Scared of school? Me too

Joseph Franklin

Joseph Franklin - Credit: Archant

A 12 year old boy’s new book sheds light on the small number of children whose anxiety about school stretches far beyond the norm, finds Ben Lazarus.

Many of us will have gone through a phase when we didn’t want to go to school - but few of us will feel the horror of the estimated one per cent of children who have ‘school phobia’.

Their aversion is so severe they experience extreme anxiety at the very thought of attending classes.

Two years ago, Joseph Franklin, 12, suddenly became petrified of going to The Academy School in Hampstead.

But after learning coping mechanisms to deal with his phobia, he is now back completing the missed year and has written a book detailing his experience in the hope of helping other children with the condition.

His mother Melissa Franklin from Hampstead Garden Suburb says there was no obvious explanation why Joseph suddenly couldn’t face going to school, but suspects it was triggered by a combination of a nasty injury and her mother’s death.

“About two years ago in May he broke his arm and we rushed him to the Royal Free - it was all very traumatic,” she says.

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“He had an operation and was in hospital for four days. Then he had quite a bit of time off school because he couldn’t write and had to keep going for check-ups.

“After the summer holidays he went back in September and started getting very tearful.

“At the time, my mum was very ill with Alzheimer’s. I spent a lot of time with her and so he knew I was upset and it sort of escalated from that.

“My mum passed away in the November. It was just horrendous.”

For most of a year, Joseph refused to go to school.

“There was no pattern. Some days he just wouldn’t even attempt to go in,” she says.

“We tried using a taxi as in my car he would just roll in ball and we would be sat in my car on Hampstead High Street for hours.”

Mrs Franklin believes the phobia might also have been caused by separation anxiety

“When I dropped him off he would take it out on me. He would hit me and start punching me.

“I didn’t know how I was supposed to be dealing with it. Should I run away or wait or be kind, or be cruel to be kind? It was very hard emotionally.”

Mrs Franklin praises the school for their understanding.

“They were extremely nurturing and helpful and have an amazing school councillor. She took him on board and was just incredibly helpful with him, me and my husband.”

Her son is now getting by and taking each day as it comes.

“The older he gets the more mature he gets,” she says.

“He says that it’s been a real learning curve, and that when you go through things in life it makes you stronger.

“He’s had to learn coping mechanisms, and because he’s dyslexic and struggles with academic work, to learn how to get on with his work slowly and gently.”

The idea to write You’re Never Alone (Grosvenor House Publishing) sprang from Cynthia Perlam, the speech and language therapist who helps Joseph deal with his anxiety.

“She showed Joseph her book and he was really excited and admired the cover and said ‘wow can you actually buy this is in a shop’.

“And she said ‘well, you can write a book. You can do anything, so she scribed for him and he told his story. That was very special.”

A socially popular and sporty child, Joseph wants the book to help others who may be in the position he found himself in, she adds.

“He said that if he could help one person who has gone through what he has gone through then he has done an amazing thing. He wanted them to know that they are not alone.”

In an extract, Joseph writes: “If you ask me how I felt, that year when the phobia came into my life and took me over, it was like I was in jail, I was like a tiny little person crouched in the corner inside a huge jail made of iron bars and I thought I would never be able to get out of of that prison.”

“It was frustrating at home and scary at school, I was bored, I was angry, full of panic and exhausted. I would wake up every morning and feel like crying.”

The money raised from the book will be donated to an Alzheimer’s charity and Mrs Franklin is currently trying to get stocked in school libraries and major bookshops.