“I’m Not Going, You Can’t Make Me!”: A Community Approach to School Refusal

Ben Furman, MD
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“I’m not going to school. You can’t make me!”

School refusal, a child’s repeated avoidance of attending school, is a very common and serious problem the world over. Estimates range from an average of less than 5% to as high as 28% of youth ages 5-17 who refuse to attend — or have difficulty going to or staying in — classes for two weeks or longer. Their stated reasons or excuses vary depending on the individual, but as psychologist Irit Schorr Sapir, explains in this article, the underlying dynamic is usually related to anxiety or rebellion.

“Children who refuse to go to school fall into two main groups: (1) children with school anxiety whose main characteristic is fright and (2) children with behavioral problems whose main difficulty is accepting authority and boundaries.”

As Sapir, a co-founder of the School of Nonviolent Resistance, explains, such fearful children are at risk of losing their ability to maintain social connections and participate in the outside world. The more rebellious children risk falling under bad influences and developing antisocial behaviors. But the more immediate harm of school refusal is its effect on the child’s sense of self and his place among his peers:

“A central part of his overall identity, a child’s identity as a student is tied not only to his studies, but also to the reality that the child spends a significant part of the day at school, has occupations and obligations connected to the school, is connected with other students, and has his calendar tightly connected with the school year.”

Whatever a child’s motivation for avoiding school, the solution is to help him or her regain the role of student. This is easier said than done.

Individual Versus Social Approach

Consider an imaginary child called Jack who has been avoiding school as much as possible for a month. The standard practice would be to focus on treating Jack and his parents in isolation. A school counselor or outside mental health professional would typically prescribe cognitive-behavioral therapy or even psychoactive drugs to help Jack deal with his anxiety, and then offer his parents suggestions on how to support and motivate Jack at home. That approach seldom works. Most often, parents find themselves helpless to change the situation short of bringing in the authorities — which can hardly be called a solution.

Another approach, Non-Violent Resistance, or NVR, appears to be more promising. This innovative, community-centered method for dealing with difficult and troubled children was developed by Professor Haim Omer and a group of researchers in Israel. Here, the focus would be less on Jack and more on mobilizing the social network around Jack to help him get back to school.

Social support is also central to a few other novel approaches to children’s problems, notably the Support Group Approach for swiftly ending bullying in schools developed by Sue Young in England, and the Kids’ Skills method I developed with my team in Finland.

This approach differs from the norm of threats and punishments on one hand or comforting and enabling on the other. Instead, it utilizes gentle and respectful social pressure, in which the child’s social network joins forces to send the child a powerful “we-all-agree” type of message:

We care about you. We understand that attending school can be difficult at times for all kinds of reasons. Many of us have had times in our lives when going to school has been difficult. We want you to return to school because that is the most important thing for your life right now. We are willing to help you. We want to talk to you to find ways to help you overcome whatever difficulties you need to so you can return to school.

The underlying mission of this message is to convey sincere concern while also refusing to accept the child’s continuing failure to attend classes.

Mobilizing Your Childs Social Network

Following is a model I suggest parents try that is based on NVR and the social-network approach to helping a child return to school.

  1. Meet with your child’s teacher(s) to discuss the problem and propose the idea of mobilizing the child’s social network — i.e., establishing a support group for him or her — to help the child return to school.
  2. Create a list together of people you will invite to join this support group. The group should include the teacher(s), members of the child’s nuclear and extended family, at least a few friends and classmates, and any other people close to the child such as a sports coach.
  3. Compose a message together with the teacher to be delivered to everyone you will ask to join your child’s support group. This message should state the problem, explain the idea behind the support group, and contain an invitation to join the group.

Here is an example of an invitation letter:

Hello,

We are Ellen and Jim Tann, Jack Tanns parents. We are writing to you along with Ms. Jones, Jacks sixth-grade teacher.  As you probably know, Jack has been absent from school for more than X weeks/months this semester, causing him to fall far behind on his studies and missing many school events. We have decided to establish a support group to help him feel comfortable and motivated to return to school. We invite you to join us at a meeting to be held at Midvale Middle School at 7 pm on February 10, where we will plan how each of us can contribute to support Jack. Jack is aware of our plan and who has been invited to be on his support team.

Please let us know if you are willing to join our support group and can join our meeting. If you cannot make it to the meeting but would like to be part of the support group, please contact Jack [email address or phone/text number here] to let him know that you have received this invitation and want to have a talk with him over the phone, text, or face-to-face if possible. Please let him know that you want him to return to school and that you are willing to support or help him in some way. Our hope is that you will negotiate an agreement with him about how to help him.

 Thank you so much!

The invitation message can be delivered to the invitees as an email or a text message. Alternatively, you can establish a messenger group in a suitable app, such as WhatsApp, WeChat or Telegram, that all or most of the invitees are likely to have on their phone in your country.

  1. Inform your child that you have talked with the teacher(s) and that you are going to invite several people that are important in his or her life to form a support group to help him return to school. Show your child the message you plan to send and be as transparent as possible about everything you are doing to help him or her. Nothing should happen behind the child’s back!
  2. Once he or she learns of the plan, your child may decide to return to school — in which case you can withdraw the plan and save it for later if the problem persists. Otherwise, proceed with the plan even if your child objects to it. As your child’s guardian, you not only have the right but also the obligation to take measures to help him or her return to school.

Collaboration Steps

The next step is to convene the group for a meeting that can be held at your home or at school to create a joint-action plan for the support group and agree on specific actions each member will take to assist the child in returning to school.

Each member of the support group can contribute to helping your child in their own way.

  • Classmates can talk to your child or send him a text message informing him that they miss him and want him to come back to school. Some of them may even be willing to drop by in the mornings to encourage him to join them in walking or riding the bus to school.
  • Teachers can inform you every day of the homework that your child needs to do to keep up with the class. You and your family, in turn, may give the child the homework and make sure he or she does it and otherwise maintains a daily rhythm like that of children attending school.
  • Grandparents may share their childhood experiences with school and encourage your child to gather the courage to return.
  • Siblings may volunteer to drop the child at school in their vehicle.
  • School counselors may offer to help the child find creative ways to deal with anxiety.

After these decisions have been made, each support team member can fill out a “Back to School Support Agreement form” something like this one. The form should have a place for the supporters to write why the child is important to them and why they would like to see the child back in school. The parents then give the child the completed agreement forms to keep.

Once your child is back in school, make sure to acknowledge all the members of the support group.

Taking ControlTogether

While new and not yet well studied, the NVR approach has several obvious advantages. Because schools often don’t have an effective system in place to handle school refusal, it helps put parents in the driver’s seat to do something. And it does so in a way that brings together everyone with a stake in the child’s academic success. It can also tap the power of social networking technology, one of the main ways in which today’s youth interact with the world and each other.

A social-support approach like this, with an emphasis on mobilizing the child’s network to help the child, is likely to have far-reaching positive repercussions. Not only is the project likely to succeed in getting your child to return to school but will also add more proof to the power of community, which can be used to solve many other challenges we parents face.

30 COMMENTS

  1. The school is a completely toxic institution, like the psychiatric hospital. The defense of this institution is repugnant to me, and I am seriously revolted at the idea that someone can look, here on MIA, for a sweet way to bring the children back to this slaughterhouse.

    As in psychiatry, the author of the article looks for ways to lock up children in school without even asking if it is an honorable goal. It is as perverse as to wonder how to lock up a child in a psychiatric hospital, without wondering if this institution could not definitively annihilate this child, and make him a disabled person for life.

    I claim that the “gentle and respectful” social pressure exerted by parents and teachers on children must instead be exercised in the most brutal and unmerciful
    way by children who have become adults on their former oppressors, by revolutionary and violent means.

    There is no question of tolerating the benevolence of the sadists, officials and guardians, slaves of the state, all are there to make children submissive beings, slaves and executioners and reproduce a foul society.

    Let’s be clear: the violence of children is legitimate, and children have to ripen in order to make their internal violence as sharp as steel, and organized like an army. And all those weak oppressors who believed they could exercising power over eternal children must be crushed by grown-up children who will always remember past oppression.

    We do not forget anything!

    This article’s hypocrisy is repulsive! “Support Jack”! He is on the right side of the handle, the educator!

    What I would say to this child is: swallow the snake, Jack. One day, they will pay for this garbage. Everything will be paid.

    But Ben Furman is a psychiatrist! No wonder he thinks like that! Psychiatrists are worse than teachers. It is the quintessence of the bureaucratic spirit that interferes in the private life of the people, who wants to direct the life of the children with his parish moralism.

    Do not touch the children, Mr. Furman. All children, once adults, will not necessarily have to thank you for your benevolence.

      • I couldn’t agree more with Sylvian. But I will add what Wittgenstein had to say on the matter of his (“elite”) education: “I’ll spend the rest of my life untangling myself from the moras of my education”. My guess is that the “serious problem the world over” is the canary in the coal mine-incubator, and that the 5% to 28% of the kids who don’t want to be in school are the best, brightest, and healthiest among us. I also believe. as a rule, that they desperately want to learn. likely, more than their subdued peers. But critical, creative learning isn’t available, and the lifeless, atomized banking information in it’s place, generally in highly alienated spaces, is more than their young psyches can process.

  2. I don’t like reading the introduction “ the most rebellious kids at risk getting bad behaviors.” K-12 grade are very cruel to one another. It’s accepted as ok to do. You can tell just by being near to them and osmosis. It’s hard to stereotype and say the most rebellious kids are at risk of bad behaviors. Sometimes it appears that the majority of K-12 are not rebellious, but more mean. It also seems that the in America the prominent population European-American continue to lead the front with mean spirited attitude. America population is gonna be superseded by a racial and ethnic mix up that is rising.

    I think it’s a great thing from my perspective and experiences. I wonder how this will shift the archetypes and life in modern society.

  3. “I think it’s a great thing from my perspective and experiences. I wonder how this will shift the archetypes and life in modern society.”

    When I worked at the state mental health hospital the employees were diverese cultural makeup. My office was there although I traveled in community visiting region providers.

    I requested to be transferred to the dept mental health central office headquarters with high up state mental health admin. They have a lot of employees and they are almost all white Euro – American. I’m the one individual that self discloses that I have mental health challenges. It’s really weird being there basically.

    • I am a voice hearer and I’ve caused issues since I’ve been at the admin central office doing what I was hired to do. The admin has been informed by their admin that they should leave me alone and back off.

      So I was like ok. I also call providers all day long when I’m not traveling or going to do presentations/trainings. I try to work hard and be professional.

      And then I spend time being an actor at office. Ya know due to the stigma and overall attitude. A man that has mental health issues, however at work is being an actor with it. I’m getting jiggy with it cuz I know how to be professional in work or business setting. I know the rules of courteous and this and that. If I can be a dork at work that’s gonna happen.

  4. Schools Look More Like Correctional Facilities Than Learning Institutions
    http://newyorkschooltalk.org/2017/03/schools-look-like-correctional-facilities-learning-institutions/

    Microcosms of the police state, America’s public schools contain almost every aspect of the militarized, intolerant, senseless, overcriminalized, legalistic, surveillance-riddled, totalitarian landscape that plagues those of us on the “outside.”

    https://thefreethoughtproject.com/public-schools-increasingly-resemble-prisons-learning-centers/

    We need a Community Approach to turning our detention centers back into schools and maybe we wouldn’t have a problem kids refusing to go to “school.”

      • LOL, I actually had a premonition that you would post exactly this! And for good reason, too, because I’m sure I’d agree completely. I’ve since thought of a few.

        I really meant I had no words to describe my feeling upon reading this. Stunned might be a good word at this point, in hindsight. Not just at the words used (“disappointed with???” a tragic understatement), but also to post it so brazenly to this readership, and for what purpose, in the context of this comment?

        Dr. Furman, I don’t mean to be rude or disrespectful and I am one to address someone directly, but I’m not sure what to say regarding this statement. I am a bit speechless for the reasons stated above. Do you really believe this?

        My first thought when I read it was, “Hope for what? More patients?”

        Honestly, I am somewhat bewildered as to why you would post such an overtly (or maybe in this case, it’s covertly?) inflammatory statement like that–which it certainly would be on this particular website–so off the cuff! People have been wayyyy more than merely “disappointed” with psych ward “services.” It’s been a tragedy for so, so many, and continues to be, and that is no exaggeration.

        I don’t know what else to say here, this speaks for itself I think. Thanks, at least, for your courage to speak your personal truth of the matter.

        • You know, where I work we don’t break people’s arms anymore and we lock them up in seclusion a lot less than we used to do. But what we continue to do is to dismiss them as people. We still treat them as if they don’t have good sense and as if they have no intelligence. We discount anything and everything that they say, no matter what. We ignore them when they truly need someone to listen and make a human connection with them. I remarked one morning about how cold it was outside and yet so many people were out in the courtyard. Another staff person said, “Those people don’t feel the cold or the heat the same way that normal people do”. This person was serious and I just stood there with my mouth open. This is a person who is responsible for “good treatment” of the very people she claimed didn’t feel heat or cold normally in the way that we do, the we meaning the staff.

          Yes, I too am surprised at this offering here on MIA.

          • Wow, that sounds like the kind of things people say to dehumanize our war “enemies.” “They don’t have the same respect for life that we do.” Amazing that she could say such a thing and not expect you to have a horrified reaction.

          • I’m just not sure how this qualifies the Dr. as “dissident” in the slightest. Rethinking psychiatry? Making comments like this and then disappearing seems like status quo psychiatry to me.

          • I remember very clearly that being said about the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam war when I was just a kid. I recognized it for what it was then and it made me extremely uncomfortable even as a young person. It’s an ancient trope, and should be easily recognizable, except to those who don’t want to see it.

  5. He is a Finnish psychiatrist.
    I doubt he has ever spent a significant amount of time in either urban, rural, or suburban American public school systems.
    Back in the day, when I was young and Oresident Reagan had just come into office, African American children in Virginia supposedly integrated where expressing fears that all African Americans would be moved to Africa. Considering the Inugural Committee had the Morman Tabernacle Choir sing on the steps of the Lincoln Momument with Ephesians Zimilist Jr as the MC , I would have said their fears though untrue had a solid basis and yes a nine year old child might well think bringing a pocket knife to school or not going into the bused “ white” section for school might not be an especially safe choice and combine that the integration action was created to fail because the teachers stayed and were not integrated.
    One of my friends father was a principal and went to homes to convince families it was safe.
    He ended up leaving the education field. Another good professional gone because of corrupt systems
    I am not anti public school or school but
    if one is going to talk the talk one needs mud one ones hiking boots.

  6. Forgive me if I’m wrong but the problem that I see with the group talked about in the video is that it still talks about everything in terms of “illness” and it seems like the purpose of the group is to get people to accept that they are “ill” and to be compliant with the “treatment”, which still seems to be the drugs. Perhaps I just didn’t listen and watch carefully enough. You need to quit talking about “illness” and what is wrong and begin talking about the fact that recovery and healing and well-being are possible, without the drugs for many people. It also sounds like this group is what would be called a Recovery Dialog in some ways because people supposedly leave their hats at the door and do not come as “patients”, doctors, nurses, social workers etc.

    Granted, staff in this particular “hospital” are doing something different, and it seems innovative, but I do not appreciate the emphasis on people accepting their “illness”. It’s good that the group does provide for some social support and it’s interesting that they don’t want to have anything to do with “peer support” at all. She quickly moved around that question and seemed to make it sound like everyone in the group is equal. I’d like to see how that all works out because I just find that a little difficult to believe.

    • If it’s equal no one gets paid, right? As long as that’s established.

      When even the term “peer” is threatening (considering how powerless “peers” generally are) we know that we’re stuck deep in the mentality of the system!

      Ignored in all the discussion of “techniques” etc. is the basic reality is that an artificial social structure is being imposed on human beings, and their natural and “healthy” human reactions to this are treated as the problem (rather than part of the solution).

  7. I do this almost every day with a core group of non-attenders that seems to balloon before my eyes, to no avail. One of the main differences is that there are no friends to include in this plan. And the majority of the students are heavily medicated. In my experience as a school counsellor, the situation does not typically improve until the students are older and they realize that school is a means to an end and they need to attend to graduate, get a job, make money, etc. But there are so many years of heartache in between – and this still only accounts for about half of my non-attenders, the lucky ones. The rest are still in their parents basements, or undoubtedly living off of a meagre social assistance system, or they are now part of the justice system.