Wednesday 31 August 2022

Back To School - does it make you happy or sad?

The end of August is here. There's a chill in the morning air already; Sasha tells me that summer ends tomorrow and Autumn begins. September means the return of three little words that have played such a big part in my life: Back To School.

Peg board showing words back to school, next to calendar with August 31st date showing

Little did I know, twenty years ago when I was buying the Back To School stationery range for the Asda Walmart stores, that this time of year would come to haunt me. I know the impact it is having on many other families too. Whilst I'm happy for those who are looking forward to school starting again because the routine suits them and their children, at the same time I'm mindful of those who are struggling to pay for uniform and school supplies, those who are already facing problems with transport to school, and many others out there who will be facing other huge challenges relating to school over the coming days and weeks. Not just problems with children struggling to keep up with learning or understanding the teachers, or with children finding it difficult to work out how to relate to their peers socially, but the challenges of schools, in some cases, being a negative environment, and all these problems building up for some children to the point where they then feel unable to attend. And then there are those who have children who will not go back to school, children who will remain home because the Local Authority hasn't provided a suitable school place for them. 

We need to talk about this. School attendance problems, caused by school attendance barriers. School refusal is a term previously used often for this, but one which places the blame at the child or parents' door, unfairly in most cases. I've written before about how many children are 'Not Fine in School', and I highly recommend the Not Fine in School website and Facebook group for super helpful advice. I ran a series on this blog sharing school experiences of other families and my plan is to publish more of those posts in the coming weeks. We need to shine the spotlight on what is wrong with the system. We shouldn't be letting the heavy weight of attendance registers build pressure on parents who already have more than the average amount of stress in their life. I suspect that extra shame and guilt, and punishments for low attendance, rarely (if ever) achieve better outcomes when it comes to schooling.

After placing the letters on our peg board to create this image for my post (a graphic designer I am not), I quickly ripped them off again so they wouldn't be seen by our younger daughter. School is not a good word in this house. If you asked her what she thinks about school, her reply would be something akin to "school = trauma". Not in the early years, but more recently.

School was a fun place for me. I had a loving home life but I would look forward to the return to school, the chance to spend time with friends again. Learning was incidental for me, I couldn't be likened to a sponge for information but I did fairly well at school work without having to try too hard. I went off to University because I didn't know what else I wanted to do at that age, and there I learnt more about life than I did about the subjects I was supposed to be studying (oops. But I did still manage to get a degree!). I think many parents assume that their children will share some of their qualities and be naturally good at whatever they are good at - it's genetics, right? That's not how it happens though, and I think we all know by now that all children are different, individuals, with different talents and needs.

School is not a fun or even interesting place for every child, sadly. There are definitely some amazing teachers and support staff out there who do their best to make it a positive experience for every child, and our family has been lucky to have worked together with some of them over the years. I also know of some headteachers who have the right attitudes and who run fantastically inclusive schools (I highly recommend listening to this Whose Shoes? podcast featuring Rachel Tomlinson, Headteacher of Barrowford School in Lancashire. Rachel is on Twitter as @BarrowfordHead and I love her attitude). Some schools still have much to brush up on about adjustments that could be made to help ensure that all children feel welcome and able to learn. 

However it is about time that it was acknowleged publicly that for some children, school is just not a place where they are able to learn, regardless of how inclusive and understanding the staff try to be. The truth, more specifically, is that some children are not able to learn what the school wants to teach. And no amount of 'forcing' will help.

Not fitting into the school system is increasingly common these days and some parents will need help over the coming months. The following tweets by clinical psychologist Dr Naomi Fisher (@naomicfisher) with fabulous illustrations by Eliza Fricker (@_MissingThe Mark) jumped into my timeline recently, and almost brought a tear to my eye. It's true that many parents also feel traumatised by the challenges of the system. 

Often when we talk about difficulties with school or school attendance, the focus in on the child. We forget the rest of the family and the impact on them. But when I talk to parents, this is what they tell me
Image of several tweets. Text in tweets available in full at link given
Image of several tweets. Text in tweets available in full at link given
Image of several tweets. Text in tweets available in full at link given
Naomi and Eliza are running an illustrated talk for parents at 7.30pm on 21st September and tickets are available via Eventbrite: Thriving After School Breakdown: An Illustrated Talk for Parents. Another helpful read for parents is this Facebook post from PDAer Paula Rice

My girl did learn plenty from her time at school, but not all of it was good or helpful, or anything to do with academic subjects. Despite having received very little educational input for the last three years, she has spent many hours this summer creating a video using her own artwork and animation style, to tell the story of her school experience. I can't wait to share the video with others when she publishes it on her YouTube channel soon. As a parent, it has been difficult to watch, to hear again about the failures along the way and how they have been seen through her eyes. But it's an important watch, and it is all her own work. She has taught herself how to use various aspects of technology such as software for digital art and video editing and animation. She has honed and improved her skills, set herself her own targets and worked to a timeline. She can do this for herself, but being forced to do work to fit in with someone else's guidelines is just not possible for her. Pathological Demand Avoidance brings challenges for our daughter every day, but at home life can be more relaxed and more about learning generally, rather than learning to a schedule or curriculum. 

Please bear with me as I take a little diversion with this post here - I can already hear the question "well, why not home educate then?" Home educating is a very valid option for many families and especially given the general state of the school system these days and the impending new Schools Bill, I would heartily recommend it for those who can. I've hung on in there with the idea of school for a few reasons. Sasha originally wanted to be with other children. She wanted to be in school. She attended a mainstream, a special school and then a specialist school. Her education experiences eventually led to her no longer feeling she could cope in school. 

Sasha can't manage the idea of being made to be learn at home. I'd hoped for some understanding of this and my aim was to try to find somebody who could help nurture and develop her talent in the areas of life that she can currently cope with. The Local Authority chose to insist that a school environment would be the best place for her though. One representative kindly expressed in writing (not said to my face, mind you) their presumptions that they knew my child better than me, despite having spent very little time with her. 

"My experienced colleagues and I feel there is a tendency for her parents to believe that the PDA type behaviours precludes S from the childhood others enjoy. S life is devoid of any meaningful challenge and this isn’t representative of real life or the approach that will support her to become a successful adult. I know parents will disagree, but I can only offer up the opinion of my highly educated and experienced colleagues and I." 

This is not only insulting and hurtful, but shows a total lack of understanding or willingness to listen about attempts I have continually made to include Sasha in both education and social experiences over the years. The underlying message is that I am a lazy parent and that I am choosing to let my child just sit on a sofa all day long. As if it is somehow a better choice for me to see my child not engaging in life, and I'm just not strong enough to force the issue. We, and that is both Sasha and I, understand that life isn't easy and that there are barriers that need to be overcome. We are constantly evaluating the options and trying to figure out the ways forward, and as mentioned above, Sasha is achieving much already without input from others. The attitude above is one faced by many parents of children with PDA, sadly, and I will write more about this in a future post.

The aim of this post wasn't to share our personal experiences (this post: Back to School, or not, 2021, written last year covers some of that) or to talk about the challenges and lack of understanding around PDA; more detail on all that will be in our book due to be published next year. My goal is to reach those parents and carers who are dreading the next few days and weeks. To let them know that there are plenty of others out there feeling the same way, and to stress that it isn't their fault, or their child's fault. 

Apart from the Not Fine in School resources, I also recommend IPSEA and SOSSEN for help for families of children with special educational needs. Do not allow yourself to be bullied by professionals in the system and don't assume that they know about what is legally right. If you have the energy, consider getting involved with Team Square Peg who are fighting to to improve things for children with school-based anxiety, all low or non-attenders, whether excluded on behaviour grounds, too anxious to attend, or disengaged with an education system which lacks relevance. Their website also holds lots of useful information and statistics, and this year they helped produce an in-depth report on attendance as a response to the Department of Education's consultation.

For those with children who show signs of Pathological Demand Avoidance, the PDA Society has lots of specific PDA education resources published especially with schools and education workers in mind. As a side note, they have also developed practice guidance for identifying and assessing a PDA profile and this may help to distinguish PDA from other presentations of marked demand avoidance. I also highly recommend reading this blog post by Gareth Morewood about the Low Arousal approach, and sharing it with any education staff you can.

If you are going through, or have been through, these kinds of challenges with education for your child, and you feel able to write a few paragraphs about your experiences to share with others, please do get in touch with me at The more we share, the more other people listen and understand, and the more changes that can be made to both the system and attitudes of those within it. School is not the right answer for every child.

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