In this free webinar, Tes look at the problem of emotionally based school avoidance and ask how schools can support families to overcome this increasing problem.

School avoidance is an issue that impacts young people and their families in large numbers. Even prior to the pandemic, in 2019, more than 900,000 students were recorded persistently absent, up 20 per cent on the previous year.  

For many pupils returning to the physical school environment after disruptive periods of home learning, the transition has proven to be a source of huge anxiety.  

So, how can schools work with parents to spot signs of emotionally based school avoidance (EBSA) and support young people who may be finding the idea of school attendance a problem?  

In this free webinar, Tes senior editor Simon Lock discusses the issue of school avoidance with Ellie Costello, director of Square Peg – a social enterprise set up to support students and families struggling with school avoidance – and educators Olivia Hennessey, assistant headteacher for Perry Wood Primary and Nursery School in Worcester; and Alison Winsborough, assistant principal at Atlantic Academy in Dorset.

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For Hennessey, the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic has clearly had an impact.   

“Children have come back to a different climate,” she says. “Two years ago, they knew their routines, they knew the consistency of school, they knew what they were doing in the morning. They would get up, they would come to school, they would have their break time, they would have their lessons. To adults, we don’t think anything of that but, to a child, that’s their whole life.” 

Spotting early warning signs  

School avoidance may have been heightened by the pandemic but it is not something that has appeared overnight. Costello works closely with families who are dealing with these issues and has experienced them herself as a parent. She explains that school avoidance is often the culmination of prior school-related mental health issues, such as anxiety.

For her, there are early signs that schools should look out for, such as “a chronic issue with lateness or a challenge with leaving the house or sleeping. Sleep the night before is often the first thing to go,” says Costello.

“It’s not just a sporadic one-off, it’s chronic and persistent challenges with low-level needs. It’s often rooted with anxiety-related challenges that really do take a grip and become unmanageable for that child or young person. And if you track it back, it’s often been presenting in various ways for a very long time.” 

Costello highlights that, although an incidence of school avoidance may be the first time the school has been made aware of any issue, the family may be dealing with the culmination of weeks of disturbance. For this reason, she explains, early interactions with parents are vital.  

“[Parents] often feel that they are either judged or not listened to. Those early conversations, where there’s an opportunity to be heard; they’re already bringing acres of family experience that’s been going on behind closed doors that hasn’t been resolved.  

“By the time a family comes to school, they’ve been dealing with it for a very long time,” she explains. “So those early conversations are so important.” 

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Offering flexibility  

Winsborough, likewise, emphasises the importance of setting the right tone with families early on. For her, this is crucial to making sure both the school and the parents have the same objectives.  

“It’s recognising that we know their child [as] an individual, and the barriers and issues they have around attendance are their own, and there’s not a one-size-fits-all [solution],” she explains.  

“[It’s about] being genuinely flexible and emphasising to the parents, [this] is a partnership. We’re not separate entities, we’re adults who are working in the best interests of their children. 

“So it’s about finding a bespoke solution that’s actually going to encourage that child to see that the school and home are working together for their very best interests.” 

Providing a family focus  

At Perry Wood, Hennessey is making sure that families feel they have a space within the school premises where they can feel comfortable.  

“We have a building that is now assigned as a family hub,” she says. “We’re building the hub now to try and actually make the school a hub for our community [and] a place where everyone feels welcome. 

“It’s not the school’s, it’s everyone’s. [It’s about] getting the parents involved in that. Ensuring that the parents who have children who are struggling to come to school, making sure that connection is still there, making sure that communication is open all the time and checking in with them.” 

This webinar is sponsored by Thrive, the leading provider of tools and training to help adults support the social and emotional development of the children and young people.