Most parents know the challenge of school refusal. That’s when your kid refuses to go to school. It’s so common it’s become a clinical descriptor used in child psychiatry research and clinical practice. I’ve certainly had to deal with it. One of my kids I only ever managed to get to high school on three out of five days. She stopped going completely in year 11.
Every morning it was on – this battle between the two of us. Her, with a sense of dread and anxiety about turning up when she was disengaged from her work and had no sense of purpose or meaning in anything she did there. Me, with my sense of parental failure and a system that told me I had to send my unhappy child to school. Those mornings were awful. We were both in tears. I so wanted her to enjoy her schooling. I didn’t want it to be torture. But it was. Every day she went she felt worse about herself – it confirmed her deep fear that she wasn’t smart, that there was no place for her, and that she would be found out. I was desperate. I begged the school for support to entice her back, or to instil her with some self-belief. It was a good school. But there wasn’t anything they could offer except regular classes. It seems the system is unbending. It doesn’t acknowledge the many kids who find school meaningless and uninspiring. These kids are seen as poor learners. But are they? Or are they just our forgotten learners?
I know so many parents with kids who won’t go to school. The parents are called into the office and are reminded of the legal requirement to send their kids to school. School refusal has been pathologised as a problem with our kids. It’s their issue. But I beg to differ. I think school refusal is symptomatic of the fact that schools need to change. Perhaps the real culprit, when it comes to school refusal, is not the kids, but the schools themselves. School refusal is the school’s problem. Maybe it’s time our school system had a massive overhaul.
Let’s be honest, it’s a system that many kids find uninspiring and impersonal. It’s often a place where kids face bullying. Many kids don’t feel safe. It’s a place to mark time. I am sure teachers would appreciate an education overhaul as well. It can’t be easy having to deliver robotic curriculum outcomes. The mass ‘factory approach’ of our schooling hasn’t been changed much in 200 years. It’s an industrial model that needs to be reimagined.
School refusal has tripled since the national COVID-19 lockdown. During covid some kids thrived with home learning. It meant they didn’t have the daily anxiety of dealing with bullies or harassment. Why aren’t kids offered more home learning options? What would a more personalised schooling program look like? Why can’t we work to each young person’s strengths and abilities, rather than celebrating a system that amplifies their deficits?
What would a student-led curriculum look like? I know, it’s a radical idea to let the learner lead the learning. We could also stop measuring our young people and find new ways to foster and promote learning outcomes. We could take our kids out of the classroom and into nature. We could teach our kids life skills, like growing food, and cooking, saving water, making fire, and reducing waste. We could teach them about the ocean and the forests, about the stars and the sky. We could put down books and listen to the stories of First Nations learning. We could hear stories from other cultures. We could make learning an immersive adventure.
Schools could become community learning hubs rather than giant cerebral supermarkets for growing brains. What if we created a system that fed and nourished our young, rather than shaming and penalising them? Maybe it’s time to stop school refusal at the heart of the problem. Not with our kids, but with the schools.
Perhaps we will never address bullying in our schools when the brutality lies in the very system itself.