…when the reality is that mental health and SEN resources are at breaking point.
Headline making targets may look sensible at first glance, however as we often see, those most vulnerable – in this case autistic children, children with long term illness and mental health struggles – are not considered when claims are made about 100% attendance. Attendance awards and heavy-handed punishments are not appropriate or effective when the reality of the situation for a lot of children is not as simple as choosing whether or not they will go to school.
At BeyondAutism we recognise that for some autistic children, the school environment can be a challenge to navigate. They may have sensory sensitivities that mean a noisy and chaotic lunch hall is the last place that they want to be. Or the demands of sitting at a desk to work for extended periods of time with no movement breaks can be draining. This does not mean that autistic children cannot thrive in a school environment, be that mainstream or a specialist provision. Schools that support autistic children well are the ones that make the reasonable adjustments necessary to make the environment a positive place for the child, and a place that enables them to learn.
When aspects of the school environment do not work well for the child, we may see behaviours that challenge which can lead to placement breakdown. Others may mask in order to ‘fit in’ with the environment they find challenging. Masking involves the child hiding or stopping behaviours which can lead to mental health issues. The mental fatigue of masking on a daily basis can build up and cause other issues for the individual and their family. These can be hidden to the school if they take place at home, in a space they find safe.
We receive many enquiries for support from parents of children struggling in school. Often it is children at secondary school struggling with new challenges compared with the smaller, nurturing environment of primary settings. The learners are often on a waiting list for an autism assessment and CAMHS support, as well as waiting for an EHCP assessment. There may appear to be no issues present at school, however, home life is difficult with meltdowns after school and high levels of anxiety about going to school in the first place.
Schools often don’t have the resources to provide additional support for pupils who don’t have an EHCP. Providing support for pupils who have Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) is also difficult as input is needed in the home environment. For some children, they may be at the point where they require tier 2 or 3 mental health support but are unable to access help due to long waiting lists. The resources aren’t always available to achieve unrealistic attendance targets.
At BeyondAutism we work with local authorities and schools to support children with EBSA. Our model involves conducting a thorough, person-centred functional assessment. This may take the form of interviews with care givers and school staff, discussions with the child themselves, analysis of behaviour data and then the creation of a behaviour support plan (BSP). The BSP will always have the child’s input and ensure that things are done at their pace, and crucially we ensure that we are making adjustments to the environment to help them feel comfortable in school. It is not about trying to change the individual, but to listen to them and provide them with the tools to thrive. These processes can take time and involve building trust with school staff and ensuring the child’s voice is being heard. Simply being in school is not enough, if the child is not able to access learning.
100% attendance targets are exclusive from the outset. For many learners, it’s not a choice, and there are very real barriers which prevent them from being able to attend daily. Rather than focusing on targets, efforts should be focused onto making school more accessible for those learners. To be truly inclusive, messaging should include all pupils from the start. Efforts being put into upskilling all staff in education to understand autism, support behaviours that challenge and identify the early indicators of mental health issues would be a better priority than unrealistic attendance aims that overlook the reasons for attendance issues in the first place.
For more information on EBSA, take a look at our online training. Or if you have a specific query get in touch with a member of our Outreach Team to find out how we can support.