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NYC School Helps Teens With Anxiety And School Refusal Disorder

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The Beekman School

It’s no secret to parents and educators that most students dislike the thought of summer ending and school starting up again. For some children it can manifest through the usual complaining and reluctance to wake up, while others can feel paralyzing fear also known as school refusal disorder - a condition that affects children of all ages, including high school students.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines it as “disorder of a child who refuses to go to school on a regular basis or has problems staying in school.” According to psychologists, the most common reason for this psychiatric problem is an underlying anxiety or depression. School refusal in teenagers is often associated with social phobia, an adolescent’s need to fit in, and the resulting fears of disapproval and judgment. Most often, school refusal behavior also manifests itself through physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or diarrhea.

School refusal interventions are a shared responsibility of parents, educators and psychologists. What can be done at school to help students overcome their fears and deal with this disorder? At our school, we work in cooperation with all parties involved in the treatment in order to create the necessary conditions and provide accommodations that make the student feel safe and supported.

Gradual School Reentry: For struggling students, we create and follow a gradual reentry plan in order to help them transition from home-based to school-based instruction. These accommodations include a late start, an individualized part-time schedule, and one-to-one education until the student is ready to transition to a regular classroom.

No Judgment: Making students understand that we won’t blame or judge them if they fail today helps them get beyond their fears. Tomorrow is a brand new day, and at Beekman we are flexible enough to add to or modify the schedule as results or milestones are achieved, regardless of pace.

A Bully-free Environment: Eliminating all triggers to social refusal, such as bullying, are essential for a successful treatment. Schools must ensure that the academic environment is welcoming and safe for everyone, by integrating anti-bullying measures that discard every reason for students to feel unsafe or threatened. This includes enforcing a no-tolerance stance on any form of bullying, showing a genuine interest in each student and teaching them to accept each other’s differences.

A Team Approach:  We work with the recommendations of a therapist so that we support the therapy while not enabling the behavior. For example, if a student wants to start with only two courses but a therapist says it should really be four, we follow the lead of the therapist so that we aren’t enabling the refusal.  By the same token, if math is a huge trigger for the student that is identified by the therapist, we can wait to introduce this course until we’ve reestablished a solid foundation of school attendance.

We need to keep in mind that timely school refusal interventions are essential for preventing long-term mental health issues. In addition to the above-listed tactics, let us not forget that the core ingredients of successful therapy are approaching struggling students with compassion, sensitivity, and understanding.