Jayne Demsky

Listen Now: School Refusal-What Parents Can Do

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from leading School Avoidance expert Chris Leonard LCSW, M.Ed Chief Learning Officer at Thrive Alliance Group

JAYNE DEMSKY from the School Avoidance Alliance Interviews Podcast host Chris Leonard from Conversations About Student Mental Health

In this episode, Chris Leonard shares advice for parents to help their school-refusing child get back to school. Chris and his guest also touch on how schools can partner with parents to form a team to help a student get back on track.

This time, Chris gets interviewed by his guest, Jayne Demsky. Jayne is a parent who once faced her own son’s school avoidance and became an advocate for families dealing with this challenging issue. She founded School Refusal Hope in 2014 and recently launched her new website, schoolavoidance.org, to provide guidance and support for families.

Jayne also serves on the Public Policy Committee for the New Jersey state office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and is a NAMI Smarts Advocacy trainer, where she presents workshops on mental health advocacy. 

Highlights include:

  • What to do (and what NOT to do) when a child won’t get up for school
  • Tips and tools for uncovering the root of the problem
  • Advice about setting consequences, contracts, and homeschooling
  • When to seek out more support, and what to do when the student refuses help 
  • Steps schools can take to bring students back into the building, and how they can use data to prevent school refusal

Podcast transcript

Chris Leonard:

Welcome to our podcast, Conversations About Student Mental Health. I’m Chris Leonard, clinical social worker, working with adolescents for over 25 years. In this podcast I talk with school administrators, educators, clinicians, and parents, to open a dialogue that will help the growing number of students struggling with mental illness. 

Today, we continue our series on school refusal. When we recorded our last episode in early June, there was great anticipation of fully reopening schools in September. However, as the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to surge, there is renewed uncertainty about what school will look like this fall. What we do know is that COVID has been deeply disruptive to learning and to mental health. Although many students are hopeful and excited about the prospect of returning to school, many other students and parents are wary about returning to fully in-person learning. A significant number of these students were struggling with school attendance, even prior to the pandemic and the issues of safety that it presented.

In our last episode, we looked at actionable steps that schools could take this fall to help students successfully readjust to school. I spoke with Dr. Paul Barbato, Director of Special Services for the Dumont, New Jersey Public Schools. Dr. Barbato provided a comprehensive overview (a playbook, really) of what schools can do to reduce school refusal and to intervene effectively when it occurs. If you haven’t yet listened to that episode, I urge you to do so. It is chock-full of ideas that schools can implement right away.

In this episode, we will be looking at what parents can do to help their school-refusing child get back to school. We will also touch on how schools can partner with parents to form a team to help a student get back on track. My guest today is me. Well, kind of. You see, for this episode, we’ll be changing things up and my guest will actually be interviewing me.

Jayne Demsky founded School Refusal Hope in 2014 to provide guidance and support for families dealing with their child’s school avoidance. Jayne is a parent who was once facing the realities and difficulties of her son’s school refusal. He experienced school avoidance on and off for about four years. Jayne lived through the challenges and complexities that confront parents of kids with school refusal. Her son received the help and treatment he needed, and I am happy to say that he is living a full normal life with a career, friends, relationships and independence. Jayne vowed to help other families on this journey. So she’s on a mission to spread awareness about school avoidance, sharing best practices, connecting stakeholders, and promoting early interventions. She recently launched her new website, school avoidance.org, to provide valuable information to both schools and families in order to best support our kids.

Jayne serves on the Public Policy Committee for the New Jersey state office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI. She is also a NAMI Smarts Advocacy trainer, where she presents workshops on mental health advocacy. Jayne, welcome to the podcast. I know we have a lot to talk about. So do get us started.

Jayne Demsky:

Yes. Thanks so much for having me, Chris, I’m really looking forward to talking with you. Actually, I’ve been following you for a few years as an expert clinician and school leader. Someone who has a lot of experience in advice for families and schools. So I am interested in getting down to our discussion. I just did want to mention one thing. I might be calling it school avoidance and you’re calling it school refusal. They’re both accepted and interchangeable. But obviously because my website is schoolavoidance.org, I have geared more towards school avoidance, but school refusal is one of the main names that is called.

Chris Leonard:

Yes. Glad you clarified that for our listeners.

Jayne Demsky:

Chris, one of the hardest times for a parent dealing with a child’s school avoidance is the morning time. You have that feeling when you walk down the hallway to your child’s bedroom and you kind of know what you might be getting, but you’re not sure. I have the memory of my son hiding under his covers, holding on for dear life, avoiding me and my pleas to get up for school. I do have this memory of pulling the covers off of him, and I feel regretful about that looking back, and I was hoping that you can give parents some advice of what they should do in that moment.

Chris Leonard:

Great question. I think the first thing you want to do is to understand why your child wants to stay home and can they talk about it? For instance, are they anxious? And if they are anxious, is the anxiety related to something in particular or is it just what we would call free-floating anxiety? It’s just anxiety. I’m anxious, and I don’t know why. So that anxiety wouldn’t be attached to any particular experience or situation. Or, is it they’re avoiding something? Is there a test? Is there a presentation? Is there a bully? What’s going on in their life? The more information you can gather, the better equipped you are to respond.

What not to do. It’s not a great time to tell your child that if they don’t go to school, they’ll never make it to college or they’ll end up in some terrible job. What I always recommend to parents is to utilize what I call benign curiosity. So be curious, but not accusatory. Don’t be so quick to be alarmed, although you probably are going to feel anxious. So you’re probably going to want to start with a deep breath or maybe you’re annoyed because you’re running out the door to get to work and now you’re dealing with your child. But above all, you want to make sure that you try to understand the problem before you try to solve it.

Jayne Demsky:

I’m also curious, what do you think parents should do in that moment? I mean, that is a tough situation. You’re not thinking logically and there’s so much emotion going on. The moment where their child is in the bedroom and the parent is there standing over that child? What do you do?

Chris Leonard:

Really, I think if they will talk with you, that’s where you can start to gather information because the most important thing to find out is why this is happening. I mean, it could be a one-time thing, it could be just a one-off, it could be something going on today or it could be the beginning of something bigger. I think one of the things to do is to try and jump ahead of that moment in the bedroom and look for indicators that may emerge well before you’re in that situation of, “Should I pull the covers off or not?” Does your child have frequent illness in the morning? Is that illness on a particular day of the week? Is it always on Friday? Is it always on Wednesday? And what would it be about Friday and Wednesday? Might there be a math quiz or a spelling test or something else going on that they’re trying to avoid.

Also, tantrums related to particular school-related tasks: homework, assignments, projects, a particular subject. Is there something about school that is starting to set the child off? And that’s just the stuff that would be going on at home. Then there are indicators that you can look for in school. Is the child making frequent visits to the nurse? Are they finding their way into an administrator’s office multiple times a week or out of a particular class?

Based on what you see in terms of patterns, you want to start to figure out what’s the purpose of this behavior. And the assumption that we make is that all behavior is purposeful. So what’s the child trying to accomplish by staying home? This helps you figure out: what do I do? If the child is really anxious, okay, now how do I help the anxiety? If the child is avoiding something, how can you help them deal with whatever it is that they’re trying to avoid?

Jayne Demsky:

Okay. And how can a parent go about identifying that? Are there any tools, assessments, any way to figure out what is behind the avoidance?

Chris Leonard:

First, you can start out with a conversation. There are typical trends. There are typical things the kids are trying to grapple with. One is they’re trying to avoid negative effects. Anxiety, number one. Something about going to school is making them anxious. 

A lot of times you see school refusal emerge in the transition from elementary school to middle school. It’s a big transition. You go from being in one class all day, everybody’s your buddy, you have one teacher, one set of expectations. Now you’re changing classes six, eight times a day. Somebody who’s your best friend says they don’t want to be your friend anymore. I mean, everything changes. And sometimes just that transition can be very difficult. So maybe the student is trying to avoid something. Maybe it’s a social situation. Maybe it’s a test. Maybe they are being bullied or picked on or teased.

Another common factor is that the child is seeking some sort of tangible reward. Or maybe they just don’t want to be away from you. Maybe they’re having a bout of separation anxiety and they really just… Maybe you’ve suddenly transitioned now and now you’re working from home and, “Wow, here’s an opportunity. Mom or dad is home all day. I’m going to hang with them.” Do they feel that there’s a compelling reason to stay home? Does somebody in the family have an illness? Are they worried about someone? I’ve talked to students who said, “Well, I’m afraid to go to school. If I go to school and I’m away, mom is very sick. I think she might die when I’m not home.” So it could be something like that.

In very few cases, this could be a case of truancy. This could just be, “I’m not going, I got better plans. I’m going to be out…” If a student is out finding something to do outside the home, something that’s more interesting to them or compelling, that may be a sign that there’s an oppositional problem. But usually if there’s an oppositional problem, you’re seeing that oppositional behavior play out in more than one setting, not just related to, “Will I go to school today?” There’s a problem with authority on multiple fronts.

The other thing that’s important to bear in mind is, it’s usually not just one thing. The research calls this mixed reinforcement. So it might be a combination of anxiety and seeking some tangible reward. “This is soothing to me. I’m going to stay home because if I stay home, I get to do this and I don’t have to be in school and feel that anxiety.”

Third, an assumption that you want to make is that attending the school is the child’s job, really. And they need to know from you that your expectation is that they’re going to get themselves back to school.

Finally, as I said before, you want to get help for whatever’s getting in the way, whether it’s avoidance, whether it’s anxiety, whether it’s something else. Whatever’s getting in the way, you want to move toward that help.

Jayne Demsky:

It sounds like what you were talking about was the four functions of school refusal, where it’s usually either avoidance, some negative reinforcements that this child is avoiding, or the positive, as you said, like the tangible rewards. And that is part of the school refusal assessment scale. That is a tool that clinicians and schools can use to help parents try to narrow down what the child might be dealing with. And as you said, these things can be mixed. I mean, it’s not always clear cut in terms of what the cause is or what the function is. And I also wanted to make a point to note that there was a parent edition of the SRAS and also the children’s version. So that is a tool that clinicians and schools could use.

Chris Leonard:

Are you going to have that on your website?

Jayne Demsky:

Yes, thank you. 

Chris Leonard:

Nice. So parents can go there and they can find that.

Jayne Demsky:

Yes.

Chris Leonard:

It may be off-putting to do that as an interview with the child, but you certainly could go through that checklist and say to yourself, “Okay, which of these indicators am I seeing?”

Another child might do very well saying, “Okay, here’s me,” looking at that child assessment. So it really is dependent on the individual, right?

Jayne Demsky:

Yeah. My child would not do it. I had to do it for him and for myself. And it pretty much painted a clear picture of what the psychiatrist had diagnosed him with and our feelings.

Chris Leonard:

That can be affirming because sometimes we don’t want to hear what the psychiatrist has to say, even if we know in our hearts that they’re right. We’re like, “No, it’s not that. No.”

Jayne Demsky:

That’s funny.

Jayne Demsky:

Another huge dilemma that parents of school-avoidant children face is differing advice about taking away their phones or online gaming. So what do you think about this?

Chris Leonard:

Well, I think sometimes people feel like, “Okay, this is the one place on earth where they’re feeling good right now. He gets some relief. He’s relaxed. He’s happy. Let me not mess with this.” The thing is yes, absolutely. And kids will say this, “I love playing this game. I feel so good.” And kids definitely get tangible rewards from gaming. It’s one of the things I like about it. Oh, I achieve this. I move up a level. Look at that. Boom.

One of the things that’s very important to bear in mind is that one of the most common ways of coping with anxiety is to avoid. And avoidance is comfortable, but it does nothing to help the anxiety. And in fact, it actually reinforces it. The longer we try to avoid something, the scarier it becomes.

The other thing about gaming and device use is that allowing that during school hours is really counterproductive. I’m not saying that you should take away the phone or the game forever. Actually, that’s a mistake that many parents make. A kid breaks curfew, or they do something in the house or and they say, “I say no phone for two weeks.” That’s an awful long time, especially in today’s age where kids are using their phones and devices to keep in touch with friends. So I would say no gaming or device use during school hours. School hours are for school work. And if the child is going to be home for a week or more, you want to get assignments and say, “During school, it’s school. Here’s what your option is. After school, if your work is done, once your work is done, show me your work. Then you can have your phone back.” That would be an approach I would take. 

Jayne Demsky:

Yeah. I’m a mush. I mean, when I was going through this with my son, I was definitely saying, “Oh, he needs it.” He needs his phone. It’s self-soothing. But after I experienced all this and reading all the research and speaking to people like you, I’ve realized that that was not the way to go.

Chris Leonard:

Yeah. And it is hard. When your child is suffering, you want to do nothing to increase their pain. So it’s almost counterintuitive to take something away or to say, “No, you can’t have this right now.” But in the long run, you’ll be glad you did, because it’d be one more mountain to climb if you’re providing too much gratification during the day when they’re home.

Jayne Demsky:

That makes sense. With that thought in mind, do you have many school avoidance clients who have an online gaming addiction?

Chris Leonard:

I cannot say that I have. Maybe a couple, and it’s always hard to say, “Oh, this is an addiction.” I mean, I guess if you can set limits on it, if you can take away the device, if you can take away the game and there’s not… I mean, they’re not going to like it. They’re going to argue with you. They might call you names. They might, “Oh my gosh, I can never trust you ever again,” or something like that. But if there’s real deep desperation, if there really is this super strong reaction, you may be dealing with an addiction.

What does an addiction do? What’s the purpose of an addiction? An addiction usually fills a void in our life. It doesn’t matter whether it’s drinking drugs, alcohol, sex, gaming. Whatever the addiction is, the addiction serves a function and the function is to fill this hole that I feel that I have. So the solution is going to be okay, where’s the hole and how do we find another way to fill that?

Chris Leonard:

One of the major tenets of therapy is you don’t take away a defense or a way of coping unless you’ve got something to replace it with. So you want to start to invite the child or the student to do other things. And again, do those special things after school. You’re not taking them on a shopping spree or taking them out to meet their favorite aunt during school hours, because that’s like, “Oh, I stay home from school. I get to do this.” It’s after school. I think reconnecting with friends, going to a team sport or a class, an afterschool class. If they can do that, getting them out and getting them reconnected, sometimes that reconnection can be the catalyst that can get them back to, “Oh, you know what? I miss this. I want to go back to school.”

Jayne Demsky:

Yes, that would be ideal for the child, student to have the motivation or not be so avoidant, anxious, or depressed that they could actually go and see their friends or go to attend events. That is an ideal situation that would be great for most parents if they were lucky enough. Not all parents have that situation, but if they do, that’s great. I say they’re like a step closer to helping their child if they’re at that point.

As we move further in our questions, all schools differ in their beliefs and attitudes about school avoidance. I’ve spoken to some educators recently who don’t think it’s the job or the place of a school administrator, child study team member, teacher, to go to a child’s home, to go inside and try to talk them into going. Do you have an opinion about how far schools should go to bring those kids into the school building?

Chris Leonard:

Yes. I’ve worked on this from a number of angles over the years. I’ve been the principal of a special ed therapeutic high school. I’ve been a therapist in private practice collaborating with school district people. And I’ve always recommended that if you can’t get a student to leave the house, if you can’t get them to reconnect, one of the most important things that you can leverage is relationships. And so, if they have a relationship with a favorite staff member, could be a teacher, could be a school counselor, could be a paraprofessional, could be… anybody. And if that person and another person (it’s always good to work in a team, if two people can make a home visit, sometimes that can be a very important first step in re-engaging the child.

And then maybe getting them to agree to just come into the building for something, whether it’s coming in after school to work on some schoolwork, or whether it’s coming in at the beginning of the day, (preferably come in at the beginning of the day), and let’s see how long you can make it. Commit to a certain period of time. Can you stay until 10:30? Can you stay until lunchtime? Or even come back in and you can work in my office. We’ll have your work sent in. You can work in my office and then you can meet with… If there’s a school counselor or somebody they can meet with, just get them re-engaged. I really think that that can be an extremely helpful first step.

Listen, I understand where school people are coming from. With everything that emerges somebody is saying, “The school should do something about this.” And having been a school administrator, I certainly understand as a teacher, as an administrator, I understand how that feels. But the outreach can be so important and helpful.

Jayne Demsky:

Yeah. Obviously you believe in that as an approach. You’ve seen it work throughout your years. What I would say to schools is that sometimes I get it. The teachers, child study team, everyone in the building is so busy. They have so much going on, but to make the investment right there at that point is not only going to save the child, it’s also going to save the school in the long run. Because the more entrenched the school avoidance gets, the more difficult it is to get them back into school.

Chris Leonard:

Absolutely.

Jayne Demsky:

And the school has to use more resources and time and so much more. We always talk about how early interventions create the best outcomes. This is a case where I would just ask schools to think about that. Going into the home might feel weird, but it’s worked and it’s going to save the child and the school in the long run.

Chris Leonard:

Yeah. Like parents, I think the more schools can pay attention, there’s data that you have. You know certain kids are always in the nurse’s office. You know kids who are starting to accrue absences. You know, oh my gosh, this kid never goes to gym or they never go to math. You have that data. So use that data before they start staying home. And then now you’re saving yourself some home visits, right?

Jayne Demsky:

Yes.

Chris Leonard:

The earlier you can intervene before it becomes entrenched, the quicker the turnaround and the better the outcomes.

Jayne Demsky:

Yes. I see that. I’m glad you actually have all the anecdotal evidence to show that it works and the research. The empirical evidence to show that works as well.

Chris Leonard:

Absolutely.

Jayne Demsky:

Another idea that differs among clinicians is the idea of a written contract between the parent and the student. Sometimes it’s advised to the parent to write a contract with your child and have them say, “I agree to go to school in the morning. I agree to get up.” I’ve never heard that actually helping, but that doesn’t mean that I’m correct. So I want to know what your opinion is about that.

Chris Leonard:

Well, a contract in and of itself doesn’t mean anything. A contract is only as good as the agreement that it represents. So if you have a child that is particularly good at just being a yes person and just saying, “Yep, mom, whatever. Yep, sure. I’ll sign this.” That contract is useless. If you have really worked out some parameters around what your understanding is about going to school and how the parent is going to help and what the child is going to contribute, what the parent’s going to contribute.

Even better, having now engaged with the school and formed a team, I think one of the fundamental best practices with regard to school avoidance or school refusal is a team approach. And that should be a multidisciplinary team, meaning it should include a teacher, school counselor, school administrator, parent, student, outside therapist, if there is one. Could be a caseworker, a CMO worker, some other community-based provider. The more that you have, that child has a sense of there’s a team of people and they’re all pulling the rope in the same direction. And everybody’s here for me. That in and of itself is encouraging. So you’ve established that team. You’ve made some agreements about who’s going to do what by when. And it’s not just the child, because a lot of times kids are like, “Oh, I’m the only one that has to change.”

So if you’ve laid that groundwork and you want to memorialize that in the contract, the contract can be a great thing. But if you think that you’re going to just whip out a piece of paper and that’s going to turn everything around, you’re absolutely right. No way, it’s not going to work.

Jayne Demsky:

Well, but thank you for clearing up when it would work. I see that, especially as you talk about… We’re used to talking about the team approach, how important that is. But for the child to see that all these other people care about you, are on board, this is what they’re going to do, and that you’re not the only one doing things… I think that is really empowering and helpful. So thanks for clearing that up.

Chris Leonard:

Glad too.

Jayne Demsky:

Another thing that parents often ask, at what point do we need to look for more intensive help? And I’m talking about kids that might already be in outpatient therapy or refusing therapy, but it’s gotten so bad that they’re not leaving their rooms. So what is a parent to do at that point?

Chris Leonard:

Well, when they’re not leaving their rooms, that’s really tough because now it’s hard to get them to engage with anybody. Even if you have them engaged in a mental health center, partial hospitalization program, something like that, if they’re not going, they’re not going. That’s where you have to try to leverage the relationships and you have to get somebody to come out. It can be, again, a CMO worker, family support organization, PerformCare. It can be maybe the representative from that partial program or school representative. Somebody needs to come out and really try and reengage that student. They might be sitting on a chair outside the student’s bedroom door and talking through the door at first, but somebody needs to go out and take over that chore.=

I think it’s always better to intervene too early than too late. If the student’s been home for a week and you’re not able to make any progress in getting them up and out, that’s when you want to be seeking additional support. And I think a good first call may very well be to the school, because the school probably has experienced this before and they may very well have a list of people who they’ve enlisted before. I know in Bergen County, New Jersey, there’s Bergen’s Promise. So maybe they’ve worked with Bergen’s Promise. Maybe they’ve worked with another agency and or they’ve identified a person in the community who really is good at working with kids who are avoiding school or refusing school. So maybe there’s a private therapist who’s good and skilled. That might be a great place to start.

Jayne Demsky:

Yes. I agree with you. You mentioned PerformCare, which is local to the state of New Jersey, but I wanted just to reiterate that all states have mobile children’s mental health crisis, so that if someone’s in a different state, they can Google state children’s mental health crisis, mobile response, something like that. And that will be the agency that can help go into their house and help them.

Chris Leonard:

Excellent point.

Jayne Demsky:

Now, for school-avoidant kids who miss days, weeks, sometimes months, some years of school, when they are working on their reintegration back into school, one of their fears is what to tell the other students about where they have been. So what ideas or possible things do you think kids might say to the other people at school?

Chris Leonard:

Well, I think actually there’s a much greater openness now more than ever. We saw it just recently in the Olympics. Simone Biles said, “I’m not ready to do this right now. I’m not in a good place.” And the gymnastics committee was saying, “Oh, she’s got an injury.” And she was like, “No, it’s not an injury. This is a mental health issue that I’m dealing with.” Naomi Osaka said, “I’m dropping out of this tournament. My mental health is at stake.” So I think that there is now leadership and permission to say, “I’m struggling with a mental health issue.” And even before there was this reduction in stigma, I was advising kids that it’s best to be as transparent and honest as possible.

If you tell the truth, you only have to keep one story straight. And I’ve seen it on social media with kids. Unfortunately, not everybody is trustworthy with your information. So you tell one friend, “Well, I was struggling with a mental health issue.” And then you tell nine other kids that, “Oh, I was at my uncle’s ranch in Texas.” And so you’re telling the story about your uncle’s ranch and then somebody is texting somebody else and saying, “That’s not what happened.” 

I don’t know what all the factors are that have contributed. I mean, we’ve had stigma-free programs, we’ve had the pandemic, we’ve had so many different things. And again, things are never singularly determined. They’re always multi-disciplined. So we’ve had all of these factors coming together and now more than ever, I think kids can just say, “You know what, I’ve been struggling with a mental health issue. I’ve been struggling with my anxiety. It’s been really hard for me to get to school, but I’m working on it. I’m glad I’m here today.”

Jayne Demsky:

Chris, I can’t tell you how excited I am about how the tide has really changed. When I dealt with this with my son, it might have been seven or eight years ago now, it was so different. There was such a stigma about mental health, mental illness. It was really hard to get people to understand, to talk about it. It was very isolating. But we always talk about the silver lining of COVID and it’s so true. The media has been covering mental health so much during COVID. It has become “normalized”. And with all the leaders like Simone Biles coming out and being adamant about saying this is a mental health issue, I really feel that… I’m getting chills saying it. I know it’s so weird, but I think that things have really changed. And as you said, I think that kids can go back into school and say, “Hey, I had a lot of anxiety getting back to school and I’m so glad to be here.” So I agree with you and I’m just so happy that things have changed.

Chris Leonard:

Yeah, I agree 100%.

Jayne Demsky:

Now, mental health professionals, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, social workers, licensed professional counselors. Obviously when a child is dealing with school avoidance, we want to get help for our kids. But some kids, it’s not uncommon, are refusing to get help, go see a mental health provider. So what do you suggest at that point?

Chris Leonard:

Get yourself to the provider.

Jayne Demsky:

The parent?

Chris Leonard:

Yes. Seriously. Get yourself into that office. Now, sometimes that can be all that you need to do. “I’m going, too. This isn’t just about you. This is about something going on with us. We’re going to work on this together. I’m going to help you figure this out. I’m going to be there every step of the way.” Sometimes you say you’re going to go and the child says, “Nope, not going.” Great. So now you go. Go with your partner. If you’re a single parent, go by yourself or perhaps go with a supportive friend and get in there and figure out how you can begin to provide the encouragement or the limit-setting that your child needs.

There are times when you are so struggling with something yourself that your child is sensing it. We have these neurons in our brains, mirror neurons that make us kind of really tune into other people and really often imitate what we see. It’s so much more important what we do as parents than what we say. And sometimes we are reflecting something and we don’t even realize. And so we go in and we begin to work on whatever it is that we’re struggling with. And sometimes that can be the beginning of the release for our child. And maybe that child won’t go at first, but then they see you’ve really made a commitment and now you’re inviting them to come in, and they say, “Well, this isn’t just about me. So now maybe I am willing to go.” But if they won’t go, you go.

Jayne Demsky:

Yeah, that’s great advice. I had that experience with my son. He wouldn’t go and we did start going, me and my husband. And eventually working with that psychologist, we were able to get my son in the room as well. So, that does work and obviously parents need support as well.

I hate to ask this next question, but because of the shortage of mental professionals, sometimes it’s hard for a family to find a therapist experienced in evidence-based modes of therapy for school refusal, or any therapist at all. So what is your advice to them?

Chris Leonard:

Well, one of the other silver linings of the pandemic is teletherapy. So if you can’t find somebody in your neighborhood, look for somebody who provides online work.

The other thing is that you mentioned evidence-based treatments for school refusal, school avoidance. I mean, one of the main evidence-based treatments is kind of like exposure therapy, because really what you’re trying to do is reintroduce the child to school. That’s what exposure therapy is. You expose the person to the thing that they are phobic about. So the formation of that team, the relationship leveraging that you do, the inviting the student to come and join certain things that may not be the full school day all at once, but just portioning it out just as you would do with exposure therapy.

If somebody is afraid of walking across a bridge, you don’t say, “Okay, tomorrow we’re going to walk across the bridge.” You show them pictures of bridges. You talk about bridges. Maybe you go and visit the site of a bridge. You look at the bridge. You wait a couple weeks. You go back. Eventually you step foot on the bridge and then maybe you walk halfway across, but you work your way up to it over time. It’s really the same with school avoidance. In the absence of any therapist, you can work with the school and create that team and begin to move the child in that direction.

Jayne Demsky:

Yeah, that’s a great point. The school does have the capability. They have the school psychologist and they have other mental health professionals in the building or in the district. And even though we might not be calling it exposure therapy, trying to reintegrate a student, getting them to school is exposure therapy, as you said. So therefore, you are getting it. And so that’s key about working with your school and getting them involved from the get go. Not to wait. Get them involved as soon as you feel or see a problem.

Now, right now, families I talk to who are going through this, some who have been going through this for a really long time, it’s become very severe. They are so frustrated and heartbroken that they just want to pull their kids out of school and go to homeschooling. What do you say about that?

Chris Leonard:

Well, I know there is a cohort of people who really believe strongly in homeschooling. They feel like they can do a better job at home. Like it has better outcomes. They can focus better. They can dig deep. They can go into all sorts of things that they wouldn’t go into in public school. What goes on in school is too generic.

I’m not a big fan of homeschooling, just because I think it’s hard to replicate the socialization that happens in school. The learning to form relationships, to collaborate, to deal with people you don’t like. I mean, we all have to learn to deal with working with people, living next to people that may not be our favorite people. About 3 to 4% of the US population were being homeschooled prior to the pandemic. By March of this year, it was up to 8 to 9%. Why did that happen? A lot of people became frustrated with the lack of engagement and learning that happened during remote learning for a lot of kids.

And yes, our current paradigm of education was based on training people to work in factories. It was conceived in the 19th century. And yes, in many ways it hasn’t kept up, but the point I want to make is that school avoidance should not be the catalyst for homeschooling. If you believe in homeschooling and you think your child is going to learn better at home, great, but don’t do it in response to school avoidance.

Jayne Demsky:

Yes. Thank you for that. And as you said, parents really have to look at the broad scheme of things. And again, not just react to the school avoidance.

Chris, I’ve talked too long and I don’t want to go too long on this podcast. So I think I’m going to stop asking you questions now. I thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking with you. You provided information for school refusal families that goes deeper and further into real-world scenarios that families experience. No fluff, no cookie-cutter answers. So thank you.

Chris Leonard:

Jayne, thank you. I appreciated the opportunity to speak with a parent who is so knowledgeable about school avoidance. Who’s able to share and leverage her own experience and who’s committed herself to really making sure that kids move forward and parents are going to have more resources available to them to really help their kids get back on track. 

I thought the questions you asked were really important questions. I’m sure that there are parents listening right now, and school professionals listening now, who are grateful that you asked these questions. So listeners, whether you’re a school professional, a parent, a student, family or friend of a student, I hope you gained some good insights and actionable steps that you can take to help with school refusal. 

Do look for more helpful content and upcoming events and presentations on our website at thrive alliance group.com. And Jayne, your website again?

Jayne Demsky:

It’s schoolavoidance.org.

Chris Leonard:

Excellent. Jayne, thanks again for being with me today.

Jayne Demsky:

Thank you, Chris.

Chris Leonard:

Conversations About Student Mental Health is brought to you by Thrive Alliance Group, partners in school-based mental wellness.

Jayne Demsky
Author: Jayne Demsky

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