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
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