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The family way
7:00am Saturday 9th March 2013 in Lifestyle
As many as one in five children may be school phobic, according to new research. Lisa Salmon discusses the condition with experts, and asks how to tackle it.
By Lisa Salmon
Many children don't like going to school - but that's very different from having a school phobia.
New research suggests that one in five UK children suffer from school phobia, where they're anxious and fearful about attending school and refuse to go, or make excuses to avoid it.
However, such a phobia can be differentiated from simply not wanting to go to school, or playing truant, by the fact that children with a phobia want to attend school, but feel they're unable to.
The new research, by the parenting site Netmums, found the most common reason for such a phobia was bullying, with parents claiming it was the trigger behind almost a quarter of cases.
A further 23% said it was caused by kids feeling they weren't performing well enough at school, while 19% said their child was overwhelmed by the size of their school.
However, psychologists point out that stress at home, such as parental separation, may be the underlying cause of school phobia.
Studies show the peak age for school phobia, which is also known as school refusal, is between 11 and 13 years, and up to 2% of school-age children may be school refusers.
However, just 52% of the 1,054 parents polled by Netmums were aware of the condition, which commonly manifests itself by children faking illnesses on school mornings, or even becoming ill with real stress-related headaches and stomach aches.
The poll found that half of children with school phobia were 'very worried and distressed' the night before school, more than a third refused to leave the house on school mornings, and a quarter wouldn't walk through the school gates.
Others say they're going to school and then don't turn up, or go into school for registration and then leave.
"School refusal is a devastating condition that blights the lives of both parents and children," says Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard.
"It's incredibly stressful for parents to watch their children suffer and horrible for the children involved."
Netmums found that parents believe more than a third of schools are unaware of school phobia, and indeed one in 25 parents of children with the complaint have been accused of allowing their child to truant.
Only 48% said the school helped their child overcome his/her phobia, and just one in 11 managed to obtain counselling for their child.
Instead, some parents wait with their child in school until they settle, while others talk about the issues at home until their child can face school. A small number of parents have moved their child to a different school, or even home tutored them.
"There needs to be more awareness so schools realise these are not problem children intent on truanting, but pupils who have a deep-seated emotional fear of going to school," stresses Freegard.
"Schools and parents must do all they can to work together and ensure children are helped and supported so they don't miss vital months or years of schooling."
Professor Julian Elliott, an educational psychologist at Durham University, says that while parents often don't know their child is truanting, they're usually aware if he/she has school phobia.
"Kids hide truancy, but a school phobic is unable to conceal it," he explains.
"The school phobic usually wants to go to school but is unable to - they're unhappy about the circumstances and are psychologically unable to attend.
"There are a lot of other kids who just don't want to be at school, but they don't have a psychological reaction, with high levels of anxiety and associated somatic complaints."
Parents may not always realise the problem is school phobia, he says, as it's sometimes presented as a physical condition such as stomach ache or a headache.
Elliott, co-author of the book Children In Difficulty (Routledge, £24.99), which addresses school phobia among other childhood problems, stresses that when school-phobic children say they have a minor physical ailment such as a stomach ache, parents shouldn't let them stay off school.
"You're generally better getting them into school regularly," he says.
"As soon as they're home, in that safe, womb-like environment, getting them back into school is a lot harder. Their anxiety melts away, and it's a massive reinforcer for their behaviour."
He does, however, stress that when a school-phobic child says they have stomach ache, for example, their discomfort is genuine.
"It originates in the psyche, but the result is a bodily, or somatic, problem which is real. They really do have stomach ache, but it's stress-related. Parents need to understand that and not belittle it."
He stresses that it's vital for parents to work out the reason behind the school phobia, pointing out that while there are often a multitude of causes, including bullying, work pressures or feeling overwhelmed by a huge new school, they are often underpinned by anxiety at home.
"In the vast majority of cases that I work with, there's something in the child's home life which has unsettled them," he explains.
"This might be when parents are splitting up - the child feels powerless when his mum and dad are arguing, and if he stops going to school, the parents will suddenly have to be united to try to get him back to school."
Elliott stresses that it's vital for schools to understand there are some children who aren't just wilfully absent from school.
He says the best schools work closely with psychologists and, for example, if they predict there's likely to be a scene when a child arrives at school, arrangements will be made for them to arrive early at a back entrance, and to have a quiet place where they can go if they're feeling stressed.
He adds: "It's not just that they don't want to be there - for a very small proportion of kids this is a very serious problem and we have to do everything we can to help them."
Ask the expert Q: "My kids had their vision tested when they first started school three and five years ago. Is there any need for them to have it tested again, and what symptoms might suggest there was something wrong with their sight?"
A: Optometrist Francesca Marchetti, of the College of Optometrists, says: "At age four to five years, all children are supposed to be screened at school for vision problems, such as lazy eye and squints, which may be hard to treat if not diagnosed at that early age. However, screening provision is patchy.
"It's very important for parents to keep a close eye on their children's eyesight, especially as unlike adults, young children won't necessarily say, 'I can't see that', or know what's normal when it comes to their vision.
"Things to look out for would include the child not progressing as well as expected at school, having poor hand/eye co-ordination, being clumsy or bumping into things, closing one eye or one eye turning in or out, particularly when the child is tired.
"If you're worried about your children's eyes, then take them to an optometrist. Sight tests are free on the NHS for all children under 16. Children are never too young to go for a test."
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