Connecting With Children Who Experience Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA)Jun 16, 2021
By Dr Jerricah Holder, experienced Educational Psychologist, author of the School Wellbeing Cards, and CPD course trainer with EdPsychEd.
Register for Jerricah’s complete EBSA HORIZONS CPD training course for Educational Psychologists
What is Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA)?
Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) is a broad umbrella term used to describe a group of children and young people who experience significant and enduring challenges in attending school due to emotional factors; mainly feelings of fear and anxiety. The EBSA is more than just a child’s perceived dislike for school, it is rooted in emotional and physical anguish, and the child encounters significant distress when faced with the prospect of attending school.
Over the past few years there has been considerable effort by Educational Psychologists and other professionals to shift the narrative around EBSA, moving away from the language of “school refusal” to a more compassionate and person-centred approach that also considers the wider environmental factors that could be contributing to the EBSA. More recent research has also focused on the Voice of Child, shining a light on children’s experiences of EBSA and how they believe their needs have been perceived and conceptualised by others. Sadly, a theme throughout these studies has been one whereby children do not always feel that their EBSA is truly believed or understood (Baker, 2015 & Billington, 2018).
Research studies concerning the Voice of the Child have revealed that the adults' understanding of EBSA can vary considerably and is not often aligned with how the child has construed their world and made sense of their experience. Young people affected by EBSA often report feeling judged, disbelieved and misunderstood, using words such as “naughty” and “lazy” when describing how they perceive themselves and their needs to be viewed by others. Children report that support often came too late and did not always take into account how they felt, or their views or wishes on what they needed for a successful return to school.
The views expressed by children within the research literature, is also consistent with my own professional practice as an Educational Psychologist: In completing the School Wellbeing Cards, a visual card sorting activity designed to explore the risk and resilience factors underpinning a child’s EBSA, almost all children pick the cards: “They don’t believe me” and “I am feeling pressure to attend school."
We need to reassure children, and their families, that they are not to blame for their EBSA; it is not their fault that they are experiencing anxiety and fear around attending school. This is particularly pertinent in the context of previous terminology around “refusal” and the implication that the child has choice and control over their EBSA, which can very disempowering for the child and their network. There is also risk that the school avoidance is misinterpreted to mean that the child does not want to attend school.
* examples from the School Wellbeing Cards
However, if you listen to the child’s experience, their hopes and dreams for the future, often this is far from the truth. Children who experience EBSA often do want to attend school, but they currently lack the skills and resources to do so, and the ongoing nature of EBSA and the vicious and ever-increasing cycle of anxiety, has undermined their confidence to attempt such a return.
There often needs to be a significant focus on shifting the story and recreating a more compassionate and child-centred narrative around the EBSA. We need to talk to children about anxiety and normalise that this is a feeling within the spectrum of emotions that we all experience, and that avoidance is a very natural, and understandable, reaction to stressful situations. But we also want them to be curious about this anxiety and any ambivalence to change in their school attendance or avoidance behaviours.
We want to gently support children to consider that anxieties and fears can reduce over time, and that we can support them to develop strategies to feel more able to cope with some of these anxieties when they are ready.
It is also important that the child’s voice is at the centre of action plans and that any attempts to return to school, or to support a child to attend school more consistently, are developed in collaboration with the child and their family. Ultimately, we can have a reintegration plan packed full with the greatest of well-intentioned ideas, but if it does not meet the needs identified by the child and their family, and does not follow their wishes, and provide them with a sense of agency over their return, then the success is likely to be limited.
Recommended Resources -
Checklist for Attendance Tracking and Support
See the Checklist for Attendance Tracking and Support from EBSA Horizons.
Access the School Wellbeing cards from here: www.schoolwellbeingcards.co.uk
EBSA Course for EPs and School Staff -
EBSA Horizons School Staff Training
EBSA Horizons School Training is a comprehensive CPD course for School Staff, which develops understanding and skills (alongside a lot of resources) to support children and young people experiencing difficulties attending school. This course has been updated for 2023 with a new chapter -
Chapter 6: The Systemic Change Model of EBSA
Find out more about EBSA Horizons School Training here and register your interest to receive 3 FREE resources from this course.
EBSA Horizons Educational Psychologist CPD
EBSA Horizons is an equally comprehensive CPD course for EPs, which develops understanding and skills (alongside a lot of resources) to support children and young people experiencing difficulties attending school. This course has been recently updated for 2023 with two new chapters -
Chapter 6: Supporting Autistic CYP Experiencing EBSA
Chapter 7: Entrenched EBSA
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