I don't want to go BACK TO SCHOOL

A teenage girl talks to Su­san O’Shea about be­ing bul­lied re­lent­lessly at school and on so­cial me­dia by a ‘Queen Bee’ and class­mates, leav­ing her with no op­tion but to quit

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Front Page -

When a teenager re­fuses to re­turn to the class­room

vic­tim of bul­ly­ing as the vul­ner­a­ble one but it’s the ‘Queen Bee’ who is suf­fer­ing from chronic low self es­teem. The girl who is tar­geted will have a much higher emo­tional in­tel­li­gence. She feels she’s in a world where she doesn’t fit in. We must teach her that it’s the sit­u­a­tion that’s ab­nor­mal, not her.”

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain data on how many teens are re­fus­ing to at­tend school be­cause of bul­ly­ing. In Sarah’s case, only close fam­ily and friends were aware of the real rea­son. Any­one else who asked was sim­ply told she was ill. As He­len says: “There is a veil of se­crecy around it, and when you are in the mid­dle of it, the last thing you want to do is talk about it”.

Tusla pro­vides rates for non-at­ten­dance as a whole, but there is no break­down for the rea­sons, and in­di­vid­ual ser­vices like the Child and Adult Men­tal Health Ser­vices and Jig­saw, a free, non-judge­men­tal and con­fi­den­tial men­tal health sup­port ser­vice for peo­ple aged 12 to 25, do not keep spe­cific data. In­ter­na­tional fig­ures sug­gest that up to 5% of nonat­ten­dance is anx­i­ety-based.

One teacher, a qual­i­fied psy­chother­a­pist with 24 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence and who wished to re­main anony­mous, is em­ployed by a num­ber of schools to of­fer one-to-one ther­apy to school re­fusers, funded pri­vately by the schools, rather than the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. She has seen a steady rise in so­cial anx­i­ety stem­ming from bul­ly­ing over the last decade. Of the 12 pupils she sees on a oneto-one ba­sis weekly, at least one is strug­gling to at­tend school be­cause of bul­ly­ing.

“Un­for­tu­nately, kind­ness is ut­terly out of fash­ion at the mo­ment, mean is fash­ion­able,” she says.

While most teens are kind and just want to get on with things, there is a small co­hort who fol­low the ‘Queen Bee’ model, she says, adding that many schools adopt a ‘hands-off’ ap­proach.

In the schools where she is em­ployed, when a pupil is strug­gling to at­tend the first step is to rec­om­mend they take a week off. The next is to sched­ule a coun­selling ap­point­ment with her, and of­fer the pupil a re­duced timetable. This, she says, is a of­ten a suc­cess­ful strat­egy, as it takes a lot of the pres­sure off. “The aim is to pre­vent com­plete dis­con­nec­tion, so even if a pupil is just show­ing up and at­tend­ing a few classes, at least they are stay­ing en­gaged.”

Out­side school, pupils are ad­vised to ditch their SIM card, and only is­sue the new num­ber to peo­ple they trust, and close their so­cial me­dia ac­counts. In other words, re­move as many tools as pos­si­ble from the bul­lies.

Erica Law­less is a full­time re­searcher, cur­rently con­duct­ing a doc­tor­ate in ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­ogy in UCD on non-at­ten­dance. She says there is a lack of aware­ness about the prob­lem and in­con­sis­tency in the pro­vi­sion of ser­vices.

“The first step a school takes when there is a prob­lem with non-at­ten­dance is to con­tact Tusla’s ed­u­ca­tion wel­fare of­fi­cers but this only ap­plies if the pupil is un­der 16 years. Over that age, the Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tional Psy­cho­log­i­cal Ser­vice should be con­tacted, and it ad­vises schools don’t de­lay and al­low the prob­lem to fes­ter, but to seek help im­me­di­ately but their ser­vices are stretched.”

A De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion spokesper­son told Feel­good: “Stu­dent men­tal health and well­be­ing are key goals in the Gov­ern­ment’s Ac­tion Plan for Ed­u­ca­tion. Among the ini­tia­tives taken so far in­clude: Restora­tion of 500 out of 600 of the cut in guid­ance coun­sel­lors.

“The Gov­ern­ment’s in­ten­tion is to de­liver fur­ther progress: Im­ple­ment­ing the new Ju­nior Cy­cle well­be­ing pro­gramme; re­cruit­ment of 21 (a 12% in­crease) ad­di­tional Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tional Psy­cho­log­i­cal Ser­vice psy­chol­o­gists be­tween May 2016 and Septem­ber 2018 and 65 over the life­time of the Gov­ern­ment.”

Build­ing a re­la­tion­ship be­tween the school and stu­dent is key. Law­less says ide­ally a school should have an ex­tra staff mem­ber who can adopt a pas­toral role, and is able to check-in reg­u­larly with pupils, but for many schools, with fund­ing and staffing con­straints, this re­mains a pipe dream.

She agrees that proven strate­gies in­clude a re­duced timetable and of­fer­ing the pupil a ‘safe space’ dur­ing the day. This could be just an of­fice, where they can get away from the stresses of school.

“For pupils in this sit­u­a­tion sim­ply get­ting in the school gates is an achieve­ment and it’s im­por­tant to build on that.”

And if a re­duced timetable is in place, all of the teach­ing staff need to be made aware of the is­sue.

“If a teacher is in­sen­si­tive or un­aware of the is­sue and makes com­ments in the class, it can add to the prob­lem,” she says.

‘The best prac­tice ap­proach is where all the rel­e­vant agen­cies, the school, par­ent and pupil work to­gether in a col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach to tackle the prob­lem,” says Law­less.

There are sup­ports avail­able, she says, but they are not con­sis­tent, wait­ing times can de­pend on where you live, the at­ti­tude of the school is key, and of­ten par­ents are un­aware of where to turn for help.

“For ex­am­ple, Jig­saw of­fers early in­ter­ven­tion in the form of free, one-to-one sup­port over a six-week pe­riod,” she says.

The De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion says its Ac­tion Plan on Bul­ly­ing sets out its ap­proach to tack­ling bul­ly­ing and pro­mot­ing an anti-bul­ly­ing cul­ture in schools.”

How­ever, Law­less says from her re­search many schools need greater aware­ness of the prob­lem, too of­ten the aware­ness only comes af­ter the prob­lem sur­faces, and schools are thus slow to act.

Sarah and her mother were keen to share their story with Feel­good as they be­lieve there are other teens out there be­ing bul­lied and iso­lated at school, and who may not know where to turn to for help. Their ad­vice is not to give up.

“Stay mo­ti­vated, it’s hard, but it will pay off. It was great to know my par­ents al­ways had my back. Try and stay pos­i­tive,” says Sarah.

She de­scribes the prin­ci­pal and vice-prin­ci­pal in her sec­ond school as ‘like sec­ond par­ents’, and says with­out them and the sup­port of her par­ents, she wouldn’t have suc­ceeded.

As I leave she says, “If I met you 18 months ago, I wouldn’t even have been able to look you in the eye, never mind talk to you. And while I lost out on a lot, and the ex­pe­ri­ence was ter­ri­ble at the time, I wouldn’t change it. I feel I be­came a bet­ter, stronger per­son. I was al­ways the hanger on in the group, never quite part of the cir­cle, now I have a new group of friends on my own terms.”

Sarah and her mother’s names have been changed to pro­tect their iden­tity

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