It’s official. As we turn our calendars to May, schools are beginning to reopen and will reopen fully in September 2021. Many students will be excited about returning. However, students who have struggled with the social and emotional issues that cause school refusal behavior (SRB) will have very different feelings about returning to the classroom. The partial reopening over the next two months provides us with an excellent opportunity to begin the work of getting students with SRB back to school.
What school refusal looks like in a pandemic
The last year has provided students with SRB with a sanctioned reason to stay home. Their parents have also had a break from the everyday struggles of dealing with this problematic behavior. For many students, this has been a relief. But for others, the refusal behavior continued through failing to attend online classes regularly, not turning on their camera, and/or not doing their work.
These students avoid what makes them uncomfortable. And while avoidance may feel good in the short-term, it is not an effective long-term strategy. Students with SRB and their parents may delude themselves by thinking that things will get better without intervention, and that the student will simply return to school. In reality, that rarely happens.
When the whole world had to scramble to adjust to virtual learning, schools faced a plethora of complications and issues to address. With so many competing priorities, this version of school refusal has been overlooked, ignored, and simply not addressed by many schools.
As educators, we have to get ahead of this issue before classrooms reopen. Now is the time to identify students who are manifesting SRB and develop a reintegration plan.
Hybrid learning and shortened days offer opportunities for reintegration
With many schools adopting a hybrid learning schedule, there is an opportunity to offer a lower-stress reintegration plan for students.
Because schools are less crowded and students are still not required to attend in person every day, case managers and counselors can develop creative plans. They can bring students in for a partial day, and have them work in spaces where they feel safer, while still attending virtually and slowly transitioning into the classroom.
The priority is to get school refusal students into the building and to start to form relationships with people in the school, while also reducing their normal stress reactions.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are certainly options to setting up a reentry that can help struggling students to connect to school.
Reintegration steps to get school refusal students back to the classroom
Identify students who need reintegration
Start by identifying students who are struggling with attending school virtually and/or under staggered schedules. These students may prove the most difficult to reintegrate, since they are the most disconnected.
You may also want to identify students who have a history of school refusal behavior, yet they are engaged in virtual learning.
Connect, communicate, and commit to a plan
Meet with the student and parents to assess the student’s and parents’ motivation to address reintegration.
You might find that some students are not stable or functioning at a healthy emotional level due to depression or other psychiatric problems. In that case, a referral for a higher level of care such as an intensive outpatient program, hospital, or psychiatric evaluation may be warranted before discussing or attempting reintegration.
If the family and the student are ready to discuss a plan, you need to get the student and parent to verbally commit to a contract or plan for attendance. Parents must also commit to their responsibilities in helping their student to attend school (such as get the student up, showered, dressed and to school in the morning). Without those commitments from students and parents, there is only so much school personnel can do to get the student back to the classroom.
Tips for getting started
- It can be helpful for parents and the student to do some practice days and drive to school during off hours. This exercise can help to get the student acclimated to a more normal routine and to being at the building.
- School personnel can help by meeting the student at the door and assisting them into the building.
- If a student is not ready to commit for a full day, flex their schedule so that they can attend for a partial day or come in for a study session at the end of the day.
- Be sure to share the plan with all staff members who will be involved in the student’s day. Since there will likely be special arrangements for the student, staff will need to know what those exceptions are to avoid confrontations that could cause a regression.
- With the weather warming up, plan for some socially distanced outdoor group activities, such as grade level barbecues, club picnics, ice cream socials, etc. to provide opportunities for students to gather in ways that are both safe and fun.
- When appropriate, look for opportunities to connect a student who is on remote instruction with a student who is attending school to encourage the remote student to experience firsthand what the school day now looks like. This could be particularly effective for freshman students who have not been in the building and have little to no peer relations.
- Set up a plan and goals for the summer to begin incorporating more social situations. Maybe set times during the summer where students can come into the building to start becoming more comfortable and familiar.
While we have faced some challenging times over the past year, there are still many ahead. Helping our more anxious students reintegrate into school will certainly be one of those challenges. Using this time before classrooms fully reopen to make proactive plans is a crucial first step in helping these students to return to school successfully.