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5 Ways to Reduce Emotionally Based School Avoidance?

Emotionally based school avoidance (EBSA) is a term used to describe children and young people who experience genuine challenges in attending school due to negative feelings, such as social anxiety, or stress and it has increased massively following COVID-19. We know that regular attendance at school is a prerequisite for pupils’ learning and achievement, so it is unsurprising that students who display school avoidance or school refusal behaviour are a major concern for teachers, parents and carers.

What is Emotionally Based School Avoidance?

Emotionally based school avoidance (EBSA) – which has previously been known as emotionally based school refusal – is the term generally given to cases when a child avoids school for emotional factors. There can be a variety of reasons for none-attendance, and some of these may be relatively straightforward to address. Other attendance problems, however, may not be so simple to solve, and can be extremely worrying, especially when a child is already vulnerable.

While EBSA is not, of itself, a mental health disorder, it is characterised by feelings of anxiety related to school attendance. Anxiety can be thought of as the body’s warning signal and is a normal response to a perceived or real threat.

Anxiety can be helpful in terms of preparing the body for action by releasing the hormone adrenaline ... this is crucial when we need to escape from an immediate physical threat. Likewise in some situations, such as in an interview or exam, a moderate amount of anxiety can help an individual focus and concentrate. However, high levels of anxiety can, over time, become harmful, particularly when it starts to interfere with an individual’s ability to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life. It can also lead to physical illnesses which can carry on into adulthood.

With the exception of pupils who have access to a good quality and effective home education, if students are not in school, they are not going to be learning.

This will obviously have serious implications, not only for their academic progress, but also their social development, mental and emotional wellbeing and physical health, as well their future chances of progressing into further education, employment or training.

Why School May Not Be A Safe Space

School life for a socially anxious pupil can be challenging and even harder for SEN pupils. Schools are challenging, busy, social environments. Often noisy, chaotic and, at times, overwhelming, they are not the ideal place for a child who is experiencing social anxiety. There are many situations that have a social components such as public speaking, being called on unexpectedly to answer a question and group-based activities.

School life requires a level of interaction and sociability that enables pupils to form and maintain friendships with their peer group and communicate with adults. SEN pupils with social anxiety often experience increased feelings of loneliness and isolation. These feelings cause discomfort, which can be amplified to fear and dread. This will often make SEN pupils feel overwhelmed and they are then likely to display disruptive or challenging behaviour. This is a symptom of distress - remember, all behaviour is communication - that affects their emotional wellbeing and their ability to learn.

For pupils to thrive academically, they must feel psychologically safe and included when at school; social and emotional learning needs to be at the heart of the school curriculum, including all members of the school community: staff, pupils, governors, parents, and external services.

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Impact of Social Media

Young people increasingly interact with one another through digital means. During the pandemic, many were actively encouraged to use online methods to keep in touch with each other or their teachers. However, seeing the world through a false, and often fake lens, so consistently, at such a young age, has left many children feeling isolated, self-critical, and often judgemental of themselves for not being ‘good’ enough. An increased lack of face-to-face interaction during this time accentuated social anxiety, meaning that going back to school for some was tough and still is.

5 Ways to Support Students Who Display EBSA

Emotional Literacy

Develop the emotional literacy of all pupils so they can learn to express themselves with better emotional clarity using a nuanced emotion vocabulary. ‘Name it to tame it, as Dr. Dan Siegel would say, as his neuroscience research has indicated, that when you name a feeling, you reduce its intensity in the brain, making it easier to regulate. Emotional literacy can be introduced from as early as EYFS, using resources such as Zones of Regulation.

Journal Every Day

Daily journaling can support pupils’ understanding of their language and the skills needed to deal with the complexities of daily school life, helping them to build resilience when dealing with issues on their own. The most effective way to do this is to teach structured journaling where the pupils name the feelings they experienced over the day, and the three things they are grateful for. You can find plenty of guided journals online as well. Research on journaling indicates that by simply doing this for a week, some children’s anxiety decreases.

Get outside

Any interaction with the natural world can support students who are experiencing anxiety and aid connecting with the world around them. At the same time, movement can promote more mindful breathing and increase feelings of positivity. Some schools have incorporated a sensory garden or garden kitchen into their school grounds and have students regularly attend to the upkeep and maintenance of the plants or fruit/veg.

Good Day/Bad Day

A “good day/bad day” discussion can be a useful way to unpick a child’s difficulties with them. When children are in school, or if you have a youth mentor who may work with them at home, these discussions can be the best insight into their world. The following is adapted from advice developed by the Educational Psychology Service at Wolverhampton City Council:

  • Ask the child to think back to the last bad day they had.

  • Ask them to describe what happened and why it was bad.

  • Discuss with them what could have helped them on this bad day.

  • Now ask the child to describe what would make a good day.

  • Who helped to make this day good and what did they do?

  • They may struggle to describe a good day or a bad day, but can tell you about the last week in detail, so then you can gently ask which bits of the day were good and which not so good.

  • If the child has not had good days for some time, they may be able to tell you about a good day from their past.

  • When the child cannot tell you directly themselves, then family or support staff should be able to help.

A useful follow-up exercise to this can be to describe through words and/or pictures – simple drawings can be a powerful medium – the main elements of a good school, or a school that they like to go to, and then a bad school, or a school they would not want to go to.

Think about the pupil, their class mates, the other adults, the building itself, what would be happening and what that would look and feel like. By exploring the ideal school and classroom (and its opposite), we can start to dig down to their core values, or what is really important to them, and this information should be invaluable in informing your assess-plan-do-review plan to follow.

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