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Is it School Refusal or Self Preservation?

Updated: May 22, 2023

"I don’t want to go!” cried my 9 year old, while rolling on the floor refusing to get dressed. He had been complaining about school since October and we asked for support, but now in January after winter break, it had reached a crisis level. A confluence of school events stripped my usually buoyant 2e boy of his school support systems and rendered him both low energy and highly explosive.

Every morning he either refused to go to school no matter the carrots or sticks offered, or went and then shortly afterward would make his way to the office staff, who would call to say “He’s not feeling well and wants to go home.” We tried everything. I went to school with him, sat in class, encouraged him to paint, played at recess, dropped him off in the resource room, got him appointments with the school counselor, brought in our psychologist, and offered lists of tips to the teacher and support staff. Nothing worked.

Meanwhile, behaviors at home escalated with frightening mental health statements (alarming at any age, but especially for a 9 year old!), stormy tantrums (which we had never seen before), refusal to participate in activities he typically loved, and resistance to even leaving the house. I made every effort to support my child’s return to school, but the truancy letters kept arriving as I waited for the school’s leadership team to propose a way we could do schoolwork at home. I didn’t fight the letters. I knew it would be a short-lived situation. We would either figure out a home-based solution through the school district, or leave the district altogether. The school blamed me for my child’s school attendance difficulties. This could not go on.

I was advised by a parent that it took one and a half years for her son to recover from his school trauma. Her biggest regret? Not pulling him sooner. But, how do you know when to keep trying? How much to push? When to pull the child out? There are no right answers. It’s terrifying.

Tragically, this is a common problem among the 2e. Too many parents and their children face ongoing school avoidance. When I reached out to our community for advice, I learned about the wide range of pathways families take. Often, the parents pulled their children out of school. Only a handful were able to work with their schools to put in place the supports their child needed to successfully return. Some found other options within their district, such as increased IEP support or a campus change or their child struggles and continues to attend on and off. Those who could afford or were able to scrape the funds together looked to small private schools—but often were denied admittance because the schools couldn’t support both ends of the child’s 2e-ness. Many explored homeschooling.

After a particularly gruesome day, I made the daunting decision to leave the public school we had been part of for 8 years.

But, what to do on such short notice? I learned from a homeschooling consultant that in California you can create a homeschool online in just a few minutes and pull your child out of school the same day. Some parents suggested “unschooling” for a while until my child’s trauma around school went down. (Unschooling is an unstructured learning method that prioritizes learner-chosen activities.) Although we took it easy, my son was interested in structured learning, so we did light school work in his interest areas and fun activities.

However, we didn’t see unschooling or homeschooling as a long-term solution for our family. While it’s a great option for many, it just doesn’t suit our family dynamics or my child’s extroversion. He likes learning with peers, as long as the environment is psychologically safe. We started exploring options for the next school year, but needed a solution for the remainder of the current year. So, once my son was in a better place emotionally, I knew I needed to find a structured learning environment for him, while I applied to private schools. For our short-term needs, I learned about many local and virtual options. Pacific Prep offers a 1:1 online school for K-12 students. Lindamood Bell provides in person or online 1:1 or small group instruction with a focus on K-12 dyslexic students (not quite right for our situation). PRISMA online school offers a longer-term, project-based learning experience. And, of course, there are many local, small, home-based schools, and homeschool/unschool/custom schooling; Bay Area Gifted Homeschoolers offers supports to take this path. For us, even though Fusion’s 1:1 programs usually focus on 6-12th grade students, they felt they could work with my 4th grader since we are officially homeschooling and they don’t need to follow the middle/high school curriculum precisely. (Lydian also offered this placement; we hadn’t yet checked with School for Independent Learners). Now that he’s at Fusion, my son is back to having fun learning in an educational environment outside our home because they’ve created a nurturing program that provides him a lot of voice and choice in his school day..

I’m happy to report that in our case, shortly after pulling him from our school, my son seemed more like his old self - wanting to leave the house and do fun activities. His meltdowns almost disappeared. He even engaged with various testing protocols and admissions processes from all the school options we explored. He eventually was accepted to a private school for the next school year, and we’re hopeful that the environment and opportunities this school offers will help him feel safe, seen, and supported.

I am so grateful for the REEL community, their guidance, encouragement, and sage advice during this difficult time. One parent shared, “I don’t like calling it school refusal. That implies they have a choice. We should call it self-preservation.” I am hopeful that as schools learn more about 2e students, stories like ours will become more rare.

My story has a happy ending (for now!) but it was heartbreaking to hear how many difficult school stories 2e kiddos have. Below I want to honor their experiences and advice by summarizing what was shared with me, quoted from the numerous, generous emails people sent to help me through this tough time:

  • School refusal is when a child refuses to go to school due to unmet needs that are not being adequately addressed by the school. This is very different from another legal term called truancy--that's when a child skips school because they want to be elsewhere and parents either don't know about it or don't care. School refusal and truancy have different legal ramifications: with school refusal, the school is on the hook to make changes for the child, and failure to do so could result in the family requesting a transfer to another school at the current school's expense. Truancy, on the other hand, places the burden entirely on the family and can also result in parents facing criminal prosecution.

  • If the child is experiencing social difficulties with peers, then I would not send them back even if the school offers to try to change things, because the social dynamic is hard to change, no matter how the school is trying to help. The same dynamic will often resume right where it left off upon returning. If the issue is accommodations and the school is willing to change, then maybe it's worth another try.

  • Finding the right private school environment works for some 2e kids, especially if they are academically challenged and find their peers.

  • Sometimes public schools have mental health enhanced/counseling enriched classrooms that provide a soft spot to land. It can allow more flex in a schedule, soft starts, chilling in the room when they can't tolerate the general education classroom.

  • Have an EHRMS (Educationally Related Mental Health Services) evaluation and school counseling provided. Sensory diets can help. Soft start to the day such as starting in the resource room. Find safe people your child can go to during the day.

  • Have you thought of custom schooling? Not homeschooling, custom schooling. No one says that kids need to have all 5 subjects every day for an entire year. Your son is 2e and has probably already met/exceeded the 4th grade standards. Maybe lean into his interest areas and ignore the rest.

  • It really depends on the teacher. If they get your kid, it's like you have a teammate that you can game plan with.

  • Try this quiz to get at the reasons for refusal:

  • Age 9/10 is when kids start to realize they’re different from others and feel their social skills deficits, etc. Good time to discuss diagnosis if you haven’t and the superpowers and challenges and bolster the strengths and support the challenges. They see and feel the differences and need to understand the why behind it.

  • NPS (a private school that enrolls individuals with exceptional needs based on an Individualized Education Program “IEP” when the district can’t serve their needs) placement has its pros and cons, but it can turn around the school experience and give you space to breathe.

  • If the child doesn’t have an IEP due to high grades, the school doesn’t always believe that you need it and dismisses issues as behavior challenges. You can try going to a supportive private school for a year, then returning to a different school in the same district with an IEP in place and turn things around.

  • Getting a 1:1 aide can help a child to go to school, but they may still not do work or go to recess.

  • You can start the day in an OT room, then the Learning Center to do difficult work (writing), which helps get your child to campus.

  • You can try NPS if public school doesn’t work, but you may end up having to homeschool or consider residential school if things get really bad.

  • Please please please don’t let the behavior team get involved. A behavioral approach to school refusal contributes to more refusal. You can’t force a kid out of a car or their house! And even if not physically, psychological manipulation is quite damaging, especially if you don’t listen to the kid’s concerns.

  • You can try making going to school more exciting, for example: by getting your child an e-bike.

  • It’s hard to get support if your child’s grades are high. It’s hard to afford private school.

  • Request testing for your child to find the root of the problem. Our testing showed mild dyslexia and other challenges. Your school can creatively set up 1:1 reading support even if you don’t qualify on paper for an IEP, weekly meetings with the school counselor, and check ins from the school psychologist. After a while, this can turn things around.

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