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Back to School and Problem-Solving

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Back to School and Problem-Solving


Back to School and Problem-Solving

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Going to school helps teens build confidence and resilience, as well as facilitating learning and social development. However, the experience of going back to school after a long break can be overwhelming for both teens and parents. 

If your teen is starting at a new school, or entering high school for the first time, they might be worried about things like making new friends, keeping old friends, managing increased workload, new relationships with teachers and a bigger school, or fears of bullying. Those transitioning to the senior years may be worried about increased workload and assessments, managing competing priorities like sport, work and study, friendships and relationship troubles. 

If your teen is worried about school, this may show up in a number of ways, including:

- Arguing about going to school
- Health complaints like stomach aches or headaches
- Difficulty falling asleep before school 
- Procrastinating from preparing for school.

Many of these struggles are commonplace and it can be helpful for you to work with your teen on problem-solving skills. Problem-solving can be done together when you are both in a calm headspace and can be broken down into six steps:

  1. Identify what the problem is. This may seem simple, but it involves being able to put into words the key issue to give everyone mutual understanding of what’s going on.
  2. Think about why it’s a problem. Why is it so important? Why is it upsetting? It can help to use statements like ‘I need’ ‘I want’ ‘I feel’ to help your teen express the root cause of their concerns.
  3. Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. Try to come up with 5 possible solutions. Even crazy and unrealistic ones can be helpful to set the tone of discussion.
  4. Evaluate. Look at the pros and cons of the solution. For example, if your teen doesn’t want to go back to school, a pro of never going to school would be to reduce anxiety, but a con would be not being able to see friends or do sports.
  5. Put the solution into action. Who will do what, when will they do it, and what resources are needed?
  6. Evaluate the outcome of your problem-solving. What worked? What could you do differently next time to make the solution better? Repeat the previous steps as needed.

Examples of problem-solving: 

- Fears of bullying: When transitioning to a new school, teens may be afraid of how bullying could appear. It may be worth having a conversation to gauge their fears of bullying and how they feel they will cope.
- Making new friends and keeping old friends: Talk through ways that they could make connections with others. For example, they might arrange to see old friends during the holidays, or practise sharing and listening in new friendships.
- Managing increased workload: Helping them to be organised and create a routine around study, leisure time and sleep, with a system that works for them. 

School refusal

School refusal is when teens become distressed about going to school, and they won’t or can’t go. Your teen might refuse to go to school because of worries about leaving home, learning difficulties, social problems or other reasons. Problem-solving around school attendance can help you to understand what makes it hard for them to leave home or go to school.

Get an idea of why your teen may be uncomfortable going back to school. This could be through:

- Open-ended questions e.g. can you tell me how you feel at school? 
- Direct questions, with a yes/no answer: Is there someone at school/a teacher/a class that is making you feel anxious
- Hypothetical questions: If you walked into school this morning, would you feel comfortable when… (e.g. a certain class started, you saw friends, you saw your teacher)? If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?

If your teen doesn’t want to explain the reasons behind school refusal, it can help to take a step back and strengthen your relationship with them so that they feel comfortable opening up to you without fear of being judged. Try to make them feel genuinely heard about their concerns, so that they may feel more open to finding coping strategies and working with you.

When coming up with solutions, there are a number of things you can do:

- Talk about the positives of school, like friends, activities or subjects.
- Work on small actionable steps towards homework and assessments, like writing 100 words on an essay at a time.
- Cultivate healthy media habits, like not engaging in negative media which could make them feel anxious, or getting caught up in social media issues.
- Encourage a regular sleep schedule and leave time for exercise, so that they feel physically ready to go to school.
- Create a routine around school in the evening and morning to make the experience as stress-free as possible, for example preparing lunches the night before.
- Reward your teen for going to school, like with their favourite meal for dinner or technology time. Alternatively, make home-time boring and unrewarding, like limiting access to technology and make them do school work at home so there is no reward for staying at home.

The best way to get children back to school is by working as a team with the school, and seeking mental health support when needed. If mental health support is needed, a professional can help give you the tools your teen needs to manage their school refusal at home.

How to manage school refusal yourself

- Accept that every day will be different and that it’s not a reflection of your efforts.
- Celebrate the efforts you and your teen make even if the outcome is not perfect.
- Set clear boundaries around the expectation that school attendance is the norm.
- Show confidence that you will get your teen back to school, be patient, and go to your own supports when you feel frustrated and overwhelmed.
- When you are feeling well, you have the best chance of supporting your teen in their anxieties around school refusal. Keep doing the things that keep you well, like eating properly, exercising and getting enough rest. 

Talk to a trusted friend or seek professional help if needed. ReachOut also offers 1-1 Parent Coaching which can support you through school refusal.