I’m writing this blog as the father of a twelve year old girl who has been consumed by an anxiety disorder this year. This is our lived experience and it’s a journey we’re still navigating.
I’m writing this blog as a man who, alongside his wife, comforted his daughter when she vomitted and reassured her when she sobbed with the pain of intense headaches. I’m the dad who held his daughter’s hand when she cried herself to sleep and helped her to control her breathing when she woke with panic attacks in the middle of the night. I’m writing this as a parent who was told his child was “fine in school” but who saw that his daughter was breaking.
I’m writing this blog as someone who understands the education system and who understands the particular pressures on school leaders around pupil attendance. I was a primary school Headteacher for 12 years, until earlier this year. I’ve led or been part of the TAC process, the PSPs and the attendance panel meetings. I’ve had “those” conversations with local advisors and Ofsted inspectors about attendance figures, absence causes and action plans for improvement. I’ve had the overall responsibility for children’s well-being and for managing their attendance.
I’m writing this blog because an inordinate number of young people are suffering from anxiety, to some degree. It’s an incredibly misunderstood condition which attracts much judgement. The truth is, anxiety can be debilitating for a child and it can turn a family’s world upside down. If we wish to support the children in our classes and in our schools, and more widely in society, we need to understand what they’re experiencing.
The onset of my daughter’s anxiety coincided with the transition to secondary school, last September. There was no specific incident but she found the change very difficult. As the autumn term progressed, what many people saw was a girl who was crying and frozen to the car, glued to her mum and reluctant to pass through the school gates. What we saw, as parents, was our daughter struggling, suffering and changing. What our daughter saw was a school on fire.
The rest of this blog is a metaphor. Many people see anxiety as nothing more than natural worry. Others focus on the attendance issues and see anxiety as school avoidance. I’ve come to see that, for my daughter and many others, it’s not just a few worries and it’s not school avoidance. It’s more complicated and more dangerous than that. It’s “School on Fire”.
If a child has an anxiety disorder and if school is one of the triggers for them, then school is effectively a burning building.
The child knows that flames are dangerous.
They know that smoke is dangerous.
The child senses danger.
The roads to school lead to a burning building.
The school gates lead to a burning building.
The school doors open into a burning building.
The corridors lead to burning classrooms.
There’s a threat.
The child does not want to enter the burning building.
They might have lots of friends there.
There might be things they like there.
But the school is on fire.
Some school staff might be kind and patient. They offer comfort and reassurance; they’re trying to dampen the flames, at least.
Some school staff might be frustrated and stern. They can tell you off for not conforming. They might threaten a sanction. When they do, they stoke the fire.
Caring people and cross people. Some of the flames are higher than others but a fire’s a fire.
The parent tries to reassure their child that school will be ok but the child sees a school on fire.
The teachers and support staff try to encourage the child to come in but the child sees a school on fire.
You can offer the child less time in school but it’s still on fire.
The child doesn’t want to burn alive. Not for a day, not for half a day and not for half an hour. They want the fire to be put out.
You can offer the child a different room or a particular member of staff but the building is still on fire.
Compassion is good.
Adjustments are good.
But there’s still danger all around.
If the child won’t go into the fire, the school might send a member of staff to the child’s home, to check on their welfare.
They knock on their front door.
Now the flames have reached the child’s own home.
Home was safe but now home doesn’t feel safe.
The flames are getting closer.
Some children might make it in to school. Or into some lessons, at least.
They might even seem ok there.
They’re trying really hard to do what is expected of them.
They’re masking but it’s not a gas mask.
Some children are really good at masking; it doesn’t mean they’re fine.
They’re suffering quietly: suffocating from fumes.
It’ll take its toll. Adrenaline isn’t good at this level – not continuously.
The school’s on fire.
In the safety of home, the parent tries to talk to their child about school. But this stokes the fire too.
The anxious mind can’t discern the difference between perceived threat and real threat. So it’s “just” a conversation but the child responds with fear.
School’s on fire.
It’s not just school though. By the time that school’s on fire, there’s a good chance that other things are on fire too. Other things that used to be enjoyable and routine: visiting friends’ homes; journeys in the family car; going to the shops, to parties or to the cinema…
Life in flames.
Adrenaline wreaking havoc.
The anxious child finds themself in a burning world.
It’s not their fault.
They don’t want to get burned and they don’t like the feelings of imminent danger and being on high alert.
And it’s misunderstood.