknown associated with coming to school on top of the knowledge that they are leaving their familiar home environment to go to a less predictable environment. So this can be a huge ask for many children.

When considering school refusals we as teachers must also reflecting upon our own practise, our expectations of the children and the demands we are putting on them day to day. If you find that refusals are increasing, remember to look at how you can adapt or lessen the demand being put on the child, whether that means that you set tasks and work at a lower level for a period of time and build back up to more challenging work when the refusal incidents begin to decrease or whether it means you allow more chance for task completing by breaking up tasks further into more manageable pieces, or even increasing sensory breaks, movement breaks throughout the day, etc. You will know best how to support the children in your class.

It is also worth mentioning that if refusals are a new or even a prolonged behaviour, track them as such to see what is causing the refusal. By understanding why the child is refusing, you will be better able to implement a specific strategy to support your child. Understanding the behaviour is absolutely key to supporting it appropriately.  

As teachers, we can plan for the entire day, minute to minute however we cannot plan for all eventualities occurring throughout the day; the actions/responses/reactions of other children in class, other children in school, other adults or changes within the environment. As much as we try, we also need to realise that many of these things are out of our control. And although we do our best to limit these kinds of stressors we cannot fully eradicate them. We all know what school life is like; chatter, noise, bells, children running, screaming, having fun, moments of crisis, etc. There are so many factors that are out of our control and for many of our children, events such as these can be very surprising, stressful and anxiety inducing. This in turn can lead to children feeling unsettled, anxious and even scared of the thoughts of coming into school and this is all before they even get up out of their own beds at home!

Consequently, we need to support our children as best we can in order for them to feel safer, calmer and less stressed in our unpredictable environments. There are many things that we can do to support a child who may be feeling this way. Here are some of the strategies that I have used over the past number of years to support children who refuse to come to school. These have not necessarily all been used at once and not all with the same child and it is important to note that this is not just specific to children in an ASD class or special school setting. Many children across the board struggle with attachment issues and anxiety over coming to school and it is our job to support all of our children. And that said, all strategies and supports such as the ones I may mention here, need to be specific and tailored to the individual child that you are working with (related back to tracking refusals as a behaviour!)

Strategies to support school refusals.

  • Many parents find the task of getting their child from home to school in itself quite challenging. As a teacher, I want to support not only the children in my class but also the parents to my best ability. In my class our token boards and visuals are our bible support system! Parents are well use to me harping on about the benefits of creating and using both visual schedules and token economy systems both in school as well as at home. If parents come to me and say they are finding it difficult to get their child into school, the first thing we look at is how we can support both them and their child. One of the ways we do this is by looking at their home routine in the mornings. Creating a simple visual timetable or checklist of things the child needs to do can really help to minimise stress and anxiety in the home. Having something as simple as a checklist (tick the box or remove from a Velcro strip) for things like getting up, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, getting dressed, putting on coat, bag on back, get into car, seat belt on, etc. can really help to give a clear outline of expectations and support these transitions. Making it into an earning/winning game by incorporating use of the token board then acts as a positive reinforcer for appropriate or expected/wanted behaviours such as these. Again, as I suggested in my previous post about how to use token boards I find there is far more engagement with these systems when the token is themed to suit the interests of your individual child as it instantly catches their attention and engages them into the process. I mean who wouldn’t want to earn 10 Paw Patrol tokens in the morning!! 😊
  • So at this point the child has completed home tasks, they have followed their visual support schedule at home, they have gathered what they need for school and are in the car but again the anxiety begins to build as they become more aware that they are leaving the safety zone of their homes and heading to school. For the journey to school itself, something that I have found helps to alleviate anxiety is having a calm kit/sensory bag in the car with the child. This could include things like their favourite book, sensory feely toys, a body brush, chewies, headphones and CD player to listen to music (I don’t often encourage tablets as I have found that the screen time can actually increase or heighten the anxiety as well as over stimulate a child after prolonged use), etc. Again, make this specific to the interests of your child, both their sensory needs as well a few things to perhaps use as a distraction for them.
  • For some children the thought of coming into school and the unknown of what each new school day may bring, can be very overwhelming. To support this I have sent home schedules for the following day with children (simply pop one into their school bags at the end of the day) so the child knows what they will be doing throughout the day and can see a visual representation of their day and when they get to go home again. This visual support and knowledge that school is only for part of the day can really help to alleviate stress and anxiety levels as well an any attachment or separation issues that may also be going on.
  • Another support that I have used with great success to support the transition from home to school is sending home social stories (with visuals) describing what will be expected of them when they arrive at school so for example a social story may read something like this: “When Mum/Dad stops the car, I will take off my seatbelt. I will get out of the car. I will put on my coat and school bag. I will walk to the school door. Teacher will greet me. I will have 1 minute to say goodbye to Mum/Dad (I use a timer for this as another visual /time frame strategy). I will walk down to class”. Again, this would be tailored to your child. It may be wordless and be done through visuals, whatever your child needs! When implementing this, I get parents to use a token board alongside this so for each completed task in this sequence they earn a token which then leads to access to a highly motivating reinforcer upon entry into class. Note: I have also done this where I as teacher go out to the car to collect the child directly. I simply collect the child at the car, sit into the car/stand at the car door and read through the story with the child (where applicable I ask the child would they like to read or have it read to them, again giving them options and choice and therefore a greater feeling or sense of control!) I found that in some cases this worked better than having the parents walking the child to the school door mainly for the following two reasons: Firstly, it can be incredibly stressful and heart breaking for a parent to have to hear, watch and sometimes battle with their child as they struggle with getting out of the car and as a teacher I want to be able to support the parents in my class as best as I can also. Secondly, I find it works well for the child as it cuts out one transition, that of car to school door where many children will argue and fight with parents about having to come into school. So, when they see me coming and I get into the car or stand at the car door, the transition process begins and is more fluid from arrival to school in the car to entering the classroom.
  • For the child whose parents are bringing them to the school door, but who hates crowds, noise or has a sensitivity/hypersensitivity to sound or even for those children who can struggle to cope with intense transitions on arrival to school, I have found great success with simply changing our timetable/start time so that they can come in 10 minutes before or after the rest of the school has entered the building and their classrooms. Personally, I find this works best if children come in 10 minutes later as they are also then avoiding hearing noise from the playground but for those children who come in taxis and buses, coming straight into class or to a separate outdoor area before their peers, can really support their levels of anxiety. Allowing this, reduces the amount of noise, movement and disruption in their personal space and allows the child to enter a much calmer, peaceful school environment whilst also reducing the amount of sensory information hitting them as they enter school.
  • At this point we may have a child who has come to school with their parents or in a bus/taxi, they have walked to the school door but do not want to walk down to class. I find that creating a treasure trail of sorts really helps with this. I use visual supports to entice children to walk down to class. In the past I have used things like puzzle pieces (if of interest to the child), pictures of dinosaurs, fish, favourite characters, etc, for them to collect on their journey down to class (simply Velcro them to the corridor walls). This helps to take their mind off the task and then the earning or collecting of these tokens can give them access to a reinforcer when they get to class (or if using puzzles they get time to play with them when they enter class).
  • Another strategy that I find works absolute wonders is incorporating the use of a calm kit on arrival to school/class. If a routine is established where a child knows that when they get to class, they get much needed sensory input to help them calm and feel more in control, it can support them in their efforts to come into school and can often be so highly reinforcing in itself that the child is more eager to come to class each morning. Giving them access to this tailored calm kit also supports them to calm and self-regulate on those days where they have found it increasingly stressful to simply walk into class so for some of my children this is not something that is earned, but in fact something that is given when they come into classroom regardless of anything else as it is something they  sensorially need. It allows them time to settle and feel more comfortable in their class environment and is something I would highly recommend as you can see an almost instant sense of peace or calm come across a child when they are given the correct calming sensory input. For some of my children past and present, this calm kit can include things like body brushing, lying down with a weighted blanket on top, squeezing a vibrating cushtie, having their hair brushed or combed, having a cup of luke warm tea (not hot for safety reasons), arm tickles, decompression, bean bag squeeze, brushing their teeth with a vibrating toothbrush, throwing a ball against a wall vigorously to get rid of the tension/anxiety, etc. Again, these should always be specific to the child and may need specific recommendations from a child’s OT or OT report.
  • For those children who have separation anxiety from their parents, something that I have found very useful is the use of our Seesaw App. In the past I have asked parents to send a message on the app for the child to read or have read to them when they get down to class and they can then respond to parents and take pictures of their work/tasks throughout the day to make them feel more at ease and connected to their parents when they are away from them. This continued connection to their parents again helps to support and lessen their feeling of anxiety.
  • Another thing to note would also be to try to increase communication skills between the child and adult so that they can explain, express or show you how they are feelings and why. Using programmes like the Zones of Regulation, 5 Point Incredible Scale or How does your engine run? Can really support a child in identifying how they are feeling, why they are felling a certain way as well as teaching them coping strategies and mechanisms that can support them both at home and in school and indeed skills they will need and use for the rest of their lives.

This is in no way an exhaustive list of supports or strategies but hopefully they will supplement your own ideas and may help you and your children in class or at home. These are just things that I have tried and tested and found to be successful in my own classes over the years but as I said above different strategies will work for different children and the key to any behaviour is to understand it so please do make time to figure out the function or reason for the refusals. I hope these strategies will help some of you to support the children you are working with along the way.

Feel free to comment or share your own experiences in the comment box below and as usual, you can find me over on Instagram @ASDCreationStation if you would like any further support or a chat.

As I will always say, I am by no means an expert but happy to be a sounding board for you to bat ideas off, a person you can vent to/talk to or am more than happy to share any advice or strategies that have worked for me.

Until next time, enjoy the rest of this week!

Lisa @ASDCreationStation

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