One morning last fall, I watched my 7th grader debate what to wear to school. The day before, she overheard some girls say loudly enough for her to hear, “Imagine wearing the same pants to school every day.” In all fairness, she had two pairs of the same pants because they fit her so well.
The weight of their judgment was visceral as my daughter looked for something else to wear to school; using time, she didn’t have to hunt for something that would fly under the radar frantically. I bit my tongue, knowing anything I might say would push her over the edge, and she would miss yet another day of junior high, a trend that was becoming alarming for her father and me.
Many kids suffer from school refusal because of anxiety
A recent US Today article talked about school refusal — the rampant problem of kids who, crippled with anxiety, struggle to enter the doors of their school regularly. This was the case for us. My daughter last fall flatly refused to attend school. She wouldn’t go back for weeks.
She began the fall semester not knowing anyone as we had moved school districts, and attending class felt lonely and isolating to her. She simply gave up after a particularly rough week with some run-ins with “mean girls” who whispered cruel comments and delivered deliberate body checks in the hall.
Initially, my husband and I were in a conundrum of how to react: should we strongarm her into going to school — drop her off in tears if necessary? Or was a more nurturing response what was needed?
We took our daughter to a therapist
Initially, we wanted to be thoughtful and took her to a therapist to see if we could get some perspective on encouraging her to return to school. The therapist recommended we homeschool her, which wasn’t an option for us, so we reduced her class schedule and tried to give her time to sort through her anxiety by giving her a break from campus. What quickly became apparent was that the more we allowed her to retreat, the more she lacked the strength or resolve to return to the classroom.
The principal at her school tried to gently observe that kids encouraged to keep going to class usually figured it out and could get back to school full-time. This was in many ways in opposition to what her therapist was saying — which was to retreat, take online classes, or homeschool — actions that seemed to offer only temporary solutions.
Returning to school became the only viable option for our daughter
The more our daughter stayed home, the more withdrawn and insecure she became. When we considered the possibility of doing online school — it seemed like a bad match. Her time online was already problematic, and online school felt like it would project her deeper into that disconnected digital space. With both of us working, we decided that returning to the school was not just the best solution for her, it was the only viable solution for our family.
At that point, we started considering how we might play a stronger role in her success. We didn’t want to keep feeding her anxiety by constantly discussing what was creating it and began to act as coaches who would mentor her through this difficult time. We started talking about how she would return to school full-time in the spring and had the skills and ability to do it.
We set up a 504 plan for our daughter
As a relief valve, we set her up on a 504 plan with the school, so she could have some leeway to be absent if needed. We did need it, especially early in the semester. There were days when her anxiety was overwhelming, and she didn’t have the fortitude to deal with the social stressors of junior high.
We kept going, and for a long time, it felt as if we had chosen just to prolong her misery. We doubted ourselves often, considering that if we wouldn’t tolerate a toxic work environment, why would we make our kid tolerate a toxic learning environment? Then things, in painfully slow increments, began to change.
Slowly, gradually we started to have some successes
Slowly, she started to have small successes. She joined volleyball, and even though she was on the dreaded D team, made up of the least experienced players, the girls were supportive and cheered for each other. A few kids in her orchestra class invited her to hang out outside school. It was a slow accumulation of these kinds of positive experiences that eventually began to counter her anxiety and loneliness.
By the end of the semester, she was invited to some birthday parties and preferred to ride the bus home to get extra time with friends. Each of these very small interactions felt like a success to us.
From my perspective, I can say that insisting my daughter keep attending school was the right choice for us. She doubted herself, and we doubted if we were making the right choice to keep attending. However, there’s a strength to her that wasn’t there at the start of the year. If we had taken the therapists’ advice and given up, we would have robbed her of that.
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