School Makes Some Students Anxious. Is Physically Showing Up Necessary?

Bradley loves baking lava cakes.

A high school senior with long curly hair who participates in a vocational program, Bradley spends about half the day at culinary school and then half in “at-home instruction” through a nearby high school run by a statewide public education service.

Perhaps what he loves most, even more than decadent molten chocolate, is the bustle.

It’s changed his attitude about school. When he was younger, he viewed school as a chore. Now, he views it as a way to do what he’s passionate about. “The culinary part of school has given me a really big rejuvenation in life,” he says.

Bradley needs to move around. Rather than being stuck at a desk, forced to sit still for long hours, shuffling boring papers, at culinary school he’s physically active. He’s running around the kitchen. He’s cooking, and his senses are engaged.

“I can feel. I can love. I can’t love an essay, but I can love my food,” he says.

It wasn’t always this way.

When the regular public school he attended several years ago closed during the pandemic, Bradley switched to remote learning. That meant that he didn’t have to wake up, get dressed or keep a schedule in the same way, he says.

“It was just people on my screen,” he says, dismissively. He would turn on the computer and fall back asleep.

For some students like Bradley — who spent much of his middle and high school career avoidant, a nonclinical term that denotes a visceral refusal to attend school — remote learning can be a way of extending their evasion of the classroom, according to several clinical psychologists who spoke with EdSurge. Virtual schooling, in those instances, allows students to keep away from physical school spaces. While that may offer students relief in the short term, the coping mechanism can have negative consequences, some experts say.

Yet mental health professionals also question the wisdom of “forcing” students to attend schools where they are clearly uncomfortable. Ultimately, experts advocate for alternative instruction that’s tailored to each student’s needs.

What’s the right kind of school for students suffering from anxiety? It’s complicated.

For Bradley, doing virtual school during the pandemic certainly deepened his sense of isolation.

“It definitely made things worse,” he says.

He wasn’t leaving the house much and became a shut in, he says. His friendships were completely online, and his buddies lived in faraway places like Oregon, Tennessee and Serbia. That meant that he kept odd hours, messaging friends at 4 a.m., then waking back up at 2 p.m.

It was lonely. “I just became this fool. Didn’t leave the house for three months. Didn’t talk to anyone outside of my family. Fully shut down,” Bradley says.

And when school returned in person, Bradley couldn’t bring himself to go back.

Becoming an Outsider

It would be hard to identify a single cause of Bradley’s school avoidance, according to his mother, Deirdre. (EdSurge is only using first names for members of the family out of concern for their privacy.) But it began in middle school, around the seventh grade.

When he was younger he had lots of friends, but as he aged he became an outsider, according to his mother.

Bradley would miss school here and there, but the growing tally of absences worried his mom. There were some great teachers who could connect with him, she recalls, but overall it was a losing struggle. The problem only grew.

Bradley’s eighth and ninth grade years were a blur of therapists, and county and crisis management services. Each one had their own diagnoses — from oppositional defiant disorder to autism — and to this day his own mother is frustratingly unclear on what condition he has. Bradley believes he has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

According to his mother, he was committed to a hospital for two weeks in the middle of the summer before 10th grade and assigned a probation officer through the “persons in need of supervision” program in family court, a program meant to wrangle “incorrigible” or “habitually disobedient” minors when their parents cannot.

Nothing worked in getting him back to school, or in engaging him with his life. By the time Bradley was in high school, he couldn’t connect socially. He would become enraged and punch holes in the wall.

“And then I was like, maybe he’s just difficult,” Deirdre says. “Some people are just difficult.”

His mother cried all the time. She fought with her son.

“I felt horrible about it. But I also was so desperate,” Deirdre says.

Special Supports

Youth like Bradley may do everything within their power to skip going to school in person.

Yet some psychologists argue that the goal should be to bring these avoidant students back into the physical building.

Sometimes, in a rush to help avoidant students, schools will put them in online school, says Anna Swan, a clinical psychologist. She says that approach is rarely the most helpful solution.

For certain subsets of school-avoidant kids, online school can at times become a way of furthering the avoidance by permanently removing them from the traditional developmental path, argues Michael Detweiler, an executive clinical director for Lumate Health, a cognitive behavioral telehealth platform that works with schools. It’s important to get them back into the physical space of the building to reestablish that connection, he adds.

But solutions to school avoidance must meet the unique needs of each student.

In her advocacy, Monica Mandell, a social worker and family advocate for avoidant children in New York, usually takes a different tack.

Her work involves separating the student from the school where he or she is experiencing problems. For avoidant students, it’s crucial to move them into schools designed to handle significant mental health needs, she argues.

The onus for attendance tends to fall entirely on the parents, Mandell says. So she tries to shift the responsibility onto both the school and parent. That means getting special education classifications and individualized education plans (IEPs). It also may mean moving students to an “out of district,” a school that is designed to provide an education but that also has significant support staff who offer counseling and behavioral management and that allows for flexibility in the day, she says.

For a school-avoidant student, the best classification for is an emotional disturbance, Mandell argues, which requires some kind of diagnosis by a psychologist or psychiatrist. It can be a fight to make a school district understand that avoidance is a mental health need that denies the student the proper learning in a general education setting, Mandell says.

The process for securing these kinds of accommodations can take a couple of months. While the student is out of class, Mandell tries to get him or her assigned to at-home instruction, which has to be provided by the school system. It can be virtual, in person in the home or in a public space, she says. Usually, she adds, it’s taught by a teacher following the core curriculum.

So, in Mandell’s approach, students don’t get coaxed back into the school building. Eventually, they’re not going to see anybody from the building at all. They start fresh.

A Sense of Belonging

Some students are more hands-on, harder to be pigeonholed into the standard school models, and they have individual needs that must be met in order to succeed in education, says Anne Marie Albano, a clinical psychologist and professor at Columbia University. Those kids who white-knuckle it through the end of high school can end up miserable because their anxiety hasn’t been addressed, she adds. They can get stuck at home, no longer avoiding only school, but now life in general. It’s worth asking, Albano says, if the school environment is right for the specific student.

Deirdre, the mother from New York, couldn’t put her finger on just a single factor that helped her son, she says. But the most significant certainly was finding somewhere he felt he belonged.

Eventually, Bradley connected with Mandell, and she got him an IEP and suggested he switch schools. He wasn’t sure at first but became convinced. While waiting to transfer somewhere new, he stayed home and took classes online for a few months. Initially, he says, this pulled him further into his stupor, eliminating even the limited interactions with his teachers he had during the coronavirus lockdowns.

In the long run, though, making a change paid off. When he finally got to River View High School, an alternative school with a focus on social, emotional and learning needs, in the middle of his sophomore year, the specialized support offered there helped him ease back into the world. Then, in September of last year, when he was a junior, Bradley joined the vocational program that let him go to culinary school.

That gave him a purpose, his mother says.

These days, Bradley has a future in mind. He plans to go to the Culinary Institute of America, a famous private institution in New York’s Hyde Park. He wants to be the manager of a restaurant, somewhere with people around him and minimal paperwork, he says. Often, he adds, there doesn’t seem to be much passion in those jobs. But that’s something he thinks he can bring to the table.

For his mother, Deirdre, the grief was worth it. One moment sticks out above the rest.

Late one night, Bradley came to her. He was a junior then, in culinary school, two months shy of his 17th birthday. Deirdre, who was working from home, had just finished her job duties for the day. Bradley was sitting there, waiting to talk — and said that he wanted to see a therapist.

This teenager, who she’d spent years fighting to see therapists, to simply go to school, was telling her that he wanted to do it.

It floored her, she says: “It had to be when he was ready.”



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