The medical community in Northern Virginia is doing its part to help students address and knock down obstacles that are preventing them from regularly attending school.
Both Inova Kellar Center in Fairfax and Dominion Hospital—with campuses in Falls Church and Chantilly—offer programs designed to pinpoint the reasons a student is refusing to attend school and put in place supports to treat the problem.
Dominion Hospital just recently launched its school refusal program, called CHOICES. Michael Repie, senior director of Dominion’s clinical services, said the behavioral health hospital began hearing from more and more parents struggling to convince their kids to attend school. They referred some students to Jonathan Dalton, a psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change in Rockville, MD, but his waiting list grew longer until he had to refer families to clinics outside of the region.
“We saw there was a real need in this area for exposure therapy and school refusal treatment,” Repie said.
Dominion’s school refusal program will work with teens 13 to 17 years old and their parents to help understand the problem at its root and develop interventions to transition students back into the classroom.
Therapist Jessie Patton, Dominion’s clinical team lead, said one out of five teens will refuse to go to school at one point. “That’s a significant percentage,” she said. “We see this issue where kids are not going to school consistently because they’re anxious or fearful of things that are going on at school, whether it’s peer interactions or academic expectations.”
“We’ll use assessments to nail down the reason they’re refusing school,” Repie added. “Are they trying to escape bullying, math class, a particular teacher, aversive social situations? Or maybe they have social phobia, hypersensitivity to judgment from peers or teachers? Or are they pursuing rewards outside of school, like more attention from parents or video games or binge-watching TV?”
The program is offered from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday for six to eight weeks. The goal toward the end of the program is to transition the student to outpatient programs for ongoing support as they return to school. Parents are required to attend two sessions a week to learn how to support their child, how to manage their child’s behaviors, and how to recognize and discontinue incentives for their child to stay home from school.
“The good news is school refusal is treatable,” Repie said. “If we’re able to identify what Dr. Dalton refers to as ‘the allergy,’ and create exposure therapies, it’s a highly treatable condition.”
Dalton will also be the keynote speaker at Loudoun County Public Schools’ Navigating the Path to Student Wellness Conference, planned for 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13. His talk is called “Anxiety of Our Youth: What to Know and How to Help.”
Inova Kellar Center also sees school refusal patients through its Partial Hospitalization Program. Rick Leichtweis, the center’s senior director, said his team works with adolescents and their families around the issues preventing successful school experiences and coordinates with the schools a transition back into the classroom while the child is still in treatment.
“Those students then step down to an Intensive Outpatient Program,” he said, “which is after school, that allows us to continue to monitor and address the issues of anxiety and/or depression that have interfered with their ability to access an appropriate educational experience.”
Dominion Hospital plans to launch its program in November out of its main campus in Falls Church and later expand it to its Chantilly campus, at 14501 George Carter Way in January. Repie said the price of the program depends on a family’s insurance plan. For more information or to schedule an assessment, call 703-538-2872 or go to dominionhospital.com.