The 'social contract' between families and schools has been broken during the pandemic, and ongoing absence of kids is a 'deep and concerning problem' according to Amanda Spielman, chief of the UK schools watchdog. Rates of school refusal and truanting are a huge problem in other countries too.
Finding the right approach for dealing with it is crucial, because whatever the reason for missing school it takes a lot of fixing and is a symptom of something else that needs to be unpicked.
The printable anxiety iceberg sheet:
How to make a self-soothe box:
A really good blog that works through steps you can take:
Can’t Not Won’t - Eliza Fricker, helping and understanding children who are unable to go to school.
RESEARCH AND LINKS TO HELP:
Parenting Tips 26: How to help your teen with friendship skills.
Parenting Tips 19: What if you don't like your teen's friends?
Parenting Tips 17: The lying teenager.
Parenting Tips 16: Boy friendships.
Parenting Tips 14: Anxiety.
Parenting Tips 12: Bullying.
Parenting Tips 10: Girls navigating friendship groups.
Parenting Tips 5: The academic struggler.
Thanks for listening. Creating this podcast has been transformative for our family lives; we hope it does the same for yours.
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Susie is available for a free 15 minute consultation, and has a great blog:
Hello, I'm Rachel Richards and welcome to Teenagers Untangled the audio hug where we use research by experts and our own experience to discuss everything and anything to do with parenting teenagers.Susie Asli:
Hi there. I'm Susie Asli, mindfulness coach and mindful therapist and musician. And mother of three teenagers, two of them are twins.Rachel Richards:
As a parenting coach, mother of two teenagers and two bonus daughters, I've seen the transformative power of getting people together to share ideas and support each other. So, welcome, pull up a chair and let's begin. Now, Susie, have you ever got up on a Monday morning and thought 'Oh, no'.Susie Asli:
Anyway, it's the same for kids, right? It's just the early mornings, endless routine. You know, particularly when you've come back from holiday. We all know that this happens. But some kids are even more resistant. Either they refuse to go to school, or they truant without our knowledge. So we're going to talk about what's going on and how to sort the situation. But first, Susie, what's your nugget of wisdom for this week?Susie Asli:
Mine is a little bit broader. It's not a specific event. It's the idea that stuff takes time. So I think I used to think when they were little, you know, it should it should be enough to tell them once?Rachel Richards:
Yes, yes. Like why haven't they heard or to do something we've done and then we're done tick.Susie Asli:
Now I've realized that's not quite like that. The nudging the gentle and sometimes less gentle reminders. It's just is a process and it doesn't mean that it's not going in, or that things aren't happening.Rachel Richards:
Or that they're deliberately doing it to annoySusie Asli:
So this is a reminder to myself that it's not you. all or nothing. It's not a one fixed, one time process.Rachel Richards:
I love that Susie, I think it's just so important. I think many of us parents and me included, will think I remember this conversation, why have you not got it? And the answer is, 'Because they're a teenager, because we all find it hard to change, we find it hard to remember things. We've got a lot going on.' Yes. I love that one. Mine is that one of my daughters came home and we went for a walk the other day. And she said that she'd realized something about being a teenager, which is that it's mostly rubbish. She said, Mommy, I just think it's really hard. I love it, you know, a lot of things, but I'm finding it very hard. But she said, I now realize it's hard for everybody. And what's happening is I look at other teenagers and think, wow, they've got it really sorted out, they are so lucky. And there's a side of me that wants to be them. And now I've understood that actually, I'm looking at the things they're good at that I'm not good at and feeling like a wish I could fix that. But they're looking at me and the things I can do that they can't do. And they feel the same way. So in actual fact, we're all struggling a bit.Susie Asli:
Wow, that's amazingly insightful. Most people are 40 when they realise that.Rachel Richards:
exactly. And I think it's interesting, because, as I said in my blog about consequences, all of us struggle with this, but particularly teenagers, because so much is pushed on them so quickly. You know, they have to grow up very, very quickly. It's not a linear process, and there will always be stumbles. And it's about supporting them when they're struggling with something and letting them know that it's normal to struggle, because they often look around and think Oh, everyone else is okay.Susie Asli:
Yeah. But I think that's really insightful to notice that it's the things that she's struggling with. She presumes other people can do. Right. That's pretty, you know, classic, very smart. Very smart.Rachel Richards:
THat's m y kid Yeah. Okay, nothing, none of it was from me.Susie Asli:
I think you should take full credit for it.Rachel Richards:
We're going to talk about school refusal. And the reason we're talking about this is I've seen a couple of comments on boards of parents who are struggling with this. And actually there have been recent articles in the newspaper about it being a massive problem. So I thought, Oh, how interesting. In the UK, Amanda Spielman, who's the Chief of the school's watchdog which is called Ofsted has warned recently that the social contract between families and schools has broken and that it was the pandemic, and that there's a level of ongoing absence from school that is a deep and concerning problem.Susie Asli:
I can see that and I can understand that. It's the idea of well, it doesn't really matter if I go in today or not because it's just a day.Rachel Richards:
It's just a day and we said to kids, don't go into school because you might have COVID or somebody else might have COVID, which looked like a bit of a sniffle and if kids got it, most of them got a sniffle , you know, and, and then we say, now you've got to go to school. And it's really, really important.Susie Asli:
Yeah,we told them it didn't matter before. It's all we've given. It's very confusing for them.Rachel Richards:
And for parents too. Yeah, Let's not forget that because some parents will be thinking, yeah, but, you know, they had the day off here or there. What difference does it make? In the UK, the latest government figures that I looked at said the annual absence rate is 7.7, across percent across all schools, which actually is low compared to America, where even before the pandemic, about 13% of all students were missing 15 or more days of school a year.Susie Asli:
And the reason, so we got to think, Well, why does this really matter? The reason attendance is alarming is because it's actually really hard to fix. When kids are not in school, stuff happens. And in the early 2000s, parents often took children away for up to 10 days, in a term time, the narrative here changed, and it was made the parents responsibility, they had to get the kids into school. And so things started to get a lot better. And then the pandemic happened. And that's changed again,Susie Asli:
It's a funny one, isn't it actually, because part of me thinks, you know, this relentless, making them go to school every day is, is on one side, good for their education, you know, they fall behind, and it's really hard to catch up. And then there's the idea of, as adults, we're terrible at taking care of ourselves, and we're not very good at having a day off, and then we end up having burnout. So I kind of also teach my kids that I teach, you know, if you're really really knackered, then it's really important that - or you're not quite well enough to go back - like you've had a you know, nasty cold and, and maybe actually having a day off would be really healthy for you. So that's I think, is really important as well. But I guess the school refusal thing is when people get stuck in a loop of being anxious about going into school, and then it becomes a mental health problem and and a stressful thing.Rachel Richards:
Yes. I mean, we have to get on to the actual definitions of it. I mean, yeah, coming. On your point. I do say to my kids, you know, unit I see them struggling, I will say, right, you've got to take a break. That said, my philosophy right from day one, when they were young. Was that if they say that they can't go into school, or they're not well enough, I say, right, I'll just get the thermometer. We'll check your temperature. If you've got a temperature you have to stay home. If you haven't seen later,Susie Asli:
Yeah, mine, I think they should be in school. But I still think it's important. Yes,Rachel Richards:
I can see your point here. So the reason it's an issue is that high levels of absence in school causes significant workload and behavioral issues. And that's because so, you know, imagine a teacher's had to plan out lessons. And then x number of students aren't there. Well, now they're missing that information, you know, presumably, the lesson was worthwhile, otherwise, why they're there in the first place. So now they've missed that information. And somehow they need to be given at some other time, which is an added workload, or when they come back, and they don't understand they disrupt the class. So it's,Susie Asli:
And feel really awful, and they feel also it's suddenly don't know what they're talking about.Rachel Richards:
And with maths in particular, I've spoken to a friend of mine who teaches children who struggle with maths and she I said to her, so how do you do it? And she said, Oh, it's easy. I just go back through the syllabus and find out where they miss things. Go back to that, fix that and then we start building back again, and then you're done. Oh, it's that simple, is it? Yes. So reasons. They're not in school. There's a difference between school refusal and truanting. I didn't know I never thought about it. School refusal is they're both a symptom, but school refusal is severe emotional distress. And you will probably know about it as a parent. In fact, you will, you will know, your child will either - and it can come on at sort of any time really any age - there are certain ages when it's more common, but they it can cause temper tantrums, depression, signs of illness, they can be, they can vomit because they're so scared.Susie Asli:
And stomach, often it starts in the stomach.Rachel Richards:
Yes. And so there will be is distress and anxiety about going to school that school refusal. And typically they will want to stay at home. They're not staying off school so they can go out and party with their friends or go hang out at the local mall. They actually want to stay at home because they feel safe. Truancy is much more to do with you'd rather not be there. You'd rather do something else. Anything else.Susie Asli:
And there's usually some sort of social reason behind that. Not always but they're oftenRachel Richards:
Correct. Yeah. So and it's more common in older children. It's more likely to develop into antisocial behavior such as delinquency and disruptive acts; lying stealing involvement with antisocial peers and it needs strong power Parental monitoring, because very often parents don't know that that's the differenceSusie Asli:
That's often why it appears is in the first place?Rachel Richards:
Yes, yes. Now hand on the Bible, I was a truant. And for me, I did a lot of getting out of school, I would just say, I'm not feeling very well. And my mother said, Oh, fine, stay at home. And I didn't really have anything else to do. But I just didn't want to be in school. And it was because the school I went to was really scary. And, in fact, another mother, when I was older, turned to me and said, Oh, you went to that school? We were really scared of those kids. And I was like, oh, what's the new one said to me. I mean, actually, what happened was they chased me down. And they said to my mother, why is she not at school? And she said, Oh, she's got a sore throat. I think she's got tonsillitis. And, you know, and so they kept chasing it down. And eventually I had my tonsils out. And then I hadn't put it out there good excuses.Susie Asli:
But did you ever have tonsolitis?Rachel Richards:
Yeah, but not as bad as funny. But yeah, but the point is, if somebody had actually sat me down and said, No, really, why are you not in school? I would have said, because it's really scary. And the teachers are horrible to me. And actually, by the way, this teacher is a horrible teacher, and they don't do anything. And, you know, but I think they didn't want to because the school was a failing school anyway. And nobody was asking. So yeah,Susie Asli:
I'm not sure you'd get away with that anymore. Like, because it's it's different, like the registration process and communication between parents. I'm sure it does still happen. I'm sure there. In some areas. Kids slip through the net. I'm sure that happens. But I think it's lessRachel Richards:
Yes. And so quite often, the first time you'll find out about truancy is the you will be called by the school. So you don't necessarily know. So first of all, don't overreact. You need to start digging. Okay. But coming back to school refusal, because let's, let's go there first. Yeah, this is anxiety. And it needs to be tackled, just sending your child to school and saying, you'll get over it is not necessarily going to fix it. In fact, it could make it worse. So if you are terrified of spiders, and someone says, Look, just go in the room, the spider's there, it's not going to touch you. It's not going to make you feel any better, you're probably just going to get worse. So what you have to do is first of all, listen to our podcasts on anxiety - that's that's a good starting place - looking at how do I unpack anxiety? Yeah,Susie Asli:
because it's a balance, isn't it between nudging towards because if we just go, oh, nevermind, stay here and no, no, you're not, you know, it's not actually helping. But if you just shove it on that you just said, then that's, that's not great. You know, so it's somewhere in between,Rachel Richards:
it's a conversation with the school. Yeah, regardless of whether it's truancy, or at school refusal, the first port of call is I've got to talk to the school about what's happening and say, I'm going to try and get to the bottom of this, why do you have information? And be really nice to the school because the school is probably trying to do its best. There may be teachers that are rogue teachers. But let's you know, let's start from that, that presumption. The way it can come out is not wanting to get up and get ready saying they can't go, worrying about little issues, lots of little things, I don't have the right equipment, feeling sick, not sleeping, well, you know, not doing their homework, quiet, depressed, all these sorts of things, look for those little signs, and what makes them feel anxious about going to school, it could be friends, it can be schoolwork, it could be being pressured to learn in a way that doesn't suit them. They may be finding their relationship with their teachers difficult. And it can also be things like special educational needs that haven't been diagnosed or problems in your own family environment.Susie Asli:
Yeah. And once they get disconnected with school, once they've fallen a little bit behind, or they've just not been listening in or whatever, for whatever reason. It's a really horrible feeling thing. Yes. You don't know what's going on. Yeah. So then, of course, you know, it's, I wouldn't want to go back. Immediately. Agree Fenn? Yes. But it's a reminder as well that, you know, anxious feelings, they are feelings, they're natural, they're normal. It's a normal response to a situation that doesn't feel very nice. So how can we help?Rachel Richards:
So if you had a child that was refusing it's a really, really good example you've given where, you know, you can fit, you've missed work, and you didn't understand it in a classroom who have to sit down a child down and say, okay, so actually what's going on? Yeah, unpack, you can talk to me about it. What isSusie Asli:
it that's making you anxious is that you don't know the information? How can I help you with that? Is it that? I don't know the kid next to you is poking you every two minutes. You know, it could be something social. It could be it could be a million things out of the list that you just read, but what is it and what can we put in place that will help you with you know, and and reminding them that feeling anxious feeling? Feeling uncomfortable in that is normal? How can we help you so that you feel that less and eventually hopefully it goes away? But but we're not trying to you know, fix the anxiety they're trying to fix the problem.Rachel Richards:
Yes. So the school refusal is a symptom, the anxiety is a symptom, what's underneath it? And I'm going to put on the website, a really helpful diagram that's called an anxiety iceberg. And you may well find it useful because - as we've had talked about, in a lot of these podcasts - teenagers often find it difficult to either express or frame their emotions, they don't really know what's going on until you give them a chance. So you, you what you can do is you can write it, you know, I don't want to go to school at the top and how they feel about it. What, are you experiencing, and then start brainstorming what the different areas are, and where they're finding the problems?Susie Asli:
And they might not know, or they might not want to say? So it could take a little while. Yes, yes.Rachel Richards:
And so if you're coming up against this, and you're finding that then they're not coping, and you're not being able to get to the bottom of it, you know, CBT can help you calling a therapist, but you do need to be communicating the school, they do need to know that you are actually taking this seriously. And if it is that they're anxious about something,Susie Asli:
yeah. And you can empathize with them to try and get them to open up a bit. You know, that sounds really hard. That sounds that sounds really I'd hate to be in a class where I feel really anxious. You know, that, that sounds awful. How can I help you? What can we do to make you feel a bit better?Rachel Richards:
Yes, yes. And there's also another thing that I put on, which is a link to making a self soothe package, where there are some teenagers who, if you create a package of things that give them a chance to calm down, so some of them will go to school, and then they just get anxious. During the day, I know, teenagers who will be in a situation and then they'll feel anxious. And if you give them a self soothe package, and they know they can carry that around with them. And it can be something that they that reminds them of something comforting smell smells like anything so that they can just be transported away from whatever's making them feel uncomfortable. It's a known technique.Susie Asli:
Yes Um, one of my kids had a period where he was feeling anxious in school, and we kind of unpack this and it came down to it was one particular lesson he was really worried about. And that got helped and supported and resolved. And that was go od.Rachel Richards:
And then suddenly, it all opens up again. And they feel relieved, because somehow they've managed to find some an answer to their horrible feelings.Susie Asli:
It gets catastrophize in there, try and question their thoughts because we all do it. And we get fixated with our thoughts. And most of our thoughts a aren't true. And B, we've kind of blown them all out of proportion. So you know, say what, you know, is there anything you like about school? No, nothing like that. Zero? Yeah. Okay. So then you're turning that around. So so there's absolutely nothing like that score, like nothing at all? Oh. Well, the vending machinesRachel Richards:
quite good, great. Food's better than yours.Susie Asli:
So you know, really, and it's not in a fake, let's be false positive about school, but just, you know, exploring with them, you know, what actually is the problem and is it can be a bit more imbalanced questioning, questioning.Rachel Richards:
And I think what we need to do is we need to make it clear that the environment that they're living in, says, you do need to go to school, yes, it is actually, in the same way that I need to get up and go to work. You need to get up and go to school. It's not really an optional, and it's not optional. Yeah. That's, that's yeah, one of the important one of the problems is the myth that actually it's okay to miss school. You know, oh, what's it? What's a couple of days here and there? Yes. Coming back to what you were saying in terms of looking after your your high stress, mental health, but they do need one off that we have to get used to dealing with day in day out pressure situations,Susie Asli:
right? To also avoid the idea that they're falling behind, because that's where it's fun.Rachel Richards:
Yes. Now, so with a truanting. Again, it's active listening, you need to find out so your child, you've just been called by the school. And the school said, Right? Where was Johnny? He wasn't in been in for weeks. Hopefully, they'll call you sooner than that. Yeah. Ask them why they're not going to school, and what they did instead, so you can bring it up and just be prepared to actively listen to don't jump in with your opinion, or what they've done wrong. So you know, what school issues could be having boredom, lack of connection with school teachers or peers, behavioral issues. So for example, they could have been influenced by peers and want to take risks push boundaries, but there could have been other major life changes like moving schools can causes bullying, you know, there's aSusie Asli:
home they feel uncomfortable. A lot of its problem is a motor loss of it is related that I had, I have a very dear friend who used to work with children who had been excluded for various reasons. And you know, there was always a, always a reason for it.Rachel Richards:
Yeah, yeah. So if it's related to school again, take my example. You know, I had this awful teacher. It's probably best not to walk into the school and say, Well, my kids not there because you have an awful teacher. Because that may well will not be received in quite the way that you intended it. So it's actually really important to have a meeting and try and hear their viewpoint to so what's going on in school? How are they checking up on the kids? You know, the movement? Because quite often kids miss one particular class, yes. Or they'll, you know, they'll miss whole days. But what are the what are the procedures in terms of letting the parent know that the child isn't there and built a bridge to get Yes. And that your teenager needs to know that you're all doing the same thing. everyone's on the same page, because the I, my ex might listen to this, but he was quite a very big build young man who was causing problems at school and his mother, he recounts, took him by the ear and marched him into school and said, this boy, whatever it takes, you can do it. He's going to sit down, he's going to learn and and he sort of did, he thought, because his parents had actually who he loved, had had said, I'm not going to put up with it. And you're you have my permission to make sure that he's in the class. And he's learning. I wouldn't say that's necessarily the right approach. But the point was that he realized that his parent was on board. Yeah, with what the school is important that we as parents support the school, or we leave the school. Yeah, if you can't support the way the school is doing things, because that happens. And that has happened to me where I've said, you know, this isn't the right school. Yeah. You can't keep knocking on the door and saying, you're getting it wrong, you're getting wrong, you have to actually say, okay, either I'm going to homeschool. I'm going to move schools.Susie Asli:
I think sadly, it's often when when there's a lot of truancy not not always at all, but it can be because there isn't the parent support that that is the problem. But then they're probably not listening to this podcast. So.Rachel Richards:
So so let's say they like to go and hang out in the mall, so you can negotiate with them. You can say, Yeah, I grew up, I'd love to go and hang out in the mall too. That sounds really fun. But you need to be going into school. So here's the negotiation, you attend school every day. And the trade off is that on a Friday, you can go out with your friend to the mall. And you know, so you find some way that you can you can discuss it properly.Susie Asli:
Yeah, and the respect to talking in a respectful way is really important. And I think teenagers are super pragmatic, aren't they? You know, what? Sitting down with them and discuss, you know, what do you get out of school? What's the point of school? And what happens if you don't go to school? So what are we looking at here? And then sometimes they need to sort of just have bare facts of, or just, you know, exploring it together? A reason for going? Is it because you like the lunches? Because you want to see a mate? Is it because you want to pass the exam so you can go on to a college? Or do you know, what's the point of it? Why are we doing this? It's not just for nothing? And what happens if you don't go? What what does that look like?Rachel Richards:
I love that, because also there was a person I access to does did service work in a prison. And she said she would talk to the guys there each week. And she found out what they were doing as teenagers basically stealing from their parents staying out all night getting high drinking, wagging school. And this is a conversation you can have where you say, Well, this is where you are right now. Can you see where that future is leading you? And how that would feel? And is that really what you want? And here's another option? Yes. You may need to do a stage transition back into school. So if your teenager is a multiple truant, they're probably really behind and the incentive of going in is, it's terrifying. So you may need to have a conversation with the school about a stage reentrySusie Asli:
or trying a different, you know, a different college or a different way of learning or, you know, trying something different if that if because the school system is, you know, is brilliant for a small minority of kids, isn't it? For lots of kids who learn differently, it's not great. So are there other alternatives?Rachel Richards:
and showing an interest and supporting their education, we can do an awful lot to scaffold the school system by asking them, you know, what kind of homework they've been doing, taking an interest in what they're learning?=.Susie Asli:
celebrating them?Rachel Richards:
Yes, exactly. All that making them feel really good. And that's the key, even if they're not really succeeding at school, making them feel feel good about the small wins.Susie Asli:
Yes, have they made, you know, they've done a bit of something different in school, celebrate that.Rachel Richards:
So and don't underestimate the stress on you. If your child is either a school refusal or you're a truant, these are really difficult things to cope with.Susie Asli:
And that's a really good point because it's really stressful because we in our own heads, go to worst case scenario, what does this mean? What's it going, how do I fix it? What do I do and that's, that's really stressful.Rachel Richards:
So don't, don't catastrophize it. Give yourself some care and accept help from other people because keep a record of your actions whatever you're doing when you're having conversations with your teen what they're saying, keep records and it will help if your child is not going to school for a longer period of time because you need more support. Try and keep a learning routine going at home if they are a refuser. Yeah, they need to get up, they need to study they need to stop for lunch, you know, try and keep that exact same routine going, because it will help them to transition back into school,Susie Asli:
and loads of reassurance. Lots of people who have gone on and had wonderful, beautiful lives have, you know, had gaps in their education. So it's really not, you know, all or nothing. It's not the end of the world it can, you know, it doesn't mean their lives are useless. We can really quickly catastrophizeRachel Richards:
Yes. So we have to help them with those tiny steps to get back into right. How is this going to start feeling good? Yeah. Because let's face it, how many of us turn up to work - if you absolutely hate it, you might do it for so long. And then if you see, there's another option, you're going to take the other option there. Yeah. So we need to make sure that something positive like you said,Susie Asli:
empathy rather than confrontation?Rachel Richards:
Absolutely. So what do you think have you had a truant? Have you had a school refuser? Is your child an absolutely perfect child who never says anything other than I can't wait to go to school?Susie Asli:
If so, tell us the secret.Rachel Richards:
I've packed my bag, I haven't forgotten anything.Susie Asli:
If you've enjoyed the episode, then why not help other parents, tell your friends tell the schools subscribe to our podcast. And it would be a massive bonus. If you can give us reviews on Spotify. It's just stars on Apple. You can write something and you can write something on Audible if you're listening on that. You can also sign up to receive all the latest at our own website, which is www.teenagersuntangled.com There's a blog reviews links to other episodes, and you can search the episodes for you know key words. So if you're looking for that anxiety podcast, you can find it there. And you can contact us there you can even do a voice message. Yeah. Suzy has her own website, which isSusie Asli:
and she has all the information that you could possibly want on there lots of tips and techniques both for you and your family, so definitely check it out. And that's it for now.Susie Asli:
Goodbye. Bye bye for now.