JessicaMayoh, 34, put her little girl’s pleas not to go to school downto nerves butwhenEllie began screaming and being sick in the classroom sheknewitwassomethingmoreserious
The little girl who developed a phobia of school.
To get her to the school gates I’d have to drag her to the car, pin her down and fasten her in her seat
Watching my little girl skip into school, I smiled, though inside I felt like crying. Ellie looked so smart in her uniform but I couldn’t believe my baby was all grown up. Like every parent, I was apprehensive. She’d always been a confident little girl and was one of the oldest in her year but I still had my concerns about how she’d settle in.
I needn’t have worried though. “I’ve made lots of new friends,” she announced that evening. She took to her new routine with ease.
But then one day a year later, Ellie, five, came home and didn’t seem her usual self. She was quiet and unusually reserved. Out of nowhere, she started crying before going in to school each day, complaining of feeling ill and begging me not to make her go.
“But you love school,” I’d soothe, dabbing her tear-stained face with a tissue. “No, I hate it, Mummy,” she sobbed. I just couldn’t understand the sudden change. My partner, Jason Miller, and I tried to reason with her, ask her what was wrong, but she’d refuse to answer us. Within a fortnight Ellie was distraught every morning, hiding under tables and refusing to get ready. As soon as the weekend arrived, she was like a different little girl, relaxed and happy. Come the first day of the school, the cycle would start all over again.
“Come on, you must go to school,” I pleaded, as Ellie shook her head. Jason and I tried everything, from being strict with her to using plain bribery – a nice day out or a toy if she went to school without a fuss. Even the promise of a trip to Disneyland didn’t work. It showed us she wasn’t just doing it to be difficult and it became obvious the thought of school terrified her.
Friends, family and teachers all told me it was just a phase, but you could see it was more than that. She looked physically ill. Her face would go pale and she’d complain of feeling sick or having a stomach ache, and I could see the fear in her eyes. Some days she got so wound up she was physically sick. We persisted though. We live in Market Harborough, in Leicestershire, UK, and the law dictates she must go to school and it was my job to get her there, however much she cried or was sick.
It was by no means easy. To just get her to the school gates I’d have to physically drag her to the car, and pin her down to fasten her into her seat. Then she’d kick my seat all the way to school, trying to get me to turn around and take her back home. It tore me in two, but I wasn’t giving in.
By the time we arrived at school, she’d be shaking. She’d look up at me with pleading eyes when the bell rang, begging me not to leave her. Of course, part of me wanted to scoop her up and take her back home, she was so distressed. ”I have to be cruel to be kind,” I thought, exhausted. It was a battle we faced every single morning. Ellie would be upset and though I tried hard to keep my emotions steady, I couldn’t help but mirror her feelings.
The worst part was I had no idea why she hated school so much. Ellie just refused to open up.
Ihad spoken to Ellie’s teacher as soon as she seemed upset to see if she could give me any answers. “Has anything happened in class?” I asked. But she couldn’t shed any light on it either.
As the situation became worse, the teacher showed her support by coming out to the school gates each morning to walk in with Ellie. But it didn’t help.
Some days Ellie seemed so ill I had to let her stay at home. As soon as she knew school wasn’t on the agenda, she’d perk up. As the weeks turned into months and nothing changed, Jason and I were desperate for some help, but we didn’t know where to turn.
We’d taken Ellie to our GP, who didn’t know what was wrong, and were constantly in school talking to the head teacher. No one had any answers or solutions. At home, Ellie still loved to read, write and draw. But her first school report said she was struggling and behind with her work. Suddenly
On the worst days they’d carry her into school as she kicked and screamed. She’d beg me to help
it all seemed to make sense. If she was finding it hard to keep up in class, perhaps the pressure was too much for her? She was at a good, supportive school so I knew she’d get the attention she needed. The only problem was getting her engaged.
Everyone around us – including friends and family – seemed to think Ellie was just being difficult and that pandering to her would make it worse. The school agreed, saying it would be best to get Ellie into school as fast as possible. I was willing to give it a go and let them take control. They’d grab her by the hand and march her in or, on the worst days, pick her up and carry her in to school as she kicked and screamed.
It was awful. She’d look back at me, begging me to help her. Every ounce of my being wanted to, but I forced myself not to intervene. I’d cry sometimes, the guilt was so overwhelming, but what else could I do? If she didn’t go in she’d only fall further behind her classmates.
To me, Ellie’s behaviour clearly wasn’t the result of a simple dislike of school. It was much more than that, but I didn’t know what. I had to help Ellie somehow, though. Sitting in the GP’s clinic for yet another appointment, Jason and I were both on the verge of tears. Thankfully a new doctor referred us to Family Steps, a support service set up to help children with behavioural problems. “We’ll give anything a go,” I said.
After just a few sessions, the counsellors agreed with me that Ellie had a genuine anxiety condition. They referred us to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Talking to one of the professionals from CAMHS we learnt about school phobia, or school anxiety, and it was possible Ellie had it.
After doing some more research online, I became convinced Ellie did have it, and the school’s approach to dealing with it wasn’t going to work.
You wouldn’t treat someone with arachnophobia by throwing them into a room full of spiders. Instead, gradually exposing someone to the thing they’re scared of works. “That’s what we should be doing with Ellie,” I told Jason, 40.
The relief was indescribable. Finally, we knew what was wrong – and CAMHS and our GP backed us. My little girl wasn’t naughty or difficult. She was genuinely scared. So we all had a meeting to discuss how we could help.
We started by letting her go into school earlier than everyone else so she could get settled in class without the hustle and bustle of the morning rush. But she was just as distressed as before. So we tried going in later, but that didn’t work either. Ellie felt uncomfortable walking into the class with the other kids at their desks.
I was starting to lose hope again, until the school suggested Ellie started at the same time as everyone else, but I went in with her. I was nervous she’d still feel she was getting special treatment, so the teacher suggested I helped out in the class instead. So I told Ellie I’d volunteered to help set out the art classes and reading. Luckily, I don’t work, so I was able to give up the time.
And thankfully it worked. Just having me there in the background seemed to give Ellie extra confidence. I started off spending the whole morning in the classroom and gradually reduced it until I was in the room for five minutes before slipping out. Within a couple of months Ellie barely noticed I’d gone. Finally we’d cracked it.
The transition into a new school year went well; she has the same teacher so I think that helped. We still have the occasional slip-up so we take nothing for granted and we still don’t know what triggered it. It was awful seeing Ellie so distressed.
The worst thing is that people were so dismissive, thinking Ellie was just being naughty to get attention. But I know my daughter and she was genuinely distressed. She had a phobia of school – one she has overcome.
Jessica and her
daughter Ellie went through
hell and back
Now Ellie is enjoying
school and progressing well
until her Ellie loved her lessons
school phobia took hold