School Refusal: In It Podcast
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School refusal: When kids say no

Lots of kids say “I don’t feel like going to school” at some point. But for some, it’s more than that — they flat-out refuse to go. And you can’t make them. School refusal is real, and it’s trying to tell you something. But how do you figure out what that is? 

In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra talk with a family who’s been “in it” when it comes to school refusal. Listen to Erin and Meg share the story of their son’s school refusal. Find out what they did to get through it. Plus, learn common signs of school refusal. 

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Episode transcript

Amanda: Hi, I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership for Understood.org, and a parent to kids who learn differently. 

Gretchen: I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. And this is "In It." 

Amanda: "In It" is a podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. And on this show, we talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids to offer perspectives, stories, and advice for, from, and by people who have challenges with all types of learning differences. 

Gretchen: And today we're talking about school refusal.

Amanda: Which is a short and sweet label for a not-so-sweet phenomenon that can throw families into turmoil.

Gretchen: This refusal might involve tears or tantrums, or just a flat-out refusal to budge.

Amanda: And whatever it looks like, school refusal is almost always an indication that there's an issue that needs to be understood so it can be addressed.

Gretchen: Today, we're talking to two parents who have definitely been in it when it comes to school refusal.

Amanda: Erin and Meg are massage therapists in Massachusetts, and they're parents to two young kids.

Gretchen: Erin and Meg, welcome to the podcast. We're so happy to be speaking with you today.

Erin and Meg: Thank you.

Gretchen: Let's start with a little background. Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and about your son, who's in third grade?

Erin: We are parents to two kiddos. Our son is almost 9, and our daughter is 4 1/2. And we, last year, went through a really tough experience with our older son, who, for various reasons, found himself up against not being able to make it to school.

Gretchen: Had your son liked going to school before all this happened?

Erin: I would say that he was never a kid that just loved school and was just like, "School is my place." He loves the social aspect of school. He has lots of great friends. He goes to a really amazing school. It's a nature-based elementary. So in the K–1 program, lots of play, lots of outside time. 

It was the transition to second grade that, well, obviously we had an overlap of things, um, and COVID was one of them. But he did start off really strong, and it was great for our kids to be back together, and they were outside, and it was amazing. And part of it was the weather changed. It got colder. While it is great to be outside to play, it's not as awesome probably to be outside to learn how to write or to be working on math. So, those kinds of challenges were there, but certainly there was a shift just in structure. He was in a new classroom with new teachers. It became more academic, and those were some of the things that really were making it hard for him to go.

And a really COVID-specific thing — we didn't realize that he thought that the new year meant that COVID would be over. And that was really heartbreaking. I mean, it's still, like, really emotional to think that. He was holding a lot more anxiety around COVID than we realized. And so pretty much after the new year, he hit a wall where he was, he was done.

Amanda: So what did it look like when he said "I'm not doing this anymore"?

Meg: A lot of things, actually. I mean, you know, it could look like anything from "I'm physically not going to get out of bed." The, you know, verbal "You can't make me go." You know, and a lot of panic, like he would run. He would run and hide. Um, he sometimes he'd run in the bathroom and just get in the bathtub. And then he'd be like, "You're scaring me." Um, because we're like, "Buddy, we gotta go to school." It would look like a parent would have to be with him every step. Help him brush his teeth, help him get his socks on, and then help him get into the car. It took a lot to just get him to switch his brain to thinking like, "OK, this is happening. We're going to school."

Erin: It never felt good to feel like we were making him do something that he didn't want to do. And we think about, a lot, just where do you find that line with that tough love of "We know you're going to a safe place, and we know that you're actually fine once you are there, but we see that you are in a state of total fight-or-flight right now"? And we really were able to hold the whole time. Like, he's not giving us a hard time; he is having a hard time —

Meg: He's going through a hard time.

Erin: But it is super triggering when you have a kid who is almost 8 years old and is just, like, in a violent rage.

Gretchen: So, Amanda, I have a question for you. You know, Meg and Erin were describing those meltdowns, and those seem to be one of the signs of their son's school refusal. But there's gotta be other signs that families can look for, right?

Amanda: Yeah, totally. Some of the other signs of school refusal are those things like older kids, they may play hooky. They may skip class. You often hear kids complain of not feeling well, but it's kind of, like, vague. It's a vague "maybe they have a stomachache." They hadn't slept well. Um, when they do get to school, they may call frequently to come home. They're angry at everybody for seemingly no reason; they're crying. There's a lot of emotion. And a lot of kids will actually deliberately get into trouble at school so they can get sent home. And I've been there as a parent. I had a son who had school refusal issues. Getting the call from school is a tough thing.

Gretchen: It must be a tough thing. You know, we also asked Erin and Meg if they felt supported by their son's school as they were navigating all of this.

Erin: The hard part is his anxiety wasn't showing up at school at all. Truly, once he was there, he was fine. We had a couple of experiences of him not wanting to get out of the car once we got there. And one of the days that I was probably the most emotional, I couldn't get him out of the car, and I actually just phoned up to the head of school and he came down and he took him out onto the soccer field and kicked the soccer ball around with him. And it just meant so much to know that other people were holding him in that way. But that was one of the hardest parts is last year, trying to find that extra support, find the therapist who had availability, find really any of the resources to help us parent him the way he needed, but help him with what he was going through.

Gretchen: So, when did you realize this wasn't just a temporary thing that would go away on its own? And when you realized that, what did you do next?

Meg: So, around February, I think we started to see the forest through the trees, with the baseline anxiety that was going on and just seeing, "Oh, wait a minute. This isn't about you just not wanting to go to school. Like, you're completely shutting down; like, you're in your amygdala right now and we need to get you into your frontal cortex." And we just, we started naming it and saying like, "You have worries, you have anxiety," and just sort of helping him cope.

Erin: Well, what we did in February was actually just make the conscious choice of, "We need to give you a break." And we made a conscious choice to keep him home for a month and connect him with the remote piece. And it was instant, and we were really lucky that there was a way to keep him connected to his classroom. But, as many parents probably can attest, the remote learning experience was not — not optimal. And once the remote program was phased out, we kind of thought, "OK, we'll wait for things to warm up and we'll give him a break." Like, that's what you need is a real break from this. But he never really bounced back. And I think those last three months of school were actually the hardest where it was like, "OK, what, what do we do?" How do we do this? 

He had a friend who used to leave him little videos in the morning, like, "Will you come to school today? I want to play soccer with you." And I'd be in the bedroom bawling. He'd be watching these videos, and sometimes it really was the thing that got him there. Like, "I really want to play soccer with you." And then there were some days where he was like, "I really don't care. I don't care what I'm missing." And so probably by the end, he was only making it to school two to three days a week, if we were lucky. And it really felt like we were dragging all of us to the finish line of the school year.

Amanda: Did you ever think about sort of like that balance between sort of hearing them versus caving in? How did you grapple with that?

Meg: All the time. I think it was in February when we let go of the rope. You know, we just said, "OK, we're just going to let go of this." And I think we just realized that it wasn't about us caving in as parents as much as it was us actually just validating something that was really challenging and hard for him. And if a Dunkin' Donuts doughnut did that for him, then so be it. And, sure, it sparked up a lot of, "Oh my God. Is this going to happen every time? Is he going to expect this every time?" But I think he just really felt like, "Yeah, this is hard for me." You know what I mean? And it, and it. I guess I just didn't feel like it was us caving in as much as us —

Amanda: There was no, there's no judgment on my part there. I just want to make it really clear. Meg: When you said, when you said "cave in" like, yeah, that, that's the first thing I was like, dude, I don't want to cave on this. Like, "You shouldn't need this to do this. We have to do this." And then we had to let go of the rope and say, "No, it's OK."

Erin: I struggled to do that a lot, though. I mean, you were so much better about that than I was. Because I felt like there were moments that I was like, "I don't even recognize myself as a parent anymore." Like, where are we going, and how do we ever come back from this? Like, "Here are your Skittles as you are on your drive to school at 7:30 in the morning, like, wow."

Gretchen: We've all been there.

Erin: Just really wild.

Gretchen: I mean, if he's not in pajamas, that's a win.

Erin: Yeah.

Meg: Well, even, even now — I mean, just, you know, for, like, we have a system for him and what it is, and he's doing it independently. But again, the focus is he's doing this independently where he wakes up every morning; he'll get dressed; he goes through his steps independently.

And the trade-off is he gets to play Minecraft before he goes to school. And, you know, as a parent, you know, I don't want my kid on screens. Like, you know, you really freak out about it, but, in the end, 15 minutes of Minecraft —

Erin: He's ready before any of us; he's up and out. It's mind-blowing, actually.

Meg: It feels like, like, I'm OK with that.

Amanda: I love the phrase "letting go of the rope." I really love that you use that. There's a part of me that, like, I can just visualize that. It's just that — and in my mind, the rope is like all of those expectations that everybody has that we have in the back of our brain as parents, right?

Meg: Yeah.

Amanda: So, I just want to know if you did experience any of that judgment. Did people say things that really seemed insensitive to you?

Erin: People were surprisingly compassionate. And that may have been because it was a COVID year. I think back and feel like everybody was going through something at that time, so people had a lot more understanding that our kids were going through something. I mean, I do remember a couple of people, like, really off-the-cuff stuff that was just, "Well, just get him in a seat. Like, yeah, sometimes my kid doesn't want to go to school. You just get him in the car and go." I'm like, "Do you even want to know what it looks like to carry a kid that size kicking and screaming and scratching at 7:30 in the morning, holding him down, and putting him in his car seat? Like, just really think about what that means." And I did actually say that to someone one time, and he was like, "Oh, yeah, right. That doesn't work so well." Because I think that for some people, when they would hear it, they'd be like, "Yeah, my kid complains about school too." And we're like, "This isn't complaining about school. This is DEFCON 5."

Meg: Yeah. Fight or flight, yeah.

Gretchen: So, I wonder if we can go back to the outreach for a minute, because I feel like that's a place where families usually get stuck. They don't know where to go or who to turn to or how to figure out what's the root cause for the refusal. So, how did you figure that out? What did you do?

Erin: Well, we were trying to really approach it a couple of different ways. One of them is we did hear from his teachers, and he was having some academic challenges. So we did in the spring go down what did feel like a rabbit hole of trying to pursue testing through the district and get approved for the IEP. So, we wanted to make sure that he was going to get the support he needed academically. And we did finally connect with a therapist for him. We did also talk to our pediatrician, who was incredibly supportive, and we started him over the summer on a medication. That was a really hard decision to make, but it feels like it really has helped to get him where he needed to be, to be able to identify, "I'm having a lot of worry about this. And now I can actually talk about it instead of hide under the bed."

Gretchen: So, Amanda, it seems what we're hearing from Meg and Erin is that their son was having a hard time going to school because, well, first of all, there was a transition to a more structured school day, and that was kind of daunting for him. And maybe he was feeling a little bit bad about things because he had some undiagnosed learning challenges. And on top of it all, you've got the anxieties of COVID. That certainly could not have helped. What are some other reasons why a child may be refusing to go to school?

Amanda: There are tons of them, right? So there are a ton of reasons. Um, anxiety is a big one. Sometimes it's separation anxiety. Kids are worried about leaving their parents behind, or they're worried what's going to happen during the day when they're not around, right? They're worried about what might happen to their parents. Sometimes it's anxiety about what's coming next at school, especially, like, in certain times of year, things change up a little bit in school and kids are worried about what's happening next. And a lot of times it's tied to they're having trouble with something, right? So, kids may not want to go to school because they know they have reading that day and reading is really hard for them, or that math class is coming up and they really don't want to go to school because they don't feel comfortable in math class. Or sometimes it's about friends, or not having friends, and the social groups change and they feel really lonely. And those are the kinds of things that make it really hard for kids to go to school. When they're not feeling good about themselves — when they're feeling like there's something that they can't handle at school — is when you often see school refusal.

Amanda: So is he in school this year?

Erin: Yeah, he is.

Amanda: Tell us how that happened.

Meg: Yeah, well, he has gone almost every day, minus him getting a small cold and we had to keep him home, but he's doing it, which is like such a win.

Erin: Well, we spent the summer, like, consciously about recovery. Like, we didn't sign up for camps, and we spent a lot of time really just, like, being home and regrouping. And then for us, just finally being able to talk to other parents who have been through it. And I think it's partly that it's a whole new year, I think. He's in the 2–3 class, so he has the same teachers. He gets the structure of the classroom. And I think just a little bit of maturity has really helped him push through, but he's really proud of it. He's rocking it, and he knows it, and we're just really grateful that he's there. And, like, now that he's there, we kind of feel like, "Wow, that was really hard." It was really, really hard when he got sick this year and had to stay home a few days, I felt my own sort of, uh —

Meg: "Is this gonna set us back?"

Erin: I felt my own worries about, like, "Is he gonna be like out of the groove again?"

Amanda: I so relate to hearing the like, "And when he stayed home again, you had this, 'Uh-oh, uh-oh.'"

Meg: Yeah. Our daughter will say, "Oh, I don't want to go to school." And it's instant, that phrase "I don't want to go," you know, it just brings up so much. And you have to sort of check your own damage, your own, your own healing and say, "OK, hold on. This is totally normal. She can say that." And just work through it.

Gretchen: So if you look back at those days, when you were really in the thick of it, what was the hardest part for each of you?

Erin: I feel like the hardest part was just seeing him truly suffering and feeling like — he was surrounded by so much love and care. I mean, a community of friends and classmates and family that really just, we were all rooting for him. And it felt like we still couldn't, we still couldn't reach him. It felt like we still couldn't find what was going on for him to help pull him out of this place and to have it be every day. Like, this was every day, it just was so dark and sad. It was really heartbreaking to see him just so not OK. 

And I feel like when I think back, like you said, all of those expectations that we have, there was also a lot of guilt and, and this feeling of like, "Wow, like, why is everybody else's kid able to pull it together to get to school this year and ours can't?" Like, when I think back to some of the things I was saying to myself then, I wish I was a lot kinder to myself. But I also wish that we had really been able to hear him sooner. Because I feel like we kept pushing it. We kept trying to just drive it. Like, nope, this is what we're doing; this is what we're doing; we've got to do it. And I think he was really telling us as best as he could, "I cannot do this."

Meg: One of the hardest things was seeing the effects of this day to day, ongoing. I mean, I think the last thought that at least I would have before I went to sleep was, "We're going to do this again tomorrow. It's going to be the same tomorrow. It's not going to change, you know?" And then, like, wanting to give my partner support, wanting to be there every day for her and for us, it was just really, really hard. And you know, when Erin said it was dark, it just felt dark.

Amanda: Do you have advice for other families going through this similar kind of thing?

Meg: I think advice was not to just not to be afraid to try new, new things. If people give you suggestions, like, don't be afraid to try them. I think that was the only thing that sort of got us through that was our willingness to just be open to ideas and support each other's ideas. So if Erin had an idea or she would change it up with, I don't know, screen time, doughnuts, I don't know, it was just about trusting and supporting that that person is just doing the very best that we can and has our son's best interest at heart.

Erin: You know, I think one of the things that was helpful — hard and helpful — is that one or the other could always be the one on a particular day. Like, there were some days where I just really couldn't. I'd be making lunches, crying, and Meg would be telling him stories to talk him through each of his steps. Or some days where Meg was just, "I'm losing it, like, I cannot," and I'd be able to step in and just be there with him in whatever way he was. I think for me, I, like I said, because he's doing so much better, I feel like I've just been focused so much on having a lot more compassion for us both as a couple and how we got through that, and for our own selves.

I am so aware of how much shame there was last year. And I think, for me, sharing this is really about wanting other parents to feel less shame if they're going through this. And part of that is that isolation of being there in the mornings or the night before school, feeling like your kid is the only one or you're the only one, and truly being able to connect with other parents on the other side of it. And I think that's what helps is even for other parents, where their kids are doing well, um, just not being afraid to share what you're going through. You need your village; you need your tribe to hold the hard time that you're going through so that you can be as centered as you can to be there for your kiddo who's going through something so hard. And I think it took us a while to be able to reach out and really get the care that we were needing so that we could really be there for him in the way he was needing.

Amanda: Erin and Meg, just thank you so much for sharing your story with us and for helping to, to break down that shame.

Gretchen: Yes. Thank you so much for being so honest with us. We really appreciate it.

Erin: Absolutely. Thank you so much for letting us.

Amanda: So before we go today, I wanted to tell you about a new show in our Understood Podcast Network. It's called "The Opportunity Gap," and it's hosted by Julian Saavedra and Marissa Wallace. Julian is a Black parent and an assistant principal in an urban public school. Marissa is a special education teacher with a multiracial child. And it's a podcast for families like Julian's and Marissa's to talk about kids of color with learning and thinking differences. And they really explore those inequities that may be happening in certain situations. So I would totally encourage you to listen as Julian and Marissa explore those issues of privilege, race, identity, and talk about the ways parents can advocate for their kids. Again, that show is called "The Opportunity Gap." Gretchen, have you been listening to it?

Gretchen: I have been listening to it, and it's fabulous.

Amanda: You've been listening to "In It," part of the Understood Podcast Network.

Gretchen: You can listen and subscribe to "In It" wherever you get your podcasts.

Amanda: Maybe you have your own story about school refusal that you'd like to share with us.

Gretchen: We want to hear it. So leave us a message at 646-616-1213, extension 703. That number again is 646-616-1213, extension 703. And we might just share it on a future episode.

Amanda: "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure that you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/init to find resources from every episode.

Gretchen: That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash in it. And please share your thoughts. Email us at init@understood.org. We'd really love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are production directors. Also, this week I'd like to add a special thanks to Max MacKenzie for being in the podcast booth with me. Thanks for listening, everyone. And thanks for always being in it with us.

 

 

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Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the In It podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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