From School Refusal to School Readiness: A Child’s Phenomenal Transformation
BY KIM WITMAN
Have you ever known a child who has struggled with school/separation anxiety? As parents, of a child who has experienced paralyzing separation anxiety from an early age; we have sought out professional guidance and utilized numerous intervention strategies in attempt to help our child overcome this unwelcome anxiety.
There have been strategies that have helped, on some levels. Yet, none have negated our child’s fear-based anxiety response. This was, until we were blessed by a string of divine connections, which led us to Rhythmic Movement Training International, RMTi.
RMTi is a movement based, primitive (infant or neo-natal) reflex integration program that uses developmental movements, gentle isometric pressure and self-awareness to rebuild the foundations necessary to help overcome postural, learning, sensory, emotional and behavioural challenges for children and adults.
RMTi is a nonprofit organization that provides professional training & licensing and offers a worldwide network of instructors & consultants to the community. 1
The RMTi website contains information pertaining to primitive reflexes and the developmental importance of their integration. After reading about numerous reflexes, one in particular caught our attention, the Fear Paralysis Reflex, FPR.
According to the RMTi website… Some possible Long term affects of an unintegrated FPR are:
- Shallow, difficult breathing
- Underlying anxiety or negativity
- Insecure, low self-esteem
- Constant feelings of overwhelm
- Extreme shyness, fear in groups
- Excessive fear of embarrassment
- Fear of separation from a loved one, clinging
- Sleep & eating disorders
- Feeling stuck
- Elective mutism
- Withdrawal from touch
- Extreme fear of failure, perfectionism
- Aggressive or controlling behaviour, craves attention
- Low tolerance to stress 2
After reading this list, it was evident that our child had nearly every challenge.
Now WHO could we turn to help our child to overcome theses challenges?
We praise God for lighting our path and guiding us to the RMTi organization. And we will be forever grateful for a licensed RMTi consultant, Elizabeth Hickman, who willingly and graciously agreed to support us.
It is hard to believe, that only a few short months ago, our child was experiencing severe school anxiety. He was refusing to go to school; and after accruing 16.5 absences and an additional 16 tardinesses, we were meeting with his 504 team to brainstorm intervention strategies.
During this challenging two month period, we witnessed daily anxiety and school avoidance behaviors. The anxiety would pour out of him from the moment he woke up. Our child would pretend to be sick, complaining of stomach aches. He would refuse to eat breakfast. He would stall and refuse to get dressed. He would refuse leave our home to catch the morning bus; and any attempt to make him do so, would trigger unwanted tantrums and meltdowns.
After a few weeks of extremely challenging mornings, we began to see some combative behaviors emerge. This is when we, as his parents, were completely at a loss. Our entire family was grappling for a way to keep our child calm; and stop all of these unwanted behaviors. Yet, our child was continuing to spiral out of control.
Sadly, we were experiencing multiple tantrums and major meltdowns every morning, in attempt to get him out the door. And whenever we did get him out the door, he would become so anxious and panicked. There were times when his entire body would tremble. He would sob and cling to me. Sometimes he would hide behind me, shielding himself view of others at the bus stop. And to add to his stressors, after vomiting at the bus stop in front of his peers; he was now embarrassed to ride the bus. So, I began driving him to school. During our commutes, he would kick the back of my seat and scream that he hated me, that he hated school, that no one understood him; and demanded that I pull the car over so he could vomit.
As his anxiety intensified; and all of his avoidant behaviors became worse. He was now vomiting multiple times a day. And the mere thought or mention of school, would send him running to the bathroom, and vomiting the entire contents of his stomach. After vomiting in school for the first time, he learned that this behavior initially earned him an excused absence; as he was told not to return to school for twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, this only reinforced his compulsion to vomit. Our hearts sunk, as we witnessed how much his fear and anxiety was interfering, with not only his education, but also his mental and physical well-being.
Our child is bright, yet during this time, he was utterly terrified of school. He became very good at doing whatever he could to delay our arrival to school. And whenever we arrived late, he would cling to me, in the front office. He would wrap his both his arms and legs around my legs and refuse to let go.
While clinging, whenever others would approach him, he would often withdraw and selectively lose his ability to speak. He hide his face; refusing to look at the person. He would continue to cling; and reposition himself, using my body as a shield. There were times when he would just completely refuse to answer them. And other times, when he would only answer their questions, indirectly. He would do so, by whispering the response in my ear. Then ask me to repeat what he whispered. It was as if his weakened voice; didn’t have the strength nor the confidence to respond without the reliance of a parent.
Our child was stuck in this chronic cycle of overwhelm. He would vacillate in and out of these anxious, fearful and clingy states. And any attempt to get him to let go would often trigger a heightened state of anxiety. Every morning, we experienced this complex and delicate puzzle of figuring out how to get him to calm, willingly let go of me and transition into the classroom.
We consulted with doctors, pediatricians, psychologists and therapists; and were using numerous strategies, on a regular basis, in attempt to help our child overcome his challenges. Yet, his perceived fear of school was so deep, that no amount of reasoning, distraction or redirection was working. We modified his diet by eliminating inflammatory foods and dyes. We used calming strategies, printable schedules, timers, quick goodbye rituals, transitional comfort objects, consistent drop off routines, incentives, praise, consequences for unwanted behaviors, rewards, reassurance… Yet nothing was negating his debilitating anxiety.
Our child pleaded with us to allow him to stay home. He insisted that he could not handle all of the learning demands being placed on him at school. And he repeatedly told us that the full day of kindergarten was way too long. I began to question whether there were some learning challenges; that might be playing into his anxiety. His teacher and 504 team of professionals were all understanding and supportive. Yet, we were all perplexed. None of us could figure this what was behind all of this. As there was no, one thing, that was driving this debilitating anxiety.
Our entire family was distressed and depleted. We were feeling the weighted effects of supporting a loved one who was stuck in high alert. And none of us were sleeping well. During this time, we did a lot of praying, and reaching out for a solution. Thankfully, at our lowest of lows, our prayers were answered.
After we began to offer daily movements, we began seeing a subtle shift in our child’s attitude towards school and his avoidant behaviors. There was just an internal calmness and quiet inner confidence that began to emerge. And his debilitating anxiety was finally beginning to lessen.
Now only a few months later, after offering our child these simple, yet powerful movements on a daily basis; we have now witnessed an astonishing transformation. First off, it is still hard for us to believe that our child’s school avoidant behaviors have receded; and he has been successfully entering school ON TIME, for the past three months. And throughout this time, there has been very little to no visible signs of school anxiety.
In the morning, he is more calm and happy now. His attitude about going to school has shifted. He leaves our home relaxed and comfortable. It gives us great joy knowing that he is entering the classroom more grounded, balanced and regulated. He is far better prepared for the demands of classroom learning.
We have witnessed, first hand, how reflex integration activities have impacted our child’s school readiness and ability to attend school. We are grateful for being able to send our child to school feeling comfortable and ready to learn. And we continue to witness how deeply and profoundly these developmental movements are impacting our child.
Here is an example, of what an incredible tool, these movements have been for our family. A few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure if our family would make it to Church. Our child was rebounding from illness; and upon waking the first thing he asked was, “Is today Sunday? If it’s Sunday; then can I please stay home from Church today?” And interestingly, we had paused the movements, for the couple days that he was sick. Later that morning, I asked him if he would like to do his rhythmic movements, and he said, “Yes.” Within only a few minutes, he quit talking about not wanting to go to Church. And before I knew it; he looked more relaxed and told me that he loved me. I asked him how he was feeling and he replied, “I’m great. I think I might want to change my mind; because I really would like to go to Church, this morning.” We continue to be amazed at how these simple movements, are changing both the quality and outcomes of our day.
And to add to our joy, there are other noticeable improvements that we have been seeing. Our child is sleeping better, much more soundly. And, he is no longer awakening with frightening nightmares. He is less restless at bedtime and having far less trouble falling asleep.
Throughout the day, he is transitioning better. He has become more compliant and motivated to transition at meal time. His appetite has improved; and he has gained a few pounds. He has been more willing to try new foods; and he is more open to trying new things in general. And we have noticed him, being able to remain seated longer; and focusing better during self play. We have also noticed significant postural changes. He is less overwhelmed by sensory stimulation.
He has begun to initiate reading, writing and drawing activities more often at home. He also seems to be better at staying on task; without getting distracted. He is having far less emotional outbursts and tantrums. He is not as quick to anger; and we are not seeing the emotional liability. He has also been better able to regulate his emotions and control his impulses.
Last week, our child’s occupational therapist recommended his discharge from services. It brings us great joy knowing that he has exceeded all of his preset goals; and is currently completing all tasks at an age-appropriate level. What a welcomed change, after receiving weekly services, for the last four years.
I believe our greatest takeaway is that these innate movements are helping our child to feel safe, giving breath to his voice and providing him with a perception of security in a world, apart from his parents. These movements are wondrously building new connections, laying the essential neurological foundation to empower him move comfortably beyond the confines of home. Today, our child is better equipped to explore, learn and develop into his fullest potential.
We will continue to follow our child’s lead, supporting him as best we can and gently nudging him to move forward along this amazing journey of reflex integration. We will be forever grateful for the divine gift of RMTi, which continues to bless our entire family with peace, hope, love and joy.
- Rhythmic Movement Training International, (2023). Welcome to RMTi. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.rhythmicmovement.org/
- Rhythmic Movement Training International, (2023). Fear Paralysis Reflex (FPR). Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.rhythmicmovement.org/