Co-Authored by Lea Jovy-Ford & Jenni Mahnaz

This week’s article by Dr. John Duffy, on CNN, titled, “Here’s how to prevent your children from refusing to go to school,” was breathtaking in it’s short-sighted perspective on what the real underlying causes of the problems are, while also failing to highlight the solutions that already exist. If, as he writes, this is a problem he deals with every year and is only getting worse, perhaps it’s a better idea to explore the root causes and existing solutions than continue to ask children to shoulder the burden of a system that isn’t working for them. 

Dr. Duffy cites profound social anxiety, fear, bullying, depression and academic pressure as reasons that young people are refusing to return to school. He also correctly points out that it was an enjoyment of being at home and reprieve from many of the issues driving their anxiety and depression that have caused them to make the decision not to return.

Is the solution to a very apparent and already identified problem – the school environment – really to FORCE our young people back into the very environment that is causing so many mental and emotional health issues? Is Dr Duffy truly suggesting that a mental health diagnosis should be created to label children refusing toxic environments as “mentally ill”? How on earth did we get here?

Seemingly the ‘obvious’ answer is that there’s something wrong with the kids. But what about the environment? Or the system that creates that environment? It’s far easier to blame the victims of the environment (system) than the environment itself. We’ve seen this on repeat in every type of abuse and neglect situation – the victim blaming. 

When our childrens’ physical health was in jeopardy from the threat of COVID-19, we kept them out of the environment posing the biggest threat. When their mental health is in jeopardy, do we force them back into the same environment and ignore the symptoms? This messaging is not only inconsistent, it is dangerous. 

The ways in which our system of education is actively creating harm for a large percentage of the children trapped within it needs addressing directly. Instead, their completely rational response to trauma, threat, and violence is turned into a symptom or a diagnosis with the message that something is wrong with them

What messages should we be sharing with our children about their behavior and refusal to go to school instead?

  • That we hear, see and respect the healthy boundaries they’re trying to put in place for themselves, based on understanding and acknowledging their own needs.
  • That their response to experiences and environments they find traumatic is entirely natural and ‘rational’. 
  • That we acknowledge their need to be supported to heal the trauma and find alternatives, instead of being repeatedly forced to relive it.
  • That the taste they’ve had and perhaps enjoyed – of an alternative to learning within institutional infrastructures and learning more within the family environment – is understandable.

And here’s the real gold of what they might have discovered for themselves: Education need not equal brick-and-mortar school in the same way their parents have discovered that productive work need not equal traveling to a brick-and-mortar office. 

Many have had their eyes opened and now know that they can get the learning ‘job’ done without the inconvenient (and in many cases harmful) framework of hours in a classroom, with people they don’t choose, in learning constructs they don’t consent to.

Consent.

Consent matters. A lot. 

We talk about consent with our kids in regards to their bodies and their sexuality. But what happens when we habitually violate a person’s consent around their body and their mind in the form of forced education? In a healthy human response – school refusal. 

We’re going to take a hard line here and say that if you are forcing a child to attend school in a situation like this where there is non-consent and obvious trauma, you are causing harm. 

It is a form of violence that is apparently collectively supported and encouraged by the adults in the room who seem to value one strict definition of education and success over the health and well-being of children. 

Is anyone willing to take the totally revolutionary approach to actually listening to the young people or trusting them to know their own lived experience and their own personal needs moving forward? Because what happens when we do is breathtaking.

This statement should stop us in our tracks as parents, educators, and mental health professionals: “Once a child stops attending school, I find getting them back in the building is a mighty task requiring a team of adults, including parents, teachers, social workers, nurses and counselors.

Does anyone on this team ever stop to consider exactly WHY it requires this much effort to get a child back into school? 

Imagine if you were forced into a daily environment which included:

  • Bullying
  • Gender and identity discrimination
  • The inability to address your bodily needs on your own schedule
  • The pandemic and associated fears
  • One size fits all academic pressure
  • Lack of agency and choice in just about everything
  • Peer pressure and judgement
  • The threat of gun violence we have seen playout too many times in schools across the US
  • Academic pressure that has led to suicide and self harm time and time again

Would you accept that kind of oppression, risk, or treatment in your daily life and someone telling you you weren’t resilient enough if you said ‘no’?

And that’s before we even get into the issues around the actual violence that plagues schools, or the colonial infrastructure that stacks the deck against Black, Brown, and Indigenous students in ways that punish them for the skin they’re born into and minimize their narratives while elevating the mythology of the oppressors. That’s a whole different set of reasons a sane human might refuse to attend school.

If getting one awakened child back into the classroom takes THAT MUCH adult wrangling, coercion, threatening and bullying, which the author acquiesced is the go-to tool kit of most frustrated adults, shouldn’t we be asking the deeper questions? 

I think it’s fairly safe to say that we, as parents, do NOT want our kids to grow up in environments where they are actively feeling threatened and unsafe emotionally, mentally, or physically.

And yet the author goes on to say that it’s OKAY to force our kids in situations where they feel uncomfortable and suggests how to mitigate the panic attacks that the child may then experience because they’ve been forced into a situation where they are non-consenting and actively afraid. 

Please name another situation in which forcing a kid to a panic attack point – and THEN suggesting they are mentally ill for trying to make healthy decisions for their mental health – would not be considered abusive. This is what Dr John Duffy is suggesting and sanctioning. 

If it wasn’t in black and white, it would sound unbelievable. And yet here we are. 

But why? Why does forcing our children into harmful situations appear to be the reasonable solution? 

Because the echoing cavern of what is missing from this article are the ALTERNATIVES – the alternative environments in which children can learn AND thrive. 

There are so many options to conventional school and more emerging all the time. This has been one of the bright flowers to grow in the pandemic garden: an awareness of educational choice… 

  • There are MILLIONS of children homeschooling throughout the US; creating an education that suits their unique needs, often in collaboration with other homeschool families.
  • There are online schools that do it well and have for over a decade (some are free, like public school). 
  • There are pods in almost every neighbourhood, some with public funding to reduce cost.
  • There are micro-schools where kids can experience small scale learning with enthusiastic teachers and facilitators.
  • There are learning platforms that support young people in creating their own educational paths.
  • There are hybrid approaches that bridge the gap between home and school.

In every arena of educational philosophy, there are options. Some of them are even funded with tax dollars to increase access to the families that need it most. 

Education is not one size fits all. Numerous families in this pandemic year who have kids with a mental health diagnosis have found alternatives that serve them in a way that heals their child and allows learning to blossom in the life of that child. 

Any psychologist worth their salt would be committed to exploring and becoming familiar with as many of those alternatives as possible. Then, when these parents call, the advice can be life affirming and healing, instead of encouraging loving parents to violate the trust of their child by forcing them back into an environment that is actively harming them. 

Our children are not diagnosable in their refusal to attend school; they are resilient, strong, and smart…and they have a right to say ‘no more’

Jennifer Sutherland, CEO, Omnis Education

Lea Jovy-Ford, COO, Omnis Education 

Jenni Mahnaz, Head of Learning, Omnis Education