School Phobia. It’s a thing. The newer, revised term in the DSM V is School Refusal. Which contains an active verb, plus it conjures up more imagery, so of course I that works a little better for me. “You are a ‘strong verb machine,’” shrugged one of my writing students. I discover School Phobia as I look at page 16 of this jargon-ish medical report on a new student where it lists the diagnosis: Written Expression Disorder, Anxiety, and School Phobia. I am well-versed in reading reports on dyslexic profiles, or ADD, but this was a little out of my league. I wondered why the doctor was not up on the new term. But the parents were exasperated. Or…anxious. Hmmm.
Stacks of paperwork follow this kid around, with variant diagnoses. Picture a 13-year old lanky boy frozen in the pre-dawn hours, while over-educated parents futilely try to budge him to get out of bed to school. Or they succeed in getting him out the door, but he won’t walk to the bus. Or get in the car. Every incentive has been tried. The pre-teen is passive and stoic, not aggressive and forceful.
“School refusal takes its toll on families as well: “I spend all my time worried and stressed. The situation becomes your only focus, all you can do, all you can think about. Everyone in the family is affected.” (spoken by a mother)
These parents are at their wit’s end. Didn’t I already say that? I guess I am using this repetition as a rhetorical literary device to pain a picture of the family. The boy is in a gifted program and tests well, but doesn’t put forth much effort when it comes to writing, which I where I come in. Grades are way down. He resists putting words onto a page or a screen, even with an app, or a software tool. And on top of that, counselors have to wrench him from the bus or car sometimes to get him inside school. So the experts at school are at their wit’s end also. He is a mystery, with an added side dish of having a twin who has none of these issues! And a further oddity is that he actually does has a small tribe of friends who bring out the ham in him.
My first step is to step into to his inner world and imagine his emotional state if I envision being forced to go to a football camp in the rain, that might be close. For me. I have no interest in football and have never had a single success with it. Like him with auditory input and writing. School – and especially middle school - is all about both of these. At football camp I would be scared of the ball smacking my skin - if I was lucky enough to catch it – and I would resist uncomfortable gear and padding, the whole time feeling unsteady on my feet due to mud. I would hide deep under the covers also. And then there are all those football rules (like grammar) which I have never been able to keep track of. A recipe for shut-down.
So at our first session, I connect without demanding eye contact, as his parents introduce him. I simply make jokes and acknowledge that he is coming to work with me on what is hardest for him. I have to do a body language move to sever some of the glue between the parents and him, who answer for him or finish his sentences. I ask if he can explain why he is here. “To help me with my writing.” I have to say, “Let him finish” to his parents. But he doesn’t. Finish. I usher all of them into my office. So much has been revealed already.
I want to have the answer. The key. And sometimes the Disneyland part of me wants a panacea, or happy ending. I have some inroads. I have some research. I have some success stories. But if I had a way into the mind of a gifted kid who puts a padlock around himself when words on the page are called for, I would be a millionaire.
With students like this, the typical school procedures for teaching writing often fall flat. Many of the whole language techniques teachers are accustomed to focus on harvesting memories into writing journals. These are events from children’s lives, collections of topics and activities that they enjoy, or nuggets of things that have happened in school, to be used as starting points for writing. These writing journals are filled with words and pictures and half-finished lists and drafts that never got revisited. A scrapbook of ideas. Ideally. But not so for my students. Teachers also excel at giving creative prompts, or practicing brainstorming on topics. Then the drafting and revising process can begin, and the choice of what to write about is vast.
Why are these methods unhelpful for our reluctant, anxious, school-phobic writers?
Too many choices. More anxiety. No parameters (about length, expectations for how many sentences in each paragraph, how many transition words, what to do if you forgot a detail of the field trip, etc.) This level of detail would make some writers feel constricted, but too much freedom constricts certain kid writers. Fear about getting it accurate undermines any joy they might have in expressing themselves. Plus, we are asking for emotions in the characters, or in the persuasive piece, and some students simply aren’t wired that way.
There is a whole new truckload of research on how certain “spectrum brains” cannot simultaneously process sensory input while also giving language to it. Two sections of the brain that don’t fire together naturally. So when recalling personal experiences or events, these children reach by default for facts, since language for emotions might not be readily available. This wreaks havoc in an innocuous personal narrative assignment. They either list details with an aching exactitude, or stop mid-sentence because they cannot recall what happened precisely. What is present is the monotonous car ride, or the treehouse, or the bus stop crowd, but not the sensations or emotions coupled with them. There is a sequenced micro list of events, but not the thrill, or nervousness, or humor involved. So we have to reconfigure our expectations. And meet them halfway. Add a single emotion, I might say, instead of insisting on lacing the whole piece with feeling and mood.
Back to my anxious teen! I simply suggested Quick Writes, and dad thought it was a good start, since this kid had never really been given any low-pressure writing or brainstorming to do. He agreed to try, but his pen did not move. He agreed to try – at home. (and he did do it, and we did another in our second session). He had some prompts from me, but could also choose his own topic. He chose one of mine. Rules: No punctuation. No stopping. Keep writing.
I was so nervous about how to get this kid to respond with anything other than low affect. Just zero emotion. And yet I could sense the deep grief under his long hair and glazed-over look. Halfway through the longer-than-my-usual-hour consult, I figured they were going to opt out of working with me, because I could not get this kid to talk or write or move his brain or body an inch. It was scary to imagine how his parents deal with this frozenness, and the “I don’t want to go to school” issue. I asked what goes on in his head when he says he cannot write, and he has too many, rather than not enough, thoughts. And other kids it is the blank slate. But can we really have an empty mind? These don’t seem like special enlightened gurus sitting in front of me at my tutoring table. I mean, seeing nothing in your mind is pretty doubtful, but I always run with it anyway. We put it on his goals list to be able to write those picture or thoughts instead of sit and wait for the best thought to come.
So back to school phobia. These students often thought they were really smart in grade school, when they were doing well, and not as much writing nuance was required, but now they are frightened that they are not smart, because, well, emotions, literary analysis, and excessive revision enter the academic stage. They are scared that their writing difficulty means that they are, in fact, not smart like they thought they were. Furthermore, they worry that if they try hard and still do poorly, they really prove there is something wrong with their brain. So instead of digging in and doing what it takes to succeed, they start withdrawing from school and questioning their abilities.
I wanted to end on an UP note, but I will have to do it by picture, not words.
I wanted to end on an UP note, but I will have to do it by picture, not words.