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Ghost Children - Jemima's story

Yesterday the Centre for Social Justice released their latest statistics confirming that a staggering 100,000 children have failed to return to school since the covid pandemic. These children are more commonly referred to as #ghostchildren

There are a number of reasons for this and for those highly vulnerable children who regard school the only safe place in their lives, it is very concerning.

However, at Stable and Wild we have received an increasing number of calls post pandemic from parents or carers of children who represent another sector this category. Prior to lock down these children were attending school, but since, have been unable or unwilling to return, due to high levels of anxiety. These are not children who are classified as vulnerable or at high risk.

So what is happening to those children?

Jemima is an example of one such child.

We were contacted back in Nov 22 by a parent who had been signposted to us by the local authority.

Jemima was 12 at the time and Mum described her behaviour coming out of lockdown as “aggressive and angry with defiant and controlling tendencies”

Previously a chatty and confident child Jemimas behaviour had started to change for the worst.

Life at home had become a challenge and Jemimas aggression was initially just directed towards her parents.

Mum described one instance when her behaviour had become so intense that they had to restrain her as she had become so dysregulated that they had ended up in A & E.

As Jemima made the transition from primary to secondary school she started to exhibit signs of not being able to cope at all during the school day and reverted to aggressive and volatile outbursts, there too.

By October 2021 Jemima had stopped attending school altogether. Her resilience and confidence had hit rock bottom and her only strategy was to try to control all of the environments she found herself in through her fight instinct.

By this point she was not engaging with her friends, was spending hours alone in her bedroom and never wanted to participate in activities with other people.

Her previously outgoing and chatty personality had become shrouded by her need to be in control of all aspects of her life and when she felt that slipping away she would become disillusioned and disengaged - thus making her world even smaller than it already was.

Parents met with a family therapist and over the 2 years post lockdown, numerous theories had been explored about the problems behind Jemima’s behaviour, from autism to multiple personality disorder.

This was a family in crisis.

Mum described their situation as follows:

“Each day we don’t know if she will or won’t do anything or how she will be. We ask very little of her and even then, it’s too much”

Jemima liked animals and when a contact in the local authority learned of her situation she called Stable and Wild and arranged for Mum to visit us.

Mum explained that she felt that Jemima wanted to return to school, but at that point it didn’t feel safe for her to do so. She said she thought that her daughter felt overwhelmed by the demands to fit in and meet expectations and as a result would completely shut down and go into fight mode as her safety felt threatened.

In late November 2022 Jemima started a 1-1 programme at Stable and Wild

Initially the coach who Jemima would be working with sent photographs of herself and the environment that Jemima would be coming to. She also sent photos of the animals on site and a little information about their backgrounds and their own stories.

Jemima agreed to come along to meet the animals and initially her sessions focused on exploring feelings of safety and creating safe zones at the centre. Jemima did not talk very much, but through contact with the animals and guidance from her coach she gradually became more confident in that space and the Stable and Wild community.

One breakthrough was working with Magic, one of the horses on site. Magic was kept in a paddock on his own and was not allowed to go in with the other horses. Jemima learned that Magic was a bully and tried to control the other horses, by biting, kicking or physically pursuing them. He was not not aware of how his behaviour made the other horses feel and how his lack of empathy and understanding had resulted in him only having limited contact with the other horses. Jemima was able to reflect on how this mirrored her own behaviour and by working with Magic started to build empathy and trust.

Over the past months, Jemima has worked through many different changes during her weekly sessions. During sessions with the rabbits she was able to observe how the rabbits coped when a new rescue rabbit was introduced into their enclosure. Through observing the behaviour and interaction between the rabbits she was able to consider how she may be able to cope with these changes herself.

During the past months Jemima has been able to reflect on her experiences at Stable and Wild and her confidence and self esteem have returned. She is now chatty and confident and understands that she can plan for change to reduce the impact or anxiety around it. Where that is not possible, she has learned that she can cope with it and has strategies to support that.

Jemima is now regularly accessing tutoring support in Maths English Science and History. She is looking forward to returning to mainstream school in September and there is a transition plan in place to support this. She currently has zoom sessions with school and will attend some lessons over the next few months supported by her coach, to aid this transition and to ensure she feels comfortable.

Jemima has recently done 2 sleepovers with her friends from her secondary school and is engaging with the external world again.

The journey isn’t complete and it is likely that there will be set backs along the way, but it is important that Jemima knows she can recover from these and with the support from parents, her coach, her tutor, school and the local authority there is no reason to think that a full return to school will not be able to happen.

Jemima is just one of the 100,000 ghost children referred to in yesterday’s report , but her story is not an uncommon one. Her family had reached rock bottom and Jemima’s life was one of fear and aggression, with no prospect of a route out.

At Stable and Wild we understand that ensuring a child feels emotionally safe is the first step in being able to get behind the presenting behaviour and to really help them to make a positive change in their life. Nature and animals help hugely in that process.

If you are a parent or carer with a child who is struggling to attend school please do not hesitate to get in touch. There is help available and all is not lost, you are certainly not alone.


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