Headteacher’s tips for supporting pupils with school-based anxiety
By Stephanie Smith, Head of School, The Cavendish School
More than one in five children in England are regularly missing school with the children’s commissioner highlighting that anxiety is a contributing factor to many children’s absences.
The risk of ‘school refusal’ for students with autism is 42.6 per cent in comparison to 7.1 per cent for neurotypical students.
Some of our students at The Cavendish School in Cambridge are unable, or have previously been unable, to regularly attend school or participate in a school day due to their anxiety around the classroom environment.
We work with our students and their families so that students who struggle with feelings of anxiety and distress triggered by the school environment can still access their learning onsite.
Enforcing attendance for children with school-based anxiety will only increase their anxiety so early identification of the experiences and feelings of your child can help with forming strategies to reduce these feelings and remove barriers to them attending school.
Autism is a spectrum disorder that manifests differently in every individual, and support must be tailored to the personal needs of the student. Therapeutic thinking®, an approach developed by Angela Wadham, could be used to understand the root cause of heightened levels of anxiety. This means you can focus on preventing anxiety around school attendance from escalating into school avoidance.
Once you have identified the reasons for heightened levels of anxiety around school attendance, you can find ways to help your child feel less anxious. For example, many students may feel apprehensive about how busy the main entrance to the school is at the start of the day, especially if they struggle with enclosed spaces or crowds, so considering different ways to enter the school building can be helpful. An alternative option is arriving earlier than the rest of the student body, reducing the number of other people present at the time.
You may also find that staying nearby provides your child with an extra level of support and reassurance. Sometimes, just knowing that a family member is in the same space is enough to help students feel safe and comfortable enough to attend school, so speak with your child’s school about the possibility of providing a space for you to work from.
Every autistic child is different, and solutions that work for some will not work for others. By focusing on understanding the reasons for a child’s school-based anxiety and developing strategies to support them, we can remove the barriers to attendance facing students with school-based anxiety and improve access to learning.