School Refusal and Truancy – What’s The Difference?

In category Other Diagnoses & Labels, Schools & Education

OK, I’ll admit it. I was a truant. During my last two years at school, I skipped school a couple of times a week. Not to do anything exciting – just to get out of the place. I left home in the morning and returned in the afternoon as though nothing had happened. As soon as I was old enough, I left school and got a job. My children however, would have been diagnosed as school refusal. The difference was in their family background and expectations.

I knew I was on my own. But my children were unfortunate enough to have supportive parents.

Supportive parents mean that home is a safe and interesting place; they have parents who are interested in their lives, who listen to them and can advocate for them with the schools. There is hope that things might improve, that next week or next year school won’t be so bad. And sometimes it does get better on change of teacher, change of class, or change of school.

truancy also means that they can maintain some feeling of having control over their lives

The day children stop trying to go to school and truant instead is the day that you know that they have given up hope that school, and most probably formal education, can ever get better. Truancy also means that children can maintain some feeling of having control over their lives.

Children with school refusal have no control over their lives. They are torn between desires for the positive school life promised and the reality they find each day. They are torn between the desire to please their parents and the anger that their parents can’t understand what’s happening or help them. They are confused over why school can be good for other children but somehow doesn’t work for them. They are powerless and lost. The anxiety and depression that is supposed to be behind school refusal is symptomatic of this feeling of being powerless.

A school principal once floated the idea to me that my son wouldn’t come to school because he was afraid of what might happen at home while he was away. (He’d obviously been doing his reading.) My response was that if I said to go catch the train to the city for a day out, my son would be off like a shot. School was the only place he didn’t want to go and that was mainly because the work was mind-numbingly inappropriate. That was the last heard of that little theory. Soon after, we withdrew completely from the school system and found alternative educational pathways.

I suspect many cases of school refusal are not mental illnesses but a quite reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. It operates as a downward spiral that goes through several stages.

Stage 1. There is some ongoing issue at school. It could be bullying by other children or a teacher; it could be schoolwork that is either too far above or too far below their level; it could be anything which means that the days are confusing, frustrating and demoralising. The child may complain, grades may suffer, they might get into trouble, they get psychosomatic illnesses, they tune out.

Stage 2. The thought of going to school raises a feeling of dread. It can mean not being able to get to sleep, or not being able to make yourself get up and get ready in the morning, or both. We all know this feeling when we know that something unpleasant is going to happen the next day. When that becomes every day, we change our job, we get a divorce, we move house, we change our life. However, children don’t have the power to make these changes. They are trapped and they keep pushing themselves on day after day, while we good parents encourage them and praise them for doing so. Rather than address the situation, there are suggestions about a variety of diagnoses – anxiety, ADHD, Aspergers, Autism, depression…

Stage 3. They can’t push themselves any more. This is where the real turmoil begins. Children are torn between pleasing their parents and saving themselves, parents are torn between recognising their children’s distress and fulfilling their legal and other requirements. The resulting conflict begins to tear families apart. The suggested diagnosis moves on to ODD.

Stage 4. The authorities and professionals become involved. Once the child stops going to school, parents are faced with two sets of people. The “helping professions” who will offer diagnoses, counselling, drugs and parenting strategies to try to continue the path downwards. Their help is often intermittent as their budgets and other constraints allow. The legal aspect is less leisurely and an added stress comes from the knowledge that non-attendance has penalties in countries where schooling is compulsory. It is not uncommon at this stage for parents to be threatened with legal action and be told that they should push their distressed child out of the door for police to pick them up and deliver them to school.

Stage 5. All is lost. Families are shattered. The only choices remaining for a child or teenager are suicide, drugs or running away. The triggers back in stage one are never considered, nothing changes, and other children – more good children from good families – are drawn into this same terrible pattern.

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