Professor Tamsin Ford, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told Radio 4′s Today programme that rather than punishing kids for playing truant, we should try to work out what the problem is, instead.
“If there’s a change in attendance or a child who has consistently struggled to attend school, the assumption should be that there’s something wrong,” she said. “There’s a reason behind it.”
Professor Ford spoke as mental health charity Mind is calling for a distinction to be made between those playing truant and those suffering from mental health conditions – thought to affect as many as one in 10 British children.
“If there’s a mental health problem underlying the difficulty in getting a child to go to school, it’s important to sort it quickly,” she said. She also urged against taking a purely punitive approach to school refusal.
“You may have a person who’s desperately trying to persuade them to go to school, but is faced with a child who is panicking, or crying, or sitting quietly with tears streaming down their faces.
“If we moved the situation into adulthood: if you had an adult who was taking time off for stress, you wouldn’t pick them up and physically force them into the situation that was making them stressed.”
“Anxiety is a sneaky thing,” Prof. Ford added. “If you feel anxious about something and you avoid the thing that’s making you anxious, you feel better.”
She pointed out several symptoms that parents could use to identify if their children were avoiding school due to feeling anxious. These are:
“If these things are popping up regularly on Sunday nights or at the end of the holidays – but are fine during the weekend – there might be something else going on for the child,” she said.
And in general, if there’s a problem with attendance, schools should always work with parents to look for the reason why. There could be issues within the school environment, she said, such as bullying or learning difficulties.