I cringed as the phone rang again. Four out of five weekdays, the nurse in school would call me to bring Youngest One home from school because he had a stomachache.

“And Mrs Lim, can you please not bring your child to school if he is not well?”

For the whole year, I was just sending him from doctor to doctor to find out why he had this stomach upset every weekday, but during school holidays it would be fine. In the end, the gastroenterologist told me that there was nothing wrong with him.

Though those stomach aches were real, they were from stress and not from a physical illness. Over the last few years, I had brushed that off as just anxiety, until I found out that it was a bigger problem than that.

In one of the meetings with a school that has 4,000 students last week, we were told that school refusal affects 3-5 percent of their students.

We have handled a number of school refusal cases, and the conclusion is that parents should be more observant about it, and catch it earlier, as it does get really difficult in late stages. Typically, school refusal affects students on both ends of the bell curve: very high achievers and gifted students as well as those who are not coping. They often start by having aches somewhere on school days, and then it evolves to blatantly refusing school for specific reasons.

The problems typically start at around 13 years old. Problems can stem from anything! Unhappy with the teachers, friends, school environment, curriculum, tests, stress, bully etc etc etc.

I think finding the root of the problem is very difficult, so the key to handling is being very discerning as parents and educators. The moment we suspect something is not right, we need to right the situation before it is too late.

I have seen cases where very, very smart students just hate school so much, they will lose their chance of being who can really be completely. In one particular case, I saw an RI boy who finished ‘A’ levels with mediocre results.

I had imagined this boy, who wanted to be a doctor, would have made it easily, compared to some of our less academically gifted children who did make medical school. He was from the GEP, and super intelligent. Unfortunately, because of his mishandled school refusal problems, everyone was happy for him when he made it to an average local university. His self-esteem is low, and he refused any more help.

If his parents or educators had helped him earlier, I think providing an alternative to him could have helped him maximize his potential, made him a happier student, and he would have made it to medical school easily, given his intelligence and capability. Nothing is worse than seeing a student not maximizing his potential.

University is a funny thing. If we get into the wrong course, it is really hard to reverse that without a consequence. In this case, I hate to think that we have missed a chance.

For Youngest One’s case, he was suffering from low self-esteem, clinical depression and he hated everything about school, except for Art lessons. It was shocking because just 2 months before his school refusal problems, he was enjoying everything in school, and was a super conscientious student. Something triggered and I still do not know what it was. He hinted it was something his form teacher said in one occasion. Just one occasion.

I had to take him out for months and reteach him about education and put him on an alternate path. We had wanted to keep him in school because he enjoyed it so much, but that plan did not work. It was pointless to enrol him in a school, pay school fees, and then drive him home after an hour in school. I decided it was far more useful to give him a proper alternate education.

He is now doing his internship as the last semester for his bachelor degree program. I am thankful we managed to give him a good education but most importantly, he is a happy teenager again.

Is your child having problems in school and you don’t even notice? We all like to think that things like that won’t happen to our kids. Unfortunately, by the time it does, it is often very hard to reverse. Remember 1 out of every 20 students according to the school principal I met has this problem. Look carefully. What is the chances that yours might?

If you suspect your kid is having school problems, please seek help. Either talk to a counselor or write to me and I will try to put you to our counselors free of charge.

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