Anxiety-based School Avoidance (ABSA) refers to when a Young Person is unable to attend school due to unusually high levels of anxiety and emotional distress at the thought of attending, usually resulting in prolonged absences from school.
ABSA has many different names depending on where you live or the organisation that you are talking to. You may hear it called ‘school anxiety’, ‘school avoidance’, ‘school phobia’ or ‘emotionally-based school avoidance’. For this blog, we shall continue to call it ABSA.
What is Anxiety-based School Avoidance?
It is completely normal for Young People to feel some level of anxiety associated with going to school. It can be useful. For example, it can encourage a Young Person to prepare for exams or to make a good impression in a job interview.
However, when the heightened anxiety lasts for a longer time, it can make finding the ability to attend school more and more challenging for the Young Person. Avoiding school becomes the instinctive response and can make the anxiety subside; however, it also reinforces the idea that school (or an element of it) is something to fear and so the anxiety will remain or worsen.
What causes Anxiety-based School Avoidance
Often, no one thing triggers ABSA; instead, it happens so gradually with small changes in behaviours, that it can go unnoticed at home and school until it appears as a huge concern several weeks down the line. ABSA is not clinically diagnosed; however, it is worth remembering that ABSA can often co-exist with other conditions such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Separation Anxiety.
Although ABSA is not a new condition, the COVID-19 pandemic with extended periods at home has made this condition a more widely spread problem.
And whilst anxiety may be the primary reason for avoiding school for many individuals, there may be other factors keeping Young People away as well. Kearney and Silverman (1990) categorised these reasons into four broad areas:
- The student wants to avoid things at school that make them feel anxious or depressed.
- The student wants to avoid social situations or avoid being judged.
- The student was to gain tangible rewards outside of school.
- The student wants to gain attention from parents/carers.
These are worth considering when planning the individual’s support as it is often a combination of these areas causing the Young Person difficulties.
Early Help with ASBA
Being aware of the early signs of ABSA and intervening early can give the most effective results. However, if ASBA has already taken hold, there are still many ways to support the Young Person. Schools and families must work collaboratively and support each other to develop strategies and provide worthwhile interventions.
What can the school do?
- Key adults
Having a key adult in the school who the Young Person can seek and talk to is a key element when reintegrating a Young Person into school. They may be able to settle the Young Person into the day. Providing a transition activity between home and school, such as a game or quiet reading, can help ease the anxiety.
- Support in lessons
Sometimes, the reason for the ASBA is a lack (or perceived lack) of understanding of the lesson content. Therefore, providing support for those lessons can ease the anxiety that the Young Person may feel.
Similarly, if the lesson content or the fear of not being able to cope with the lesson content is the trigger of anxiety for the Young Person, providing pre-learning materials before the lesson can help to ease anxiety.
- Transitional objects
A transitional object can be useful when a Young Person struggles to separate from the parent/carer at the class door or gate. It could be a note, a toy, a picture or even a handkerchief. A transitional object lets the Young Person know that the parent/carer is coming back for them and is thinking of them and they can think about their parent/carer too.
Again, often a Young Person holds anxiety as they fear what is to come – the unknown. Having a clear timetable for the day and week can help feelings of anxiety subside.
- Reduced timetable
If your Young Person has experienced an extended period of being unable to attend school, then a part-time timetable may be an option. This must be discussed and agreed upon with the school. But, by building up the time spent in school gradually, a Young Person can gain the understanding that school is a safe space for them and the perceived threats are not there without feeling overwhelmed.
Although not widely advertised, a Flexi-timetable is an option for some Young People. It involves an agreement between the school and the family where a Young Person attends school for a set amount of the day/week and is homeschooled for the remaining time. It is worth bearing in mind though, that both parties have a responsibility to adhere to the plan and are accountable for the education of the Young Person, so it is not an easy option.
- Further professional support
Some Young People may need further support than school staff may be able to provide. Direct and indirect support and advice can be sought from the school nurse, mental health organisations, a qualified therapist, a school family worker or an educational psychologist.
There are many variations of therapy that can be accessed, from play therapy to CBT to counselling for older Young People. An educational psychologist or school may be able to provide additional strategies tailored for the individual or a school family worker may be able to support the family at home. Usually, a referral is made for this level of support in conjunction with the Young Person’s parents/carers.
What can families do?
- Keep to a routine at home
Having a routine at home is like having a timetable at school. It helps the Young Person to know what is coming next and the expectations of them in sticking to the timetable. From getting up at a set time, even on the days the Young Person can’t cope with attending school, to set activities in the evening and winding down time before bed, keep to the routine. Encouraging the Young Person to wear a uniform during school hours can also help with the routine and transition back to school.
- Keep it boring at home
Your Young Person is likely feeling very down on themselves and is very emotional if they are experiencing ASBA and it is tempting to do something ‘nice’ to make them feel better. Try to resist doing this during school hours as this reinforces the idea that school is a bad choice and home is a better choice. Instead, avoid the use of electronic devices during the day; stay at home throughout the day; try not to do too much with your Young Person and instead go about your daily tasks as you normally would – i.e. making phone calls, washing, etc.
- Talk positively about school
It is tempting to let your feelings out about school ‘not helping’ or being the cause of such anxiety. Whilst this may or may not be the case, displaying your feelings or frustrations in front of your Young Person only reinforces the idea that school is a bad choice and inflames their anxiety, so speak positively about the school and ‘big it up!’
- Communicate with the school
Do not underestimate the power of working collaboratively with the school. Let them know if circumstances have changed at home or if an event has happened at home or school that may be a trigger to their anxiety.
- Do not negotiate
It is tempting to bribe/reward your Young Person with going to school. And whilst this may work in the short term, over longer periods it is often the case that the rewards have to be bigger and better to have the same results. For example, a Young Person was offered £5 to attend school one day, over the weeks, the Young Person was demanding £500 plus a new video game for attending one hour of school – it had spiralled out of control.
But of course, you want to praise your Young Person. So, instead of offering tangible rewards, offer your time to them after they have attended. E.g. well done, you attended for a whole hour today, let’s watch a film together. Or, well done, you attempted school every day this week, let’s play a board game this afternoon.
- Listen and understand/validate feelings
It’s easy to forget and become frustrated that your Young Person is not attending or making quick progress. However, for our Young People, these feelings of anxiety and fear are very real.
Trying to get to the root cause of the anxiety is no mean feat! However, trying to understand the ‘whys’ of anxiety can support the strategies the school and the family can put in place to manage it. Here at HeadsUp, we have plenty of resources available on our website to help you tackle anxiety with your Young Person. Check them out here.
- Change of provision
For some Young People, mainstream school becomes too difficult to manage. Whether that may be because of an underlying special educational need or because their mental health needs addressing in the first instance.
For some, a change of educational provision may be the answer. If your Young Person has an EHCP then you have the option to request alternative provisions within your local authority, in a school that can meet their needs. This could be a Social, Emotional and Mental Health School (SEMH school) or a school that caters for more complex needs. Look at your Local Authority’s website for more details (here is the webpage for Devon)
Alternatively, if you feel you could meet the needs of your Young Person at home, then Home Education could also be an option. To find out more, visit the Government’s website here.
Click here to access resources from HeadsUp to support anxiety.
Written by Helen Bailey (Halo Writing Services)