Act quickly to ease school phobia in France

It is not uncommon to hear the phrase “I don’t want to go to school today” at breakfast and, usually, the sentiment passes quickly, but a parents’ group says there are a growing number of children of all ages finding themselves simply unable to face going into the classroom.

26 September 2018
By Jane Hanks

Luc Mathis is president of the Assoc­iation Phobie Scolaire (phobiescolaire.org) which was formed in 2008 to help parents and children, and said “research suggested that 28% of children were affected at some point”.

“There are very few statistics and the best studies have been carried out in the US into what is often called in English school refusal or school anxiety rather than school phobia.

“This research suggests children are affected during their education to a greater or lesser degree for a short or a long period. At any moment we estimate between 1% and 3% of children are not at school because of this.

“In any sizeable collège the principal is likely to tell you there are between five and 10 students who haven’t made it in that day for this reason.”

The association defines ‘la phobie scolaire’ as a situation where a young person cannot face going to school and this can manifest itself in the form of anxiety attacks, stomach aches, sickness, diarrhoea, migraines, cold sweats and a faster heartbeat.

Mr Mathis, whose daughter had a school phobia when she was 14, said it was not classified as an illness as such, but there was no doubt the child suffered. “It is comparable to the situation when a horse refuses a jump.”

He added: “As a parent you have to look out for the signs. When one of my daughters said she did not want to go to school but ate her breakfast, I was not worried. When another daughter said she had stomach pains, headaches, felt sick and no longer ate breakfast, there was real cause for concern.”

“It is a lonely time for parents and a very difficult period. It lasted three to four years for my daughter, but it is important for families to know this is nearly always a transitory phase. My daughter is 20 now, and well.

“It is also important to underline that the child is not against school in itself, and would rather be well and be there, than at home.”

Reasons can be numerous and not necessarily obvious.

They can come from bullying; the fact a child is gifted and bored; learning conditions like dyslexia when the child does not reach expected academic results and is frustrated because efforts to succeed fail; undiagnosed autism or Aspergers or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or from more personal problems stemming from home, which can include the death of someone close or a divorce.

The causal events may have happened some time before and there are often several factors leading to the day when going to school becomes impossible.

It can happen at all ages, but is most common in teenagers and can affect all social backgrounds and school abilities.

Mr Mathis believes it has increased in the West since 2000: “A number of reasons have been cited, including breakdown in family structures; loneliness in front of a screen and social media pressures; problems related to nutrition and gut microbiome disorders that lead not only to obesity but also to anxiety.

“It seems to be a reflection of the condition of society as a whole where there are increasing levels of anxiety for everyone.”

So, what should a parent do?

First, they should not feel guilty, but should act as soon as the first serious indications arise.

It is normal to think at first the child is perhaps lazy or messing around, but there comes a time when it is obvious it is more serious.

The association advises against forcing the child to go to school. Instead, go to the GP and ask for a medical certificate so the child can stay at home for at least three weeks, giving time to de-dramatise the situation, reduce the daily pressure of deciding to go or not and give time to make health appointments.

The GP will probably advise seeing a child psychiatrist or psychologist to try to find the cause of the anxiety, but during the period at home you can do things your child enjoys and allow them to continue outside school activities, if they wish.

Mr Mathis said it was useful to fix an interview with the school, to work together to find the best solution to help a return to the classroom.

However, home schooling was not necessarily the answer: “I decided not to go down that road because when my daughter was not well, she was not in a fit state to study.

“Many people do use long distance learning from the Centre National d’Enseignement à Distance CNED, at least for a short period, but in the long term it will not help children get over their anxiety.

“Eventually it is best to work towards getting them back to school, as it is very difficult to pass your life outside the system.”

The association has produced a book with advice and pages outlining different people’s experiences.

Meeting places and conferences are organised for parents and young people facing this situation in most major cities and there is a Facebook page with more than 4,500 members who can discuss problems online. Some members speak English and Mr Mathis thought if anyone asked to speak to someone in English there would be a response.

The first research in France is due to start soon after securing funding.  

Psychiatrist Dr Laelia Benoit is to carry out a study for the French health research centre, Inserm, looking into  school refusal to better understand the condition and how to treat it.

She is analysing questionnaires filled in by 1,400 parents with children who have or have had a school phobia, many of them from the association.

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