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School refusal

A growing problem amongst children with special needs in Denmark.

Photograph: Unsplash

Text: Sara R. Newell

School refusal is a term which is also called school avoidance or school phobia and is used to describe the signs of anxiety a child has in their refusal to go to school. Many factors can come into account when a child refuses to go to school, for example, challenges at home, bullying at school, a poor learning environment. Other factors could be too much noise to be able to thrive or many other factors. However, there is increasing evidence that children with disabilities are especially susceptible to school refusal, which is rising.

Consequences of the Inclusion Reform

During the last several years, special needs organisations have reported increasing school refusal amongst children.

In 2012 the Danish Government and the National Association for Danish Municipalities (Kommunernes Landsforening) agreed that children with special needs should be moved to mainstream classes - this is known as the Inclusion Reform. A goal for this agreement was that 96 percent of all students in Denmark should attend mainstream classes by 2015. However, results from surveys show that school refusal has been increasing steadily ever since.

"The amount of time during which a child has not been thriving is at least as long as it will take for the child to recover again." - Monica Lylloff, mother to 3 children with special needs.

The National Autism Association (Landsforeningen Autisme) carried out a survey in 2017, showing that 32 percent of children with autism refused to go to school for weeks, months, or even years. By 2018 this number had increased to 35 percent. A survey carried out by The Danish Disability Organisations (Danske Handicaporganisationer) reported that approximately 55 percent of parents to children with special needs were unhappy with the inclusion of their children in mainstream classes and that 7 out of 10 children with disabilities refused to go to school to some extent. The survey showed that in 2018/2019, 1 out of every 3 children with a disability refused to go to school for at least a month or more.

Lack of specialised knowledge about special needs

Many children with special needs experience school refusal, which illustrates that many of these children do not have their needs met at school. Another factor could be that schools lack specialised knowledge about how to meet the needs of this group of children.

The responsibility for social services for people with special needs had previously been administered by 14 Danish municipalities until they were dissolved in a significant structural reform in 2007. Consequently, the responsibility for social services for people with special needs was dispersed between 98 municipalities. In other words, the specialised knowledge previously anchored within 14 large municipalities was spread out between 98 smaller municipalities with no specialised knowledge or experience in assisting people with their needs. Since local municipalities are responsible for providing specialised education, both in mainstream schools and special education schools, it is not unlikely that municipalities' lack of specialised knowledge impacts the increasing prevalence of school refusal amongst children with special needs.

Getting help if your child is experiencing school refusal

School refusal not only affects the child who has a fear or anxiety about going to school but, left untreated, can also have significant consequences for parents. When a child experiences school refusal for a significant period, this can result in parents struggling to make ends meet in their jobs and in their daily lives.

If your child is experiencing distress about going to school, or if your child is experiencing school refusal, it is always best to start by contacting your child's teacher to discuss your observations and concerns. We recommend that you ensure that your child's school involves the Pedagogical Psychological Unit (Pedagogical Psykologisk Rådgivning). You can also contact your general practitioner for assistance and advice. If the school is dismissive of your concerns, we strongly recommend that you contact a neutral third party for guidance and advice. For example, relevant disability organisations, associations for families for children with special needs, or associations and support groups included in the October 2020 issue of The International

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