I frequently receive emails and messages from families with children still registered in school, but considering home education because their child is reacting in a strongly negative way to school. Other messages are from parents who have recently deregistered and are very concerned about their child (unbeknownst to them, they are showing signs of school trauma).
These messages are usually desperate in tone, from parents who have done everything they can. They have watched their child turn into a shell of their former self and they are at a loss at to what to do.
They say very similar things- phrases like “she gets dressed and then has a full-on panic attack,” “he runs away when we get to the school gates,” and “they say they’re not being bullied but they just feel awful in school.”
Others have children who have been bullied, or who have additional needs that have meant that school is a very difficult place to be. Those who have deregistered say their child sleeps a lot, is having almost phobic reactions to anything resembling schoolwork, and doesn’t want to socialise.
These children are often undermined, disbelieved or gaslighted by the school system. Instead of accepting that there are elements of school that are going to make it impossible for some children to cope (imagine if we expected every adult to work in an office?) the problem is placed squarely on the shoulder of the child and their parents.
Plans are drawn up, sometimes elaborately, to coax children back into school. 1-1 guidance, half days, meetings with counsellors, even GP appointments. Children are diagnosed with various mental illnesses, with these being held up as the reason they can’t ‘cope with’ school.
I would like to offer an alternative narrative; one that experience home educators already understand. It’s not talked about as openly as it should be, because the education system is powerful, and loud, and will shout down anyone who dares to speak against it.
But families are suffering, so it’s about time it was said, and it’s this: Schools frequently traumatise children.
How Does School Trauma Happen?
The aspects of school that traumatise children are varied, but they usually include: bullying, public humiliation, unmet additional needs (very noticeably for children with autism), unmet medical needs, sensory overwhelm and stress under a pressurised standardised testing system.
I’m not saying all schools have all these things- of course not- but I am saying that a system run by adults should have leaders at all levels who are robust enough to face and deal with its failings, and it is very apparent that this is not the case.
‘School trauma’ needs to be adopted as a valid outcome of a child’s inadequate school experience- I would love for it to become as frequently used as “school avoidance”, which has become pathologised for reasons I can’t fathom. It is a perfectly natural thing for a child to want to avoid school (I previously wrote this article, “It’s OK if your child hates school.”)
It is only by recognising school trauma- and this is very uncomfortable for adults in the system, parents / guardians and the children themselves- that we will be able to aptly help those children who are affected through no fault of their own.
5 Signs Of School Trauma
If your child displays these behaviours, I would suggest considering whether their school experience is significantly affecting them in a negative way, and taking steps to remedy it (suggestions further down the page).
Refusing to attend school is one of the clearest signs that a child is not happy at school. After all, do we usually avoid places where we feel safe and happy?
Dealing with a child who is refusing to go to school, when the penalties for non-attendance can be very inconvenient, expensive and stressful, can add a lot of pressure to a family dynamic. This can cause more issues between parents and children during an already difficult time.
Telling You They Hate School
I never cease to be amazed at how much adults override children when they are clearly telling us something. If a child is telling you they hate school (I don’t mean in one fit of exasperation over a piece of homework- I mean really, consistently telling you), believe them. Where you go from there may be helped by the section ‘How to help children with school trauma” below.
Crying at bedtime (particularly on Sundays)
If your child gets emotional and displays signs of stress the night before school, please ask them if there is something they are particularly worried about. It may be that they are concerned about something at school- this may be as simple as having to rush to get changed for PE, in which case a quick word with their teacher may resolve the whole situation.
If however they express a general sense of stress and dread, or are consistently overwhelmed, it may be that the whole set-up simply is not working for them.
Children who are having anxiety attacks (crying, shouting, heart racing, sweating, ‘escape’ behaviour such as running) may be anxious because of school. After all, it’s where they spend most of their time.
If anxiety attacks come on before school, or when discussing things related to school, it is worth exploring this with your child to see if there is something that can be done.
Sleeping A Lot
Stress is exhausting, and children who are stressed at school may be particularly tired. Of course, if they are still attending school and have to get up at a certain time, you may not notice this (although you might).
It is usually very noticeable in children who have been deregistered; lots of new home educating parents comment on how much their children are sleeping. This is part of a healing process and is perfectly healthy.
Of course, this list is not exclusive – children may display other signs of distress such as hurting themselves, fits of rage and hurting others to express their pain. So what can be done about it? Here are some ideas for helping your child through school trauma (there are ideas for if your child is still at school, as well as if they are deregistered).
How To Help Children with School Trauma
Validate Their Feelings
In order to feel like they are safe, children first need to know that they are understood. There are some useful articles on trauma from the UK Trauma Council, which may be helpful in understanding what is going on with your child.
Phrases like “We all have to do things we don’t want to do”, “it’s only for one more year” or “it’s just normal friendship issues, everyone goes through it” are not helpful to children who are finding school traumatic.
Phrases such as “I know it feels very tough and I want you to know that your feelings are completely normal given the circumstances- it’s not you,” “I’m so sorry it’s got this hard for you, let’s look at what we can change to make things better” and “I get it- that’s absolutely not ok to go through, you shouldn’t have to experience that” are key to helping children feel understood and supported.
Suggest that they keep a journal of how they feel each day, so that they have a tangible record of how they feel and what might be bothering them (sometimes they won’t be able to put their finger on it, and that’s ok- they can record this too). Having a journal is validating as it makes their feelings ‘real’ on paper, and also helps to get their feelings out of their head, even if they are only ‘shared’ with a book.
Advocate For Them
It is very common for parents to feel that they are under the authority of the school- I’ve had parents tell me that they have been ‘told off’ or talked down to by school staff. I’ve also had parents tell me that they feel that the school has more say over their child than they do.
Although it is easy to be made to feel like this, the fact is that the school has legal, contractual obligations to you and your child. This includes keeping your child safe and making their best endeavour to secure provision for special educational needs.
If your child is still at school, very clearly state the reasons for your concerns, evidence (pictures of injuries, for example) and what you expect to be done to rectify the situation. This doesn’t guarantee a change, but being prepared and assertive will go some way towards being listened to by school staff (remember your job is not to make theirs easy, but to protect your child).
If it is clear that a school will not keep your child safe (if they are being bullied, for example), and they are threatening absence fines if you don’t send them in, make a GP appointment and secure a ‘sick note’ for your child due to stress.
This does not definitely prevent the school from marking the absence as unauthorised, but it does give weight to your case if you need it in the future and it may put pressure on the school to rectify the issue.
If your child has deregistered, advocate for them by refusing home visits and telephone calls from the school and local authority (in line with home education law). Your child probably will not want any direct contact with those people and that is absolutely their perogative.
Deregister from school
TW: This paragraph mentions pregnancy and pre-eclampsia.
Although many people think that home education is not an option for them, due to income, work commitments or academic ability, all of these things can be worked around and are probably not as big a barrier as you may think. Have a look at my articles on the cost of home education, how to home educate while working full time, and what qualifications you need to home educate.
Sometimes, problems at school can be a bit like pre-eclampsia in pregnant women. No matter how much treatment you give or how you try to manage the situation, the only actual cure is the baby arriving. Similarly, sometimes the only resolution to school trauma is to take your child out of school and start the healing process away from the traumatic environment.
If your child is in mainstream school in England or Wales, this can be done by sending a letter of reregistration to the headteacher and is effective immediately. This means that you could send the letter today and your child would no longer need to attend; you can also stop having contact with the school as soon as you deregister.
Need 1-1 help & advice?
With a background in behaviour management in education settings and 11 years’ home education experience, I can partner with you to design the homeschool experience of your dreams.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to book a free discovery call and find out how I can help you
School Trauma: A Summary
All too often, parents are coerced into keeping their child into a toxic situation, and one that can cause long-term harm. By recognising the signs of school trauma you can be ready and equipped to advocate for your child and take the steps necessary to ensure that they can help and support them, whether that is in school or through home education. If this is something you would like to know more about, my home education blog posts will provide information and reassurance.