Working with a school refuser

I work to improve school attendance with a particular interest in school refusal. We have a small number of entrenched cases where children have been out of school for varying lengths of time, and cannot or will not attend. In most instances the parent(s) have battled with the situation for long periods of time, usually even before the problem became apparent to the school. These cases are usually therefore very entrenched at the time of referral to our service and it can be extremely challenging to effect change.

In one particular case I inherited a referral for AB who had been out of education for a period of 7 months, but there had been issues around his behaviour and school attendance over many years. When I first became involved AB was in the home all the time, not even going out socially. His sleep pattern was reversed and he was awake most of the night, sleeping most of the day on the sofa. His behaviour was very challenging and his mother (sole parent) was unable to influence him. AB was the middle child. Both his siblings were good attenders.

A local social service project were involved offering parent support, as were the local CAMHS (Child and adolescent Mental Health Service). However both were experiencing lack of engagement on the part of the mother. Appointments were missed regularly and often for spurious reasons. I arranged to meet with the parent (C) to discuss the situation and gather some background and to understand the specific nature of the difficulty.

C explained that she was not prepared to push AB out of his comfort zone and was not prepared to make him unhappy. She explained that AB had had a fall as a toddler and she had always felt responsible and wondered if this was the cause of his difficult behaviour. When I asked her what future she saw for AB and how she envisaged that this would be resolved she replied that she had not given this any consideration. She told me about a period when AB had happily attended a special school where he was picked up by taxi and taken to school relieving her of the responsibility of getting him there. She felt he needed this more nurturing environment and ideally wanted to return to this as a solution. (Presupposition) She had no confidence that he would successfully attend a mainstream school. She explained that she found school meetings overwhelming and avoided them (every failure has a positive intent)

C’s belief was that if AB was required to return to his local secondary he would not have the level of support that she considered essential. (presupposition)
By gathering information I therefore had a clear picture of a C’s map. I could see that she would find it difficult to support any plan around mainstream education. It was clear that we would have to tackle the parental anxieties in addition to the issues around AB. It was also apparent that we would need to pace our interventions carefully.

I therefore decided to focus on C’s map (People respond according to their map of the world) and bring amend it to a point where we were working to the same end. I offered to see whether a return to the previous school was a possibility and ascertained that this would not be supported by the authority. I fed back to C and established clearly in her mind that this was not an option. I spoke in positives about what we could offer to support his reintegration to mainstream and how this could be achieved. I spoke consciously about “when” AB was back in school rather than “if” so that there was an expectation of success. Because we had rapport, C accepted this as the long term goal

I also engaged the support of another parent (H) who had a son of a similar age with problems of anxiety and refusal. This parent had also been engaged with CAMHS and the same type of social services parenting support. This case had had a positive outcome. I offered this to C as a model. I then introduced the two mothers to each other over a cup of coffee. I let them talk and it was quickly apparent that they had common experiences. H was able to reassure C that she had also struggled but that through support from the agencies and careful planning with the school she had won through and that things were now a lot better. . (Modelling successful performance leads to excellence)

She offered C a vision of what the future could hold and that she could have confidence that change was possible (if what you are doing is not working, do something different)
I arranged for AB to have one to one support from a tutor to assist his reintegration. We set up fortnightly planning meeting with the school so that C was fully engaged in the planning process. We took care to match the pace so that it was achievable for C. I ensured that we took full account of her map as to what was possible and what would be difficult for her to achieve. The parenting support worker also attended these meetings and was able to follow up with sessions to support C with the next phase of the plan. (Pacing)

(Over a period of 4 months AB moved from non attendance to attending school for 2 hours per day. Before Christmas he was supported to attend a school trip with his year group. He now sleeps at night in his own room. Clare now attends school meetings consistently and with less anxiety. She speaks positively and offers suggestions as to the next step. )

Submitted by Clare Smale, Trainer Member

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