Rethinking education: the programs for children too distressed to attend school

As a year 10 coordinator in 2013, high school teacher Craig Hildebrand-Burke began to clock an increasing number of student absences at his school. As he began to contact families, he soon realised that school refusal was becoming “a major presenting issue” for the year 10 cohort at his co-ed Catholic high school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

Generally, he’d notice absences spiking around assessment time. “The pressure would pick up … and avoidance became the go-to strategy.” He would watch as students then struggled to “regain their footing and then it would quickly snowball into three, four days of time and then weeks”.

As the year level coordinator, Hildebrand-Burke would try to reassure his students. “We’d say ‘come in’ with no expectations, just to make contact again, to try to destigmatise the fear of being at school.” He’d emphasise that the school wouldn’t focus on the student’s results, instead telling them: “We just want you here.”

That approach worked roughly half the time. The school also brought in specialist psychologists who reaffirmed how crucial it was to work with students’ care workers towards a solution. Hildebrand-Burke would say to parents, “If you can get them to the school gate, we’ll look after them from there.”

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He was acutely aware of the limitations of the strategy. He would see parents witnessing their children suffer from “headaches, nausea, all of the [symptoms of anxiety] that can look like illness, and certainly manifest as illness.” It left the parents stuck: they couldn’t send their kids to school “when there was clearly something leaving them feeling very anxious, and very sick”.

Hildebrand-Burke himself was becoming frustrated. “I was stuck in terms of whether I approached this as a disciplinary issue, or a wellbeing one,” he says. “It’s a very impossible position for teachers to be in. And I wasn’t trained in this stuff.”

A teacher holds a pile of papers in a classroom
‘Alternative flexi schools can showcase really useful strategies that staff in mainstream schools can draw on,’ says Te Riele. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

Like many teachers, Hildebrand-Burke was facing a phenomenon that he didn’t feel equipped to deal with. He also saw the beginnings of what could work to help kids who were too anxious to attend school, but ultimately he concluded that the actual design of school itself was stacked against his efforts. In 2018 he quit to study psychology full-time. Three years and a whole pandemic later, he returned to a different high school in Melbourne’s western suburbs, this time as a psychologist and education and developmental registrar.

As the rate of school refusal rises, he believes the experiences of students hold lessons not just for a rapidly growing cohort of kids across all ages, but for anyone interested in redesigning schools to help all students learn and adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Hildebrand-Burke is encouraged by how awareness around neurodivergence needs and an emphasis on wellbeing has increased in the last two years, but now it’s a matter of how quickly schools can catch up, and how capable they are of catering to a huge and growing need.

Redesigning schools

“Our models of schooling need a shake-up but what they could look like is the big question,” says Assoc Prof Lisa McKay-Brown, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion at the Melbourne graduate school of education, University of Melbourne, who oversees the In2School intervention program.

In2School was set up by the Melbourne graduate school of education, in conjunction with the Royal Children’s Hospital Mental Health and Travancore School, and is available to students aged 11 to 14 that have been school refusing for between three months and two years and have diagnoses of anxiety and/or mood disorders. It brings teachers and clinicians together for up to six months to assess, plan and implement needs-based, personalised programs for each young person at home, in the clinic and in the classroom.

If a student has been having attendance difficulties, a gradual re-orientation to the classroom setting is an important part of the return-to-school process. So a transitional classroom space can be a good option,” says McKay-Brown. “This means providing a space separate to where other students are learning so we can create a safe, contained environment. There is a focus on social-emotional engagement and a graduated return to school.”

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In2School joins a growing list of programs, alternative, specialist and independent schools, school refusal clinics and a smattering of public schools around the country that cater to kids who have disengaged from school.

Almost all of their approaches share common traits such as small classes, an emphasis on student agency and environments designed with neurodiversity in mind.

“School refusal is a dreadful experience for children and families. It is also a burden for society, especially increased health costs and reduced productivity – by parents having to withdraw from the workforce and by the children missing out on the learning and qualifications needed for future employment,” says Prof Kitty te Riele of the University of Tasmania, who is co-chair of Australian Association for Flexible and Inclusive Education (AAFIE). “There is both a moral and a financial imperative for governments to invest in genuine solutions.”

“Alternative flexi schools can showcase really useful strategies that staff in mainstream schools can draw on,” says Te Riele.

“Alternative settings often have the time and flexibility to place relationships at the centre. There can be a focus on connecting with every student and the smaller class sizes that you find in these settings can certainly support this,” McKay-Brown says. “There can be dedicated allied health, such as youth workers, who can provide outreach support to families. Teachers may have specialist skills for working with at-risk youth. While mainstream schools certainly focus on building relationships among members of the school community the pressure on academic outcomes and resourcing difficulties can mean that some students might miss out on this – particularly if there is sporadic attendance.”

Funding students, systems and teachers

These are not insignificant changes, and require more resources, says Te Riele. “Families and schools cannot do this on their own – support is also needed from education and health systems.”

Funding is the first stumbling block. The Productivity Commission recently reported that Australia persistently falls short at providing a high quality and equitable education for all students.

“The current national education funds distribution needs revision to equitably support a fee allocation to each student across the sectors – an allocated amount based on need,” says co-chair of Aaife Dale Murray, who’s also the director of education at Life Without Barriers, an organisation that provides and advocates for accessibility services for marginalised groups. “This allocation needs to consider increased support for wellbeing staff, neurodiversity and infrastructure development and upgrade.”

Teachers play an obvious-but-crucial role in making kids feel safe, welcome and supported at school. But just like Hildebrand-Burke’s experience, “many teachers go into teaching because they care about children and young people, but the constraints of the ways in which our education system works sometimes make it hard for them to act on this in mainstream schools”, says Te Riele.

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Resourcing, according to multiple sources, can make all the difference in mainstream settings.

“Education systems can support schools to undertake their essential wellbeing work through increasing access to allied professional staff like youth workers, occupational therapists, and psychologists with appropriate trauma-informed practice skills and providing teachers and teacher assistants with professional learning to support their students’ wellbeing as well as their own,” says Te Riele.

Learning from students

Jennifer Griffith faced difficulties attending school from a very young age, even though she was told she was academically gifted and received good grades. Her parents attempted to alleviate the issues by moving schools a number of times. But Griffith’s anxiety and other mental health issues only intensified. “I became such a behavioural disturbance at school that in year 11 I was strongly recommended to leave.”

Griffith, now 24, lived on the Central Coast of NSW, where there was “a grossly underfunded and unsupportive child and adolescent mental health service”. She was diagnosed with autism, but not until she was 19, and believes the lack of earlier diagnosis caused her mental health problems throughout her schooling.

While she was struggling, she says, “the most helpful thing that the adults did for me when I was 15 or 16 was to take the pressure of the HSC off.” Griffith decided to go to Tafe. It’s “a significantly more supportive environment than high school, with smaller class sizes and learning things that particularly interest you and directly relate to the workforce. I began university before my peers even finished their HSC because I went to Tafe and transferred to online university without an Atar.”

A view of a group of young students walking in a park from behind
‘Working collaboratively with students to set goals is a key component of flexible education,’ Dale Murray says. Photograph: Neustockimages/Getty Images

Those working in flexible schooling say it is critical for adults to listen and learn from students who find it hard to attend school. “Taking their experiences and views seriously is an essential starting point,” says Te Riele. “This should include their input not only on what the problem is, but also on strengths – such as what and how they enjoy learning, and how that could be part of returning to school.”

“The young people that are in the In2School program speak about the importance of safe, supported and contained environments where they feel like they belong and have an identity,” says McKay-Brown. “They talk about social and academic pressures that impact their ability to attend. We need to understand the diversity of our students and how their own histories impact the ways they access education. The traditional ways of learning are not always fit for purpose any more.”

Flipping the power dynamic

Going beyond listening and working collaboratively with students to set goals is also a key component of flexible education settings, says Murray. They tend to “have a model of operation that repositions the power relationship between adults and young people”.

Altering that power dynamic is a dramatic way of rethinking education and a teacher’s approach. And it’s not easy work, as Michael Scicluna can attest. He’s principal at Pavilion School’s Preston campus, a Victorian government school founded in 2007 to provide educational options for young people who have disengaged from mainstream education. The students that arrive at Pavilion have a “huge variation of presentations” says Scicluna. “Neurodiverse people, people in the youth justice system, people with a diagnosed disability, people with undiagnosed disability, people who have been bullied, people who have bullied.”

Everything about the way Pavilion is designed, from its classes (groups of 15 students whose ages can range from 13 to 20 and who are allocated one teacher, one youth worker and one teacher assistant), to its environment (what the school dubs “quiet, calm and collaborative” and what materially manifests as aspects such as no lockers, no unattended corridors, no set recess or lunch), to every teacher’s approach is strikingly different from a standard school.

“We are constantly asking: ‘What’s in the best interest of students?’,” says Scicluna. “Most schools will say they do that, but sometimes in the minutia of the work, it becomes about them.”

Pavilion school offers the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (years 10-12), youth work support, electives and extension activities as well as a bridging program for younger students. The Pathways program provides students a tailored transition into employment and further education and support from the wellbeing team, including counselling, mediation, restorative practices and health and wellbeing curriculum. It has grown from a group of 20 students in its first year to over 220 students, across two campuses. There are currently 70 students on the wait list.

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To Scicluna, consistency of approach across teachers, and putting students at the centre of that, can make one of the most significant differences to any school. But it requires wholesale cultural change, and training in concepts like unconditional positive regard and restorative practices. And he admits it’s taxing work. “We never like to lose staff, but we love the idea of people taking their training out into a mainstream setting or a different setting so that they can hopefully start to influence thinking on a broader scale, to encourage people to repurpose or rethink education.”

Measures of success can be almost anything, from former student Hannah Gandy, who was the first Pavilion student to complete her VCE and is now currently completing a master of laws specialising in social justice at University College London as a 2022 Victorian Government John Monash Scholar, to “kids who are out working full-time.”

Success is constantly redefined and questioned according to each student. “Are they in a better position than when they came? Can they sustain themselves in the world when they leave here?”

Schools for students

Pavilion seems to have interrogated and changed nearly all the aspects of school that so frustrated Hildebrand-Burke as a teacher , and still witnesses as a school psychologist trying to cater to his growing list of students. “Why are schools consistently aiming for a homogenous experience when it comes to stuff like uniform, gender roles or academic progress when everything we know about kids is that they don’t develop in a homogenous nature?”

Lately, Hildebrand-Burke has been grappling with these questions from the point of view of a parent. “My nine-year-old has ADHD and autism.”

Hildebrand-Burke says his daughter’s primary school has been very supportive, recently working in conjunction with a team of professionals who reaffirmed that “it’s not a case of changing the square to fit a round hole instead, how can the school change to ensure they fit better for her?”

“If schools can start there … have that mindset for all individuals – how can we adjust to support them? That’s really what a place of learning should be about.”

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