Prevention Strategies: School Avoidance and Refusal
by Marjorie Colindres
As a former school social worker, I am anticipating that students and families will need a substantial amount of support as they re-adjust to the rigor of a ‘typical’ school day. During COVID-19, many students learned from home or lacked adequate access to technology to complete their studies. As a direct result, students and families may require additional assistance in acclimating to the expected school norms before the first day of school.
I am currently a full-time student at Loyola University Chicago in the Ph.D. program with a focus on school social work. Previously, I had been working as a school social worker in the Chicagoland area. These suggestions and strategies are based both on my experiences as a school social worker as well as relevant reading and research.
Provide Psychoeducation to Parents
A great foundational step in preventing school avoidance is to provide parents with resources on how they can support their student(s) return to school. School administrators and personnel should put together a presentation for parents, in-person or online. The presentation could include the following:
- Normalizing common fears regarding returning to school
- Sharing the school’s guidelines and protocol regarding COVID-19
- Providing psychoeducation on mental health and how their children can receive support at school
- Sharing with parents the plan on how the school will support students emotionally at tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3 levels of MTSS
- Sharing techniques/strategies on how parents can ease problems of anxiety to promote school readiness
School personnel should define for parents the following:
- Expectations of start and dismissal times
- Expected behaviors within the school building during structured and unstructured activities
- Identifying the difference between school refusal and truancy
- Defining the positive impact of school attendance on academic success
Early Meet & Greet
Teachers and school personnel can create a ‘meet and greet’ event which could be done in person or virtually. An in-person gathering should follow all CDC and school guidelines to ensure the safety and wellbeing of participants. Some schools have opted for an outdoor version in order to optimize the experience while mitigating risk.
Additionally, the technology coach at my school district introduced our staff to flip grid. A platform where teachers and staff uploaded short videos introducing themselves. This allowed students to know what their teachers look like and how they sound. Having these video introductions made available prior to the first day of school decreases feelings of anxiety from parents and students.
Practice Going Through The Schedule
School administrators should provide open hours when students (and families) can sign up to come to visit the school prior to the start date. Parents and students should have an opportunity to practice going to and from classrooms, activity spaces, and drop-off/pick-up locations.
Walking through the student schedule and familiarizing everyone with frequently visited locations in the building fosters comfort and confidence.
Develop Evening Routines
School personnel should encourage parents to teach their children about the importance of developing routines before going to bed. I have learned that in some cases, students engage in school refusal due, at least in part, to a lack of practice with structured, daily routines.
For example, the phone needs to be turned off by 9:00 p.m. and they must brush their teeth before 9:30 p.m. The lights in the bedroom need to be turned off by 10:00 p.m. and wake up is no later than 6:30 a.m.
Practicing these routines 2-3 weeks prior to starting school may mitigate challenging mornings. A Netflix series that has proven really helpful in teaching students and families how to structure sleep time is the Headspace Guide to Sleep.
Create a Parent Group
This past school year, I hosted presentations for parents. When there were opportunities for a more open discussion, parents had great ideas to share with one another. There are a variety of ways to form parent groups:
- Create a Google Classroom where parents can exchange ideas on how to help their children returning to in-person learning
- Create a hashtag on social media, allowing parents to connect and ask questions (e.g., #D809ParentQuestions)
- Conduct a Zoom meeting that focuses on exchanging ideas on how to best support children return to school
- Create a Padlet board where parents can propose questions and share insight
When families feel connected, their children are more likely to feel connected too. The district/school should provide a detailed plan (with ample time) on how they will navigate this academic school year. This will alleviate parent anxiety and may indirectly impact how students feel about going back to school. Once school begins, it is crucial to minimize school refusal and optimize school attendance.
Strategies For When School Begins
At the beginning of the year, the school district should have meetings with a social-emotional committee (ie PBIS Tier 1 Committee) and welcome discussions on how they are going to support students socially and emotionally. Suggestions for back to school support:
- Identify and use a social-emotional curriculum that will be integrated within the classroom setting throughout the school year
- Identify activities that will be done at the beginning of the school year to ensure there is strong student engagement
- Encourage the use of coping strategies throughout the school year by posting visuals around the building and providing resources to parents
Once the committee has a plan, it is important to ensure there is buy-in from key stakeholders across the school community. Additionally, it is integral to stay consistent with implementation, in order to ensure that students feel engaged, safe, and supported.
With many states across the country supporting schools to return to in-person learning this Fall, it is vital that school personnel is providing students and families the appropriate tools to be successful. Mental health must be taught, explored, and discussed in schools. Parents and students need to know about available resources and how to seek out additional support. When students and families feel like they are in an environment where they are embraced, it can dramatically decrease feelings of anxiety and isolation.
The past 2 academic school years have brought inconsistencies and uncertainties; as a direct result, it is crucial for students and families to feel connected to the staff and school building in order to rebuild school routines and strengthen feelings of confidence.