147: School Avoidance and Refusal

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Does your child avoid or flat-out refuse to go to school sometimes? School avoidance and refusal is the most stressful and upsetting thing I’ve gone through as a parent. The law says my kid has to attend school but my kid is so stressed and so pained in that environment that he couldn’t physically force himself to go many days, no matter the consequences. Listen in as I share our 9-year journey with school refusal and help you understand why it’s happening and how to handle it as effectively as possible. The struggle is real… but you are not alone.


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Penny Williams 0:03

There is something that is so stressing and upsetting that no matter what the consequence for the child, they cannot physically force themselves to go into the school building. That's a big deal guys. That is enormous and heartbreaking. Welcome to the parenting ADHD Podcast, where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, ADHD a Holic and mindset Mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started.

Welcome back to the parenting ADHD podcast. Today I'm going to talk to you about school avoidance and refusal. But first, I want to ask for your help, I need your help in reviewing and rating the podcast. The more that you guys add your feedback in iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you're listening to this podcast, the more families that we're able to reach and to help. So just take a moment, subscribe, and review the podcast and give your honest review. That's what we want. But it would help me so much if you could do that. For me, I get so many emails, and notes on Instagram and Facebook, from you guys about how helpful the podcast is for your family.

And I am so honored to be the one to be able to help your families a little bit. But please do also put that feedback into iTunes, because it really does help us to be able to reach and help more families. So let's dive into our topic today of school avoidance and refusal. Let's first define what this is for parents and families who don't go through this. School avoidance and refusal is exactly what it sounds like really, when a child is unable to force themselves to go to school. And sometimes it's just avoidance. And they really try hard to avoid it, they might pretend to be sick. Sometimes, they might end up being late a lot to school because they're trying to avoid going but they end up going at some point. And then school refusal is when you can't even get your kid out of the house. Sometimes you can't even get them out of the bed to go to school. And it's not that they refuse every day. Many kids with school refusal will refuse a day or two and then go a few days, and then go back to not being able to force themselves to go again. And I want you to really key in on that language that I just use there. They do not have the ability to even force themselves to go. And this understanding of school avoidance and refusal is paramount to handling it, managing it with any sort of effectiveness.

And I want to share our story with school avoidance or refusal because I think it's really important for you to understand where I'm coming from, and how much personal experience I have with us. It is a lot. My son started with avoidance and refusal in fourth grade, which was 10 years ago for us. And he struggled with it the rest of his academic career all the way until he graduated from high school almost a year ago. And it started one day out of the blue. I drove him to school every day and I dropped him off at the curb. You know in the line of other car riders getting dropped off at the elementary school and he jumped out of the car. He had his stuff, he closed the door and he started walking away. And when the line started moving, I started driving away. And next thing I know I'm about I'd say two or three car links out from where I dropped him at this point. I hear a blood curdling scream. And I look up in my rearview mirror. And my tiny little kid is running in a panic. After my car, he runs in front of another moving car and runs after my car screaming as if he was about to die if he didn't get back in my car. I mean literally, it looked like a wild animal was chasing and attacking him. He was so panicked. That's emblazoned in my brain has little face when this happened. And so I had him jump in because here we are in moving traffic right in the parking lot. And I parked the car and looked at him and said buddy What in the world is going on? Like At first I thought well maybe forgot his lunchbox or something. But it was still way out of scale, in response to forgetting something in the car. And he said, he just couldn't go in, he couldn't go to school today, he needed me to take him home. And I think we sat there about an hour.

Because, of course, our job as parents is to get our kids to go to school, right? It's the law. It's what they have to do. And so we sort of have to force them, which is unfortunate, but he couldn't really pinpoint why he couldn't go to school that day. But he was so very distraught. And I honestly had never seen him like that before this never end. I just really struggled with it. I really struggled. Because this can be good to go to school, and what in the world was happening? And finally I said to him, why don't we go home, and we'll come down, and we'll come back, and you can sign in late, around lunchtime. So you can stay home for the morning. And then we'll get you into school, because I knew that I had to get him into school, right? I couldn't just say, okay, you decided not to go to school today. That's okay, let's go home, right, because I was afraid of setting up a pattern where he could just say whatever you want to do, I don't want to go to school. And then he didn't, right. And we fear that that will become the norm, that our kids are given the opportunity to not do what they need to do that they'll always choose not to, which isn't true.

But that's certainly what it feels like, as a parent. And that's what we're taught as parents is to make sure that we're not giving kids an easy out, right. And so I could not get him back to the school. I did get him back to the parking lot. But I never did get him inside the school, when we went back that afternoon, was really hard to get him out of the car. But I did finally get him to walk up to the door with me, I was gonna walk him in and get him settled. And he could not go in the door, I open the door. He's pulling against me, I walk in, I'm trying to pull him across the threshold he's pulling against me, he could not cross the threshold into that school that day. And that should be really alarming. It shouldn't be super, super alarming. And it was, and it wasn't if that makes any sense at all. It was super alarming to me. I couldn't figure out what was going on.

Why was this happening? But I also was like, Okay, well, this is just a really bad day. And, they'll be fine tomorrow, he'll wake up tomorrow and everything will be okay. And wasn't, or eight years, nine years, we did school avoidance and refusal, lots of tears, lots of fighting, lots of trying to punish. And so what ended up happening was, we would say, okay, you don't have any electronics today, if you don't go to school, and electronics, this is the currency I'm telling you what, as a one thing he does, where he feels confident and capable. And the one place where he feels like he can be social, and be good at it. And taking that away is like taking everything in the world away from him. And yet taking that away, to not give him the ability on those days to get to school, which then shows you right away, there's something really going on here.

There is something that is so stressing and upsetting that no matter what the consequence for the child, they cannot physically force themselves to go into the school building. That's a big deal, guys. That is enormous, and heartbreaking, and really upsetting. It is so upsetting that our kids can't fit in school so badly and are so misunderstood at school so often, that they will give up anything and everything that they love, to not have to be in school. And that's what's happening here. The stress and the, the emotional toll of not fitting in and being misunderstood, is so great and so toxic that our kids cannot force themselves to walk in the door no matter what the consequence. That's enormous. And what's really happening here is that something is going on at school that is so profoundly anxiety provoking, so profoundly uncomfortable and painful that they will do any thing not to be there. And when my son's school avoidance started, he was pretty small, I could physically manipulate him somewhat, right, I could kind of drag him along and try to get him into the building.

But he grew pretty quickly. And there came a point where there was nothing, nothing I could do to help him to get in the school building. And over time, what I learned was that I had to address whatever was going on. And it changed, I changed over the years. I remember one specific instance, with PE and middle school. And he was seventh grade. And he was not dressing out. And at his middle school, they had a PE uniform shorts and a T shirt, you had to wear this uniform, to get credit for dressing out that day and participating in gym, which is how you got graded for the class. And he was not dressing out, he was not dressing out. And he was not participating because he thought if he didn't dress out, he couldn't participate. And so his grade was quickly spiraling towards failing. And the PE teacher reached out to me and said, your kid is refusing to dress out yet. I said, Okay, well, why? Right? Because to me, there's always a why it's not that he just doesn't want to, so he's not going to write, there is a why. And it turned out that he was uncomfortable. Being in the locker room, he was too loud. The kids were teasing each other, they were playing rough, he wasn't comfortable with changing his clothes in front of others.

So there were lots of sensory things going on lots of social things going on. And, just a lot of discomfort. And he wasn't willing to put himself in that super uncomfortable, painful position every day in order to dress out and participate in p, it wasn't important enough to him to pass PE to go through that, right. And so I looped in his special ed teacher, I said, Look, this is what's going on, can he change somewhere else privately? Absolutely. Of course it can. And it's like, well, why didn't you ask him in the first place right at school, but they didn't. And so they made a plan that he was able to use a teacher restroom that was right outside of the gym, and he got to change his clothes there by himself, and then come participate in PE. And so he did that for a couple of weeks. He was doing that. And then all of a sudden, he wasn't dressing out again. And here comes the email from a teacher, right? Your kid is refusing to dress out again. And I said okay, why?

So I go to Luke and I say, why are you not dressing out? Again? I thought you were able to change your clothes by yourself. And he said, Yeah, I just he really avoided answering it. And I think for him, he thought people were tired of hearing his excuses. And so he wasn't going to give it and it was a legitimate reason. The bathroom had stalls. And the two stalls. Both of the locks were broken on the doors. So he could not latch the door in that bathroom to change his clothes, which made him uncomfortable. He was not willing to change his clothes where the door was flapping open, and somebody could come in. And so he stopped dropping out again. And so we address that right loop in the special ed teacher. Here we go, and once we addressed it, guess what? He was back in school in the morning, he was getting up, he was going to school, he was okay. I won't say he was good.

Because school was just so painful for him. But he was okay with going. And over the years, it was the same sort of thing over and over. We just had to figure out what is going on. What is providing or triggering this intense stress and discomfort. And how do we address it and fix it for him so that he can be okay with going to school. There were so many things, so many things over the years, the hallway, he felt unsafe, people were always bumping into each other, it was allowed. So we got together and made a plan where he could change classes outside of the time where the whole school was changing classes. Sometimes kids were picking on him. Sometimes teachers were kind of begging on him, not understanding that he was having a hard time that he wasn't, refusing to do his work.

Sometimes he just needed a break and no one would give him a break. So many different things were happening. And it was this constant change. But every time he was avoiding or refusing to go to school, we had to sit back and say, okay, what's going on? What is it? And I learned pretty quickly that taking pen and paper and writing down his concerns and writing out a plan of addressing them helped monumentally. So we would sit down in the morning when he couldn't get out the door to school. I'd say okay, what's going on by and what do you think? As he it's so hard for you to go to school. What's been happening? And I would write every single thing down. And then I say, Okay, let's go through them now. And let's make a plan for what we're going to do to make these things better.

So the plan for changing in PE, in the locker room, I wrote down, moms can email, Special Ed, teacher, PE teacher, and ask if there's a different way you can dress out. Okay, great, and that resolve that one? go down the list. Next one, okay, what's the plan? Sometimes the plan was meeting with the guidance counselor, when we got on the school building. Sometimes the plan was meeting with the guidance counselor, a couple times a week that counselor was checking in with him to make sure that he wasn't being bullied that he was feeling like he had some connection at school, lots of different things. Sometimes it was, the teacher won't let me do this in a different way. Or they keep complaining about my handwriting when he had dysgraphia. And his handwriting in high school looked like a two year old because he has dysgraphia, not his fault known as choice, but it wasn't always understood. And this is what you have to do when your child has school avoidance refusal, you have to figure out the why you have to put your detective hat on.

And you've got to drill down and figure out what is the specific trigger that is causing the anxiety or discomfort that is putting up a wall and preventing your child from being able to physically walk in the school building. And enlist people in the school. Sometimes teachers get it, sometimes they don't. If your child has an IEP, they should have a special ed coordinator or case manager or teacher and make that their safe person make a plan that when they're uncomfortable, when they're feeling misunderstood, when they're freaking out whatever it is, they can go and find that person. And that person will talk to them and listen and understand and help them that makes a big difference. The other thing I'll say to you is that forcing does not work. There's no amount of physical forcing, there's no amount of punishment that will force a child to go to school, when they have this level of toxicity at school. And I remember in fifth grade, we were having a really hard time and we sat down and we had a meeting and the principal and the vice principal, like everybody in the school was in this meeting about his school refusal and how many absences he was getting.

And my struggle to get him in the building. At this point in fifth grade, he actually tried to get out of my car moving my moving car in the middle of an intersection on a five lane road. That was how totally desperate this kid was not to go into school. As we turned down the road for the building, he literally tried to jump out of my moving car. And then we got past that, child locks are great, then as I would pull up to the curb there, he would start kicking my seat hitting my seat jumping out of his seatbelt fighting, physically fighting, to not have to be forced into that building. And so we had a meeting because, the teachers out of the line at the car drop off, were seeing that they were seeing him, punching on me and screaming and refusing to get out of the car. And then this meeting, they said, Okay, well, here's our plan, he's really has a good relationship with the vice principal who happened to be a man, they are really kind to each other and compassionate. And they really have a good connection. So when you get to the school park in the parking lot, and I think I had his number to text him and let him know when he'll come out. And he'll escort Luke into the building, and he'll have a friendly face and somebody will walk in with and that'll be so helpful. I'm like, Okay, I know, this isn't gonna work. But I have to do what they want to do, so that we can get to something that might actually work. We have to start at, the ground level.

And so the very first day, this wonderful vice principal came out, he tried to coax him sweetly with his voice and his words, wasn't working, called another teacher out. I think they physically pulled him out of the car. He was kicking, screaming, punching. And this vice principal was a good six foot two, probably, maybe to 250 pounds. He was a big guy. And he was struggling to kind of control this little bitty kid. Luke was probably, I don't know, 60 pounds, maybe at that point is so tiny. And then and they ended up standing in that parking lot for an hour and a half, while Luke punched and hit and melted down until he was so exhausted that he couldn't punch and fight anymore. And so they walked in and he sat in the office, and they called me to get him and said, Well, that didn't work and we're not doing that again. I said no, you're not doing that again, because that was traumatic for my And that was not the appropriate way to handle it. And so as time went on, we learn more lessons like that, right? Because people were not talking about school avoidance and refusal. 10 years ago, I struggled immensely to find any information and support.

The only thing I found was Dr. Jerome Schultz's book, nowhere to hide, and it really helped me understand what was going on. And for any of you out there who are struggling with school refusal, please get this book and read it, it will help you understand your kid, and what they're going through and why this is happening. And that it's really out of their control. They are so desperate, even physiologically, like their anxiety and their stress is so painful, that they are physiologically not able to get into school, right. And this book helps you understand those levels of stress, the toxic stress, and how that is creating this reaction in our kids minds and bodies. And then what we can do to help. And so we just continued with the same pattern of sitting down with pen and paper, tell me what's going on today? What can I do to help? How are we going to make it so that you're feeling okay to go to school again, and over and over for nine years, not daily.

Here, there were times where it was pretty much daily for, two to four days, I think there was one or two weeks. In those nine years, where there's a whole week, I couldn't get him in the building. And we just managed we managed, it was super hard. It was really, really challenging for my own mental and emotional health. But we managed as best we could, because that's what we had to do. Once he got to high school, there was a very strict attendance code to pass the class. And you could only Miss five days of any given class. So that would be a semester or a year, most of them were semesters. So in four months, he could only Miss five days, in order to get credit for the class. And there was attendance makeup that you could do, it was an hour for an hour. So if he missed 10 days, he had to do 10 hours, or 10 days over that five and do 10 hours of attendance makeup, which is basically after school in school suspension. But it's a separate room for attendance, which is another whole problem, but I'm not going to go into that right now.

And he would have 15 or 20 absences every semester, and we were battling the same thing. And one year I was able to get a doctor's note about anxiety and they did write off the absences they waived and let him pass his classes. But it was a constant struggle guys for nine years. And the more I fought, the more stressed he was and the harder it was to get him in school. Once I was able to stay calm, and say okay, I get that something's going on. Let's figure it out together. And sometimes in high school, I was like, I get that you just need a break. So have a break today. It's fine. When I was that understanding, he was able to go much more often because I was not compounding his stress and anxiety. By pushing it. It was really hard for me, I am not going to sugarcoat it. Sunday's, I was ready to get in the car and run away and never come back. Like some days I was so angry and frustrated.

And it came from a lack of control. I had no control over the fact that my kid has to go to school, because the law says he does. And yet I had no control over getting him there because of these toxic stressors and discomfort because of his disabilities. And the two did not jive. And I was being pushed on both sides, really. And some days I just couldn't manage it. There were days where I cried all morning at my computer trying to work while my kid cried all morning in his bedroom many times. And it was so so hard. And I have so much compassion for other parents who are going through this. And we're seeing so many families dealing with school avoidance or refusal now, post pandemic, although we're really not post pandemic, but kids are back in school for the most part.

They haven't been in school in a long time in person and it's doubly difficult. There's more anxiety. So we're seeing a lot more school avoidance and refusal. And I want to address to you because I can hear some people saying oh well you should have homeschooled if your kid was that upset being at school if it's that hard and difficult and painful. Why didn't you homeschool homeschooling was not going to work for my child. It just wasn't he would not have done In school with a parent asking, he just wasn't that kid. And he craved craved, being with other kids. And homeschooling would have felt like a punishment for him, it actually would have been worse. It just wasn't right for us. I'm not saying that that isn't necessarily the answer for some families. And I know many who struggled with this and said, Hey, if it's that bad, we're schooling at home, and it's worked for them. And that's great.

But it's not the answer for everyone. And I want to make sure that, that everyone out there listening understands that, it may not be the answer for you. And that's okay. And I just encourage you work with the school, help them understand that there are things going on for your child in that building, that make them feel like they're under attack, make them feel under siege, unwelcome, misunderstood, completely pained and uncomfortable. And under great anxiety and duress, the school needs to understand that, because when they do, they will work with you and your child. And they will not push, and they will not threaten truancy, I get so angry when schools threaten to, I'd say, for kids with disabilities, who have school avoidance and refusal. And these kids have anxiety diagnoses, for the most part, so often. So you can't punish anxiety out of a kid, period, you can't push them to suddenly not be anxious. In fact, the more you push, the more anxious they are. So I need schools to get that right, we need teachers and administrators, especially to get that to understand it. And they just don't, they don't have the experience.

They weren't taught that in school, teachers do not have to learn about disabilities, learning disabilities, ADHD, or autism at all, to graduate with a teaching degree and be a certified teacher, they do not have to have any education whatsoever in learning differences, and disability diagnoses. So a lot of times, they just don't know any different. And so we have to find a way to open the dialogue, where it will be received, and educate them on what's really going on. So I encourage you, if you're dealing with school avoidance and refuse on one, get Dr. Shoulders book, nowhere to hide, read it as quickly as you possibly can, it will give you so many aha moments, and really help you to cope with what's going on better, and help your child more and more effectively. I also encourage you every single time your child can't get to school, pen and paper

What's going on? What are you afraid of what's happening? What has been painful, what has caused you discomfort, what has made your anxiety really hard to deal with or really spiked and work together and show them that you're on their side and in their corner, you have to show empathy and understanding for this, or it just persists and gets worse. And then recognize that your child is doing the best that they can when they can get to school and feel okay, they will do it. And we have to recognize that and we have to celebrate it. Here. There are so many days on the way to school. I'm like, dude, you're awesome, right? Like, let me tell you anything and everything to make you feel like a rock star, because you are going to school. sounds ridiculous for neurotypical kid or, kids who just naturally go to school, but our kids want to do what they're supposed to do. They want to meet our expectations. They want to please us, if they can't, there is a roadblock that is making it impossible, not just difficult, but impossible for them to get there. I want you to give yourself some grace.

Above all, you are doing the best you can. And it's not your job, to please the system. It is your job to help your kid to help them be able to get educated to learn and to grow, to better manage stress, to better manage discomfort, to even be able to sit with discomfort and go through it instead of avoided. That's what your job is. Your job is not to please the system. And you have to let go of that. Whatever the consequences, however much they're barking at you from the side of it's the law This is truancy, you've kind of just accept that block it out and be in your kid's corner and help them and support them. Because that's the only way through school avoidance and refusal. You can go to the show notes and get a link to the holds his book nowhere to hide. The Show Notes for this episode are at parenting, ADHDandautism.com/147 for Episode 147 hang in there parents and I'll see you on the next episode.

Thanks for joining me on the parenting ADHD podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching and Mama retreats at parentingADHDandautism.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

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Share your thoughts.

  • Thank you so much for this. You have described my son to the T. He is in middle school right now but we have been going through these behaviors since kindergarten. I have been lost the entire time. I am now discovering that I need to find “the why”. It’s such a relief to know I am not alone.

    • Hang in there. It's unbelievably tough, but you'll get through it. Do start determining underlying causes and work with your son and his school to address them. That's the only thing that helps some. You are most definitely NOT ALONE.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I’m totally in the middle of this with my HS son. He is a senior. You have given me a virtual hand to hold allowing me to extend my hand even further to support my son.

    • Hang in there Nicolle! You're so close to the finish line. I can tell you that things get better. My son started his first job 2 weeks ago after doing nothing but taking a break for the 10 months since graduation. And NONE of the worries I had about school refusal translating into work or life refusal have happened. He goes to work every day 110% willingly (it helps that we found a job that's a good fit for him right now). He feels seen, heard, accepted and part of something at work and that has made all the difference, because he had none of that at school.

  • Thank you for this episode. I am experiencing exactly the same thing with my 3rd grade son. It started only 2 months ago. It doesn't happen every morning so I haven't figured out what is the reason for this. I only know that he struggles very morning to get dressed and it is very difficult for him. Today is the first time that he didn't go to school at all and I am really worried about this. How can I help him to get to school every day?

    • You have to address the reasons for his stress and anxiety. That's the only way to help. But know that he isn't going to be able to get to school every day.

  • A most useful episode. Great point about addressing reasons for stress and anxiety. Also, to work with school teachers and Special educators.

  • Hi
    Thank you for your lovely and innovative show!

    I cannot find the book you talked about: Dr Shoulders “nowhere to hide”… Could you kindly indicate where it can be ordered etc?

  • Thank you so much I really appreciated listening to your podcast about this. Just knowing that others go through it is helpful as well as hearing your strategies. My daughter with ADHD went through this k-3 had to be carried in on an almost daily basis. She is in 8th grade now & loves school exclusively for social life but at least she is there. Now my 9 yr old son also with ADHD has been going through it the last 2 years with no sign of changing. I am going to try your listing things in the morning strategy. Thank you

    • Oh, Rachael! School refusal is so hard! I'm so glad your daughter is going to school willingly now. Definitely try writing down exactly what's stressing him and make a plan together to address each item (write that down too).

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