Lucie's journey from school refuser to full-time student

Posted on 26 October 2017 by Jaimie Dreja

Lino print from one of Lucie's art classes

Pictured above: one of Lucie's lino prints, created during an art lesson.

When I met Lucie*, she was 14 years old. She had been in care for 10 months and was currently living in a residential home with four other young people. She had been out of school for some time; she wanted to learn, but didn’t want to attend a mainstream school. We decided that I would come out to her residential unit once a week for one-hour tutoring lessons. Together we picked Lucie’s favourite subjects: Humanities and Art. During this time, we learnt about the Vikings and completed small art projects. Lucie also completed homework tasks and attended Art Therapy sessions weekly, at Mackillop School, Maidstone. Lucie had a thirst for learning and made the most of the lessons we had together.

After a few weeks of tutoring, Lucie and I had built a strong rapport and she felt comfortable to tell me why she didn’t want to return to a mainstream school. At her previous school, Lucie had experienced bullying and had also lost trust in her teachers. As a result, she had developed Social Anxiety Disorder. Lucie would have anxious thoughts about what her peers thought about her and felt she was different from everyone else. Her heart would race and she experienced nausea and headaches.

The Care Team and I had many supportive conversations with Lucie about returning to school and by the end of Term 1, she decided to give it a go. This would be a slow process, due to Lucie’s social barriers. Dropping Lucie off on the first day without any supports would be setting her up to fail.

The school and Care Team collaborated on a plan to support Lucie’s return to school. We discussed a modified timetable and ensured that the teachers were aware of Lucie’s anxieties, providing them with guidance on how best to support her.

Lucie began school by having one-on-one tutoring sessions with me, in a room next to the library. I remember the first day for Lucie. She was extremely nervous and was feeling all the symptoms that came with social anxiety. Through coaching and support, Lucie was successful in staying for the hour.

The technique I used to address Lucie’s anxieties is called ‘Graded Exposure’. By identifying anxieties and gradually exposing Lucie to the feared environment (school), Lucie could manage her fear by knowing what was going to happen and therefore gradually feeling less anxious.

Together we identified what made Lucie feel anxious and how she could deescalate her feelings. Knowing someone understood her anxieties and that she had a safe place to be while at school was very comforting for Lucie.

Lucie continued this routine for several weeks and eventually added another day of tutoring with a different teacher. By the end of the Term 2, Lucie could confidently walk on campus with minimal anxiety.

By Term 3, Lucie felt confident enough to increase her school hours and meet some of her peers. The school chose girls who were in her class to give her a tour of the school. Lucie was extremely nervous about this, but knowing that I was close by and knowing her environment allowed her to persevere.

Not all of Lucie’s journey has been smooth sailing. I remember the day that Lucie had finally decided to try and sit in a classroom with her peers, with me by her side. Unfortunately, all the planning and structure in the world cannot foresee the energy of Year 9 boys straight after lunch on a Friday. The classroom was loud and there were water bottles flying across the room. I could see immediately that Lucie was under a lot of stress and was steadily becoming more disconnected. At the beginning of the lesson I held 10 fingers under the table and asked Lucie to point and tell me how she was feeling out of ten, ten being great. Lucie started off with a seven but after 30 minutes was down to a two. We left the classroom early and Lucie had a big headache and a very sore stomach. Together we discussed what happened and how we could improve the experience for next time. I reassured her that she had done so well and come so far.

Learning from our previous mistake, Lucie attended a much quieter morning class the next week and she stayed for two periods, creating some beautiful art work. Her school attendance has steadily increased over time, to three days a week in Term 4 and has recently attended a lesson by herself. She has also stayed during recess to talk with her new friends.

Lucie’s transition from school refuser to part-time attendance and eventual full-time student has been a positive experience for all involved. Her story highlights the importance of having a supportive and collaborative team and school to ensure the best outcomes for all students in out of home care.

When asked to describe her educational journey with Mackillop Family services, a big smile appears on Lucie’s face and she says one word “Great!”.

Jaimie Dreja is an Education Support Worker with MacKillop Education Services.

* Name changed to protect privacy.