Welcome to our podcast: Conversations About Student Mental Health.
I’m Chris Leonard, Clinical Social Worker working with adolescents for over 25 years. In this podcast, I talk with school administrators, educators, clinicians, and parents to open a dialogue that will help the growing number of students struggling with mental illness.
In this episode, I will be speaking with a parent of a student who struggled with and overcame school avoidance. What is school avoidance? School avoidance, which is sometimes referred to as school refusal or school phobia, describes a pattern in which a student does not attend school or is unable to complete a school day due to an ongoing emotional issue or concern.
School avoidance is distinct from truancy, which is a pattern in which a student does not attend school due to a preference for doing something else. The truant student is usually out somewhere, having a good time, getting into trouble or both. In contrast, the school avoidance student may be depressed or anxious. The student may find school overwhelming, perhaps due to anxiety about academics or experiences of bullying. The student may be struggling with a transition, such as the move from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school.
Alternatively, the student may have a concern about something that has nothing to do with school. Perhaps a fear of leaving the house or being away from a parent. Concerns such as these can make the student feel as if going to school is simply not a priority. School refusal or avoidance can be hard to overcome, but there are specific things that parents and schools can do to help the student return to school and succeed.
I’m pleased to welcome Laura to the podcast today. Laura’s daughter Kelly was really struggling to attend school but through their collaboration with their school and Kelly’s therapist, they were able to help her get back to school and back on track. Laura, welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you with us today. Let’s jump right in. What were the signs that you saw that Kelly was really struggling?
Laura: I would see that she’d be getting stressed, taking a long time getting ready in the morning, stalling to get out the door. Then it got to the point where she just would use any excuse in the book to stay home. She just didn’t want to go to school, which wasn’t like her because she’d always liked being around her friends and liked school, liked teachers. She was very smart. Those were the main things that got me nervous with how she just didn’t want to go.
It started I think in eighth grade. When the eighth grade started she was like, “I’m not going,” and I’m like, “What do you mean you’re not going?” We wound up signing her up into the High Focus Center. She started that program and she was able to get through eighth grade with the teacher’s help. The schools did help with that and she managed to get through it, but the problem didn’t stop. She continued avoiding going to school. Then we found out that she had general anxiety disorder, where loud noises bothered her, and crowds of people, such as all the kids in the hallway at school. They got our 504 plan which allowed her to go to her next class a little later so she’s not in the halls with all the kids.
Chris Leonard: The school made some accommodations and you were able to get her through eighth grade. So then did things progress into high school where avoiding school continued to be an issue?
Laura: At first it was okay. Her freshman year, she seemed to do okay. She struggled a little bit, but she was getting therapy at home (outpatient therapy) and she was getting therapy also in the school. The school actually provided a therapist in school, which was great that year.
In tenth grade, they cut that out. They said you’re not allowed to see that therapist anymore. At the same time she was doing so well with the outpatient therapy. They also discharged her, so she lost both therapists and then she just went downhill from there.
By the end of her freshman year, she started again with the not wanting to go to school. So she went to the High Focus Center again. It was complex, trying to figure out what to do. I mean she had the 504 plan, but they brought us back into the school and went over it and kind of made it a little bit more detailed. She can go to school a little bit earlier. They’d let her in so she didn’t have to wait outside with the other students just to try to help with her issues, but it wasn’t getting better.
Chris Leonard: Okay, so yes, you can see that the school started to do some interventions. They had a therapist for her in school and that seemed to work really well. Then once that support was removed…
Laura: That support was lost and it was harder for her to go to school.
Chris Leonard: Were there any things that you were trying initially at home that you would say weren’t successful? Things that you were just trying to get her out the door in the morning and it just wasn’t working?
Laura: Yelling doesn’t work. We found that out. That just made it worse. She’d crawl in her room and just not want to come out. We actually called the help line and they sent therapists to the house that would help us to coax her back into going to school. That helped a lot too, but it all came down to just going to school. No matter what they try to help with, it just wasn’t working. Then in 10th grade they changed her school program where they alternate the schedules, so each day it’s a different day and that threw her completely off. She was just like, “I’m not going, I’m not going to school,” so we knew we had to find somewhere else for her to go. I actually wound up calling around and searching on the internet. Where do you put kids with these kinds of problems?
Because the school really wasn’t telling me what to do. I was on my own. I’m like, “She’s not going to school. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do. The school’s done everything I feel they could have done,” because they did try to help. That’s when I reached out to Sage Day and said, “You know, I have a daughter with anxiety issues and I saw your school on the website and it looks like it would be something like that would be good for her.” They let me know what to do. I had to get the IEP, which I had to schedule with the school. It was a long process to get that IEP so she could go to one of the special schools.
When I asked the school initially for the IEP, they were like, “Oh no, no, no, we’re working it out here. We’re going to try to do it here. Let’s just stick with the 504 plan,” and we tried. Then she wound up going to the High Focus Center for a third time because she was just not going to school, so we fought for the IEP. She finally got her meeting and went in for the IEP evaluation. They tested her and everything and they said, “Yes, she’s got to go somewhere else.”
Chris Leonard: It sounds like if you had been able to keep that therapist in place, she in the school, it would not have progressed to the point where she needed to be in a separate therapeutic school.
Laura: Yes. I believe if they had kept the therapist in there, it would have helped so much more, and I don’t know why they took it away. They just said, “Oh no, you’re not allowed to come and see them anymore.” She’s just like, “Wait, what?” She lost her security at the school.
Chris Leonard: Sure. Once you got into the therapeutic school, what was different? How did the school help? What were some of the strategies that you used together with them that helped Kelly, because I’m sure it wasn’t like, boom, from the very first day she just came to school. Right, it’s a process.
Laura: No, it was a gradual process. First of all, when she got her first IEP and they finally took her to school, she went to a couple of different schools and Sage Day was one of the schools she had to pick from. She chose Sage Day because she felt most comfortable here. She did great here.
Getting on the bus was an issue because she’s never had to take a bus before. The bus would come and pick her up in the morning and she’d have a couple issues with getting on the bus. I would drive her in the first couple of days. She eventually started going, because of the therapy in school.
They have therapy in school, and group therapy. She saw she’s around other kids. She didn’t have the same stress as she did at the other school because the classes are smaller, there’s less noise. And there’s kids that are going through similar situations like she is. She felt comfortable, so it got easier. Getting on the bus was like, “Okay, yeah I like going to this school,” so she would do it. She would get on the bus and go and we had good days and we had her bad days but on the most part, it was a lot less of a struggle than it was when she was going to the public school.
I think the therapist here, the therapy helps. And family therapy, which when we first heard about it, we were like, “Their family therapy every week?”
Chris Leonard: Who wants to do that?
Laura: We’re like, “Are you kidding?” Once we started doing it we realized, “Oh, this is great.” This got everybody to understand what’s going on and her to understand. It was actually really good. As crazy as that sounds, going to family therapy, it helped a lot, so it was really worth it.
Chris Leonard: No, I’m sure it did because it helps to get everybody on the same page, right?
Laura: Yes. Yeah.
Chris Leonard: It really helps you understand what’s going on with your daughter and that gets you into a place where you can now you can work with her. When you first start, usually parents are frightened at first when their child won’t go to school. That’s when you yell, because right?
Laura: Right, because you don’t know what it is. Then when I found out what was going on, when I found out she had the anxiety and depression, I was just like, “Oh, okay, so that was the wrong approach.” Even her father found out that there were certain things he was doing that would upset her and he didn’t realize it. So these small little changes helped and so things at home got better. And it got easier for her to come to school and she was enjoying school like she used to when she was younger, she really enjoyed school. It was nice to see that again.
Chris Leonard: That’s great. You were really able to dig in to what was really going on for Kelly and by doing that digging, that enabled her to relax and really just resume going to school.
Laura: She’s made friends and she actually still has friends from the public school that she went to also, which is great.
Chris Leonard: That is good.
Laura: She did keep her connections. We were worried about that. We thought, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to pull you out of this school and away from your friends that you’ve had since grammar school and put you in another one.” That was another issue for us. But it helped. I’m glad we did what we did because she wouldn’t have graduated. If she stayed in public school, she would not have a high school diploma right now.
Chris Leonard: What advice would you offer to parents of a student who’s struggling in a way that Kelly was?
Laura: Have patience. Lots of patience, and don’t be afraid to call anybody. Calling the help line. It’s not like DYFS is coming to your house to take your kids away. They come and they’re helping. They have a therapist come and they evaluate her, see what the situation is, see what the problem is, which was great. Then they’re the ones that helped guide us to her therapists and all her therapy treatments, which helped a lot. Don’t be afraid to take your kids out of the school if they’re not doing it well, to go to one of these other schools. I mean I have to say the education was great. They had a lot of variety of classes for her to take. It’s not like we took her away from anything, so don’t be afraid to bring them anywhere else.
Chris Leonard: Don’t be afraid to seek support.
Laura: Don’t be afraid of family therapy. It’s very good.
Chris Leonard: Excellent point. I fully agree. Can you share any thoughts or recommendations for schools about how they can be more helpful in addressing school avoidance?
Laura: Well, having a therapist at school helped her a lot. It would be great if they had an in-school therapist that kids could go to and reach out to and then don’t just say, “No, you can’t go.”
Chris Leonard: There’s no substitute for building that support into the school day, is there?
Laura: Yeah, it helped her so much and it was new to the school. They were just trying something new out. I think they were just saying, “Oh, well you had your turn so we’re getting other kids in,” and because of the demand, I guess, because a lot of kids are having issues nowadays.
Chris Leonard: You really need to make sure that you have enough people in place to really provide that support.
Laura: Yeah, so she would actually wander around the school because they would give her on her 504 plan, you’re supposed to see this one first. Then you see that one next and you see this one next. She would go down the line and she’s like, “I’m doing everything I’m supposed to but nobody’s ever available.”
Chris Leonard: The person has to be available.
Laura: They need someone to be available.
Chris Leonard: Yeah, they can’t be somebody who’s doing five jobs. They have to have that one job, right?
Laura: Exactly. They had one that was really good and she did help her a lot, but she was working at three different schools.
Chris Leonard: She was overstretched.
Laura: When she had her anxiety issues and she’d go to her office, she was either at a different school or with another student, and it was just that person had too much responsibility. But she was great.
Chris Leonard: Good, so it looks like there were a lot of steps along the way and I’m really glad to hear that you found a successful strategy and that Kelly was able to get back on track.
Laura: Yeah, and finish school.
Chris Leonard: We’re about out of time, Laura. I really want to thank you again for coming in to speak with me today.
Laura: You’re welcome.
Chris Leonard: That’s our podcast for today. Thank you so much for listening. We hope you found today’s topic valuable and will join us for future conversations about student mental health.
“Conversations About Student Mental Health” is brought to you by Sage Thrive, partners in school-based mental wellness.
You can also suggest topics for upcoming episodes of the podcast; we’d love to know what issues related to student mental health you want to hear more about.
Christopher J. Leonard, MSW, LCSW, M.ED.
Chris Leonard is Director of Operations for Sage Thrive and the Sage Day Schools. He is an experienced teacher, school administrator, social worker and psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. Mr. Leonard is married with two daughters and enjoys distance running, mountain and road biking, hiking, and the outdoors.