Essentials: Understanding Children With Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA)

Essentials: Understanding Children With Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA)

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In the past, children who struggle to attend school have been described as 'school refusers,' implying that their behaviour stems from wilfulness. But is it time to rethink this perspective and explore other underlying causes?

Join us as Jerricah Holder delves into the concept of Emotionally Based School Avoidance. She'll reveal why this way of looking at school refusal can be more insightful, uncovering the real reasons behind school avoidance so that strategies to support these children are more likely to be effective.

Important links:

Jerricah's School Based Well-being Cards

For more details about Jerricah's EBSA training for EPs and teachers, see the EdPsychEd website.

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Show notes / transcription

[00:00:00 - 00:01:58] Simon Currigan

One of the biggest misconceptions about emotionally based school avoidance or EBSA is interpreting a child's challenging behaviour as a lack of desire to attend school. In reality, many of these children deeply want to be in school, but their overwhelming anxiety and lack of coping strategies get in the way. Join us as we explore these misunderstandings. Welcome to the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan, my co host is Emma Shackleton, and we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and, of course, students when class room behaviour gets in the way of success. We're gonna share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural special needs, whole school strategy, and more, all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world.

So you'll get to hear the latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. Hi there, Simon Currigan here, and I'm back today to share with you another mini essentials episode of School Behaviour Secrets where we share key strategies and insights from an earlier episode that can have an immediate impact for the students that you work with. Now, emotionally based school avoidance or EBSA was a topic I'd been really keen to cover on the show for quite some time. So it was really great to be able to have a chat with guest speaker, Jerricah Holder, about this increasingly common challenge. But before we press play on that interview, I've got a quick favour to ask. If you've got friends or colleagues who you think would find this information useful or are even part of a Facebook group or Twitter community where this is being discussed, don't forget to share this episode and encourage them to subscribe so that we can continue to grow our podcast.

I'd really appreciate this if you can. And now here's an excerpt from my original interview with Jerricah

[00:02:01 - 00:02:50] Jerricah Holder

So, traditionally, school refusal very much placed blame within the child. So it's very much a kind of within child experience of anxiety or kind of refusal or choice of not wanting to attend school. Whereas now we're very much broadening our understanding around the framework of motion based school avoidance in terms of environmental factors. And really, I think environmental factors can occur across, you know, 3 key areas. We're looking at the things that are happening at the child level, but also at the home level and the school based level. And environmental factors can also exist across the cultural and societal level as well in terms of how we conceptualize attendance and how we respond to incidents of non attendance. I talk a lot about environmental factors and the aspects of a child's emotionally based school avoidance.

So the causes and the things that are happening within the environment that are also feeding into and perpetuating the emotion based school avoidance.

[00:02:51 - 00:02:56] Simon Currigan

When you work with young people, what sort of common causes do you see driving EBSA?

[00:02:56 - 00:06:23] Jerricah Holder

Yeah. So this is a tricky question as there's so much to unpack when trying to decipher the causes of EBSA. And like in many situations, there's no single cause or simple one size fits all solution. And more often than not, EBSA is that really complex interplay of a number of factors that interact over time. And there's a lot of multilayered barriers to a child's attendance, which can exist at the individual child level, but also across the home and school context and within the environment. However, having said that, there are common experiences and patterns that we can pull out from the literature, and this can be really useful when wanting to adopt more of a proactive approach to EBSA. So if we have awareness of some of those environmental risk factors, so these are the risk factors that maybe predispose or make a child vulnerable to experiencing EBSA, then we put ourselves in a position where we can potentially identify these children during those earlier stages.

So in terms of some of these common causes, we know that an individual child level, the anxiety often plays a really significant role in emotion based school avoidance, and anxiety is one of the defining features of EBSA that distinguishes it from other forms of non attendance such as, truancy or ill health. And we know that when a child has limited strategies to cope with those high levels of anxiety or perhaps the school environment isn't conducive to supporting their needs at this time, maybe there's unmet SEN needs or there's things happening within their school environment that are extremely distressing, so experiences of bullying, lack of friendships, lack of belonging, then actually, what happens is the child enters that cycle of anxiety and avoidance. And we know that this is a vicious cycle, as avoidance brings that instant comfort and relief from the things that are difficult and that are happening. But actually, what happens in the longer term is that anxiety grows, and then the next time the child encounters that stressful anxiety provoking situation, i.e.the school environment, it gets bigger. But we also know in terms of some of those environmental factors that we get peaks in EBSA across key transition points. So the literature shows that we get peaks in EBSA across that primary to secondary transition as well as in those first two years of secondary school. And I think there's a lot that probably happens in those first two years of secondary school that plays into that sort of peak in EBSA that we see in terms of developing friendships, establishing yourself within a friendship group, as well as coping with the increasing demands of a secondary school environment.

So the larger class sizes having to relate to multiple teachers who might have different teaching styles. But we also see different risk factors across the family environment. So a risk factor in the literature is around an older sibling, for example, who might have experienced EBSA, and the child's kind of seen and witnessed school avoidance as a strategy modeled previously to deal with that distress. Or even parents' own educational journeys and the anxieties that the parent might hold around their experiences at school and the projection of that onto their child. And, of course, there's lots of environmental risk factors at the school level as well, which I've alluded to. And often, a key one is around friendship difficulties, bullying, feelings of isolation. So there's so much that feeds into emotionally based school avoidance.

Too much to cover in this one podcast. And actually within my course, the EBSA horizons course, we have what's called the EBSA risk and resilience profiles. And the first part of that profiling tool is looking at all of those kind of predisposing risk factors, of which there's actually 48 in total. Not every child will have all 48 of those, but these are common themes from the research literature that feed into and perpetuate so it enables you to kind of really analyze what the common causes for that child in in their individual context could be.

[00:06:23 - 00:06:47] Simon Currigan

We've already said that all these children are individuals, that they all have their own reasons and profiles that sort of drives their EBSA. But in general, when you're working with children, when you speak to them, how do they feel about their anxieties and school avoidance? Do they want to be at school, but just find it difficult to be there? Do they want to push the problem away and pretend like it's not happening or everything will be okay if they don't go to school? What kind of conversations do you have?

[00:06:47 - 00:08:37] Jerricah Holder

One of the biggest misconceptions around is that people think because the child is finding it difficult to attend school and they might be communicating that distress around attending school in various different ways. One way might be some very kind of over challenging behaviours, is that the EBSA behaviours are misinterpreted to mean that the child doesn't want to attend school. But actually, if you speak to the child, they really do want to attend school, and they really want other people to know that they want to attend school. But at that moment in time, the anxiety is very overwhelming, and they lack the skills and strategies to kind of engage with school at that moment. But I think most definitely, there's a real misconception around the child's, you know, perceptions of school and the extent to which they want to attend school. I would say most children that I work with really want to attend school, and they want other people to know that. I think some of our older students, so our maybe our secondary school age students who have a greater breadth of vocabulary, but more insight into their emotions, They might be able to specifically pinpoint an anxiety or a worry at school, share that with a parent, carer, or an adult, and you can kind of work within that framework of that worry quite concretely.

However, what I find in my work as an educational psychologist is that for most children who experience EBSA, they actually don't have that conscious, well informed understanding around anxiety or of their kind of thoughts and feelings around school. And, actually, it's much more felt at that psychosomatic sort of experience of anxiety, the tummy aches, the headaches, the feelings of dread, those signs and symptoms of anxiety without more conscious awareness of the thoughts and feelings. And, actually, when I work with children in that sort of position, they're very overwhelmed by their experience of anxiety at school. And a lot of the work is around supporting them to have a framework to make sense of that and to do some of that understanding around those psychosomatic experiences and what that means for them and what's triggering them in school and and why they're feeling the way they're feeling.

[00:08:37 - 00:08:52] Simon Currigan

That must have a significant impact on parents as well, actually, when you see your child having stomach aches. And as a parent, you probably guessed it's not a stomach ache. That's like a psychosomatic experience of that pain has been driven by their anxiety. When you speak to parents, out of curiosity, what do they say? What what's the impact on them?

[00:08:52 - 00:09:55] Jerricah Holder

Yeah. And I think there's several impacts in this respect. I think sometimes because it comes out as tummy aches, feelings of sick, feelings of nausea, it leads to parents, even professionals, sometimes questioning the legitimacy of the EBSA, because when the parent agrees to keep the child at home, the tummy ache disappears or they get them into school and suddenly they seem fine. And everyone says, oh, they're here and they're fine. There's not a problem here. So sometimes it's about supporting families and schools to kind of unpick those observable behaviours and look at what lies beneath. For families who maybe come to that discovery themselves, they've noticed that pattern of the tummy ache quickly disappearing.

I think it's really empowering for them to have that conversation around how they can scaffold the child's understanding of their anxiety and move beyond that psychosomatic experience and actually move into more of a in-depth conversation around what aspects of school the child's finding anxiety provoking. And I think that gives a parent something to work with, doesn't it? It's hard to respond to those tummy aches. But if you can empower your child to share with you the aspect of school that they're worrying about, then you can offer some support and validation around that.

[00:09:57 - 00:10:36] Simon Currigan

And if you'd like to hear more from the original podcast where Jerricah highlights the impact of COVID on school attendance and shares strategies for supporting pupils with EBSA, simply click on the link at the bottom of the episode description to head back to the original episode. That's episode number 76. If you've enjoyed today's episode, we want to hear from you. Your feedback is the secret source that powers School Behaviour Secrets, helping us soar to new heights and reach even more listeners. So don't be shy. Take just 30 seconds to rate and review us. Thanks for tuning in today, and brace yourself for more educational insights next time on School Behaviour Secrets.

See you then. And remember, keep your pencils sharp and your curiosity sharper.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)