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School Avoidance & Autism

I would like to share some of my learning from a great webinar I watched on School Avoidance and Autism in January 2023.  The webinar was presented by Jackie Hall from the Parental Stress Centre:

Jackie Hall is the founder of The Parental Stress Centre and is a qualified counsellor and registered with the Australian Counselling Association (ACA). There are many more articles on the Parental Stress website and courses that you may find useful.

There was a wealth of information presented in the webinar, so I have put together some of the key points that I took away to share with you:

Why school avoidance?

  • Reframing the term ‘school refusal’ to ‘school avoidance’. This offers a new lens to explore a child’s reluctance or resistance through a problem-solving approach.
  • Jackie helped unpack some of the reasons why children avoid school and how we as carers can explore the triggers for that child. Acknowledging the feelings of “can’t’ versus the fixed “won’t” go to school. “Can’t” may present in many ways such as running away, shutting down, sickness etc.
  • The presentation also talked about responding compassionately and with empathy to facilitate understanding and cooperation. Carers / parents need to look at both sides of the problem, which includes:
    • The carer’s thoughts and feelings and how they can influence their approach to the child’s school avoidance.
    • The child’s thoughts/feelings and the reason(s) behind resistance to go to school.
  • It’s important to understand how a child’s feelings towards school are often based on prior experiences and an effort to support their safety.
    • The brain is in control and is continually working to ensure our safety and avoid danger. This is a hard-wired subconscious survival response. All mammals learn from experience and so we are all continually adjusting to seek safety or avoid danger / pain. If an event is painful, it is likely we will avoid it.
    • So, school avoidance can be seen as a defence strategy. Avoiding school positions the child in a place of safety and security.
  • Dr Daniel Siegal – Clinical Professor of Psychiatry: ‘hand model of the brain’ is a great model to help understand this:

I also looked up Russ Harris for his explanation of the model which is also great:

There are 6 areas of a child’s life contributing to school avoidance: Social, Environmental, Emotional, Academic, Physical and Trauma

  • Social: Lack of social skills, different communication skills, poor peer relationships.
  • Environmental: Sensory sensitivities ie noisy classroom, difficulties with routines etc.
  • Emotional: Poor self-regulation and difficulties recognising feelings / emotions, low self esteem.
  • Academic: Does not understand or subject matter too easy. Difficulties managing workloads.
  • Physical: Body agitated, hot, thirsty, hungry, need to move, fatigue.
  • Trauma: An experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope. Our ‘thinking brain’ gets compromised as we prepare for survival mode. Our brains have no or little conscious choice and go into ‘Flight, Fright or Freeze’ response. This can apply to carer and child, especially non neurotypical brains. Thinking and sensing differently can complicate memories and emotions resulting in hypervigilance and avoidance behaviours.
  • One or a combination of more of these 6 areas can be complex and distressing. The child responds by avoiding the stimulus = school.

2 Approaches to handle school avoidance: Responding to Emotions and Practical Support working together.

Responding to Emotions – Ref: Emotion Coaching Developed by John & Julie Gottman produced a 5-step approach.

  1. Be aware of the child’s emotions especially lower intensity such as disappointment or frustration.
  2. View child’s emotions as an opportunity for connection and teaching.
  3. Listen and accept emotions = avoid judgement.
  4. Help child to find language to describe their feelings. Help label emotions wit the child.
  5. Problem solve with the child to solve and negotiate boundaries.

These 5 steps work towards the child feeling validated, acknowledged and supported. You “Get them” and build their skills in expressing their challenges

Practical Support

  • Identify the problem areas. Create a mind-map detailing areas that are tricky e.g. Social, Academic, Environmental.
  • Compartmentalise areas into categories and for each category divide into a Problem Column and a Potential Ideal Column.
  • This exercise can lead to some solutions and pathways to changes.
  • Ask ‘Why do these challenges exist’? Is there a skill deficit, are perceptions / thought processes inaccurate, are there environmental stresses?
  • What can be done to remediate – change – learn – skills to develop to minimise problem?
  • Maintain Safety to support changes in behaviour response.

I hope this is useful to create a discussion and support families currently experiencing school avoidance.

ROS PULLMAN (Allied Health Assistant).

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