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Open Thread: A Case of School Phobia


At some point, most of us have hidden behind our parents at the classroom door. Rebecca Maykish, now 17, remembers her mother prying her off a banister at the age of five.

But for Maykish, of Palmerton, Pa., the terror never stopped. She was eventually diagnosed with school phobia, a condition that renders time in a classroom so miserable that she says she feels like she's having a heart attack.

Her family won a settlement from the district to pay for her public education. The Maykishes spent $45,000 special fund on what they call a variety of instructional and therapeutic expenses. Some of those expenses included summer camp and a modeling class, but mother Barbara Maykish says the idea was always to build stepping stones back to regular class. The saga gets complicated from there, but today the district is fining the family for Rebecca's truancy, and the family is seeking a civil rights lawyer.

And we're seeking your reaction. Ever heard of school phobia? Ever had it? Got an answer for this situation?



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I've never heard of school phobia. It may be a valid condition, but I don't understand how someone with school phobia can attend modeling classes and not attend a school with smaller classes. It just seems very fishy to me.

Sent by elizabeth (@elizs) | 10:21 AM | 7-1-2008

If she really does have problems, try virtual schooling. In Florida we have Florida Virtual School. The child is still enrolled in a legimate High School but all classes are instructed by certified teachers. The classes are free. Look into a similar program in your state.

Sent by Paulette | 10:55 AM | 7-1-2008

Quit being your daughter's crutch

Sent by robin | 10:56 AM | 7-1-2008

Yes! I absolutely had school phobia as a child. I had panic attacks in the lunchroom and at recess. The lights and sounds and smells of the school made me ill. Completing homework, taking tests, answering questions in class: they all made me feel panicked. I wasn't an underachiever, either--I was a good student who, for some reason, was terrified of school.

It took until at least fifth grade for these feelings to ease. I can sympathize with this young girl.

Sent by Jen | 11:19 AM | 7-1-2008

I wish NPR would clarify something here. As I understand it, the school district is fining Maykish for truancy starting sometime this year. Maykish received 100 truancy notices, and she is fined $154 per notice (for a total of $15,400, which the court reduced to $11,000).

Here's what I'd like to know: Is $154 per truancy notice normal? And is 100 notices over the course of a few months normal? (I'm pretty sure my parents didn't have to pay that much for my own numerous truancies.)

This case is really just that of a family being fined the outrageous sum of $11,000 because a 17-year-old failed to attend school for a few months. NPR should investigate that issue, rather than speculating about the legitimacy of "school phobia."

Sent by Edward Noodleburgh | 11:21 AM | 7-1-2008

I'm not clear how boarding school is much diffeent than public school from a classroom/social environment. This is a hard sell.

Sent by Jeff | 11:25 AM | 7-1-2008

What I really don't understand is where exactly that money went if not to alternatives to public school, like one of those tutoring centers (Sylvan, etc). Why wasn't her mother doing everything possible to get her daughter ready to face the real world? Frankly, I would have been using the money to get textbooks, teaching aids, and computer software in order to put my kid ahead of the curve rather than frittering it away on summer camp and hoping that my daughter could muddle her way through a Babysitter Twins book.

Sent by Greg | 11:54 AM | 7-1-2008

As a psychiatrist, it has been my expereince that "school phobia," has little, if anything, to do with school. Rather, it is an issue with severe separation anxiety, usually relating to difficulties separating from the mother (who is usually the primary caretaker). Typically beginning with first grade, the symptoms may progress to the level of a significant disability, if the problem is not addressed and corrected early. The small child who is anxious about leaving home should be gently reassured that all will be ok, but should also be taken to school every day. This usually results in rapid resolution of the symptoms.
Psychodynamically, the underlying issue is usually the mother's reluctance to let go of her child, thus conveying worry of separation to the child. This may also need to be addressed.
If the child is allowed to stay at home, the symptoms may abate, but eventually the reinforcement of school avoidance becomes so profound, that resolution becomes exceedingly difficult. Thus, it is rarely in the best interests of the child to establish a permanent home-based program.

Sent by John H. Rennick, M.D. | 11:55 AM | 7-1-2008

I didn't hear anything in the story about treatment for Rebecca's phobia. Many people with all kinds of phobias have made a lot of progress under the care of a doctor. I hope she's getting some treatment.

Sent by Maura | 11:57 AM | 7-1-2008

I recall as a child, looking forward to interacting with my classmates everyday I was at school. I take it Rebecca has no friends at school. Is her parents concerned about her development or the money?

Sent by Karl in CA | 11:58 AM | 7-1-2008

As the daughter was talking, i wondered if the daughter was a perfectionist and then she described herself as one and I thought "Ahhh". It seems to me that she is having panic attacks. It appears as if there hasn't been correct treatment in this case. I'm not a doctor by any means but there is failure all around for this girl by her mother and by the school.

Sent by lisa | 1:08 PM | 7-1-2008

The mother was so freaking defensive. I couldn't even listen to the whole thing.

Sent by Jennifer | 1:28 PM | 7-1-2008

Results after Googling the names in this story showed that this has really hit a nerve with the homeschooling community.

Sent by lisa | 1:40 PM | 7-1-2008

I can understand school phobia as a legitimate disorder, but I am mystified by the mother's complaint about the school not adequately teaching her daughter. I'm a homeschooling mother, and without the help of certified and trained teachers, I managed to school my kids. They all test above grade level.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of homeschool curriculum models out there, for all kinds of learners. Did she explore the idea of teaching her daughter herself?

Sent by Jodi in Oregon | 2:39 PM | 7-1-2008

What in Hades? Too many real issues affecting kids at school; poverty, disconnected school cultures to name two. Get real people. How many more psychoses can we create for normal feelings. Send your kid to school and tell her to suck it up. What happens when she leaves school? Workophobia?? This is what will unravel the foundations of a society. A generation where no one loses, everyone has a diagnosis and guess what? The world won't have it. The correction will leave us on our tails until we deny these morons space to spread this nonsense.

Sent by Dave (Elementary School Principal) | 5:20 PM | 7-1-2008

The quality of a radio show is inversely proportional to the number of sound effects.

(I turned this off after the first "rewind" effect.)

Sent by Todd Dumas | 6:22 PM | 7-1-2008

I grew up in a household that was practically held hostage by a brother who refused to go to school every day. School phobia was a traumatic reality for my parents and my siblings.

When my brother was in grade school, he screamed, kicked, and cried while my parents tried everything to get him into the classroom. They tried the calm, rational approach, followed by the threats of punishment, and over time it escalated to physically dragging him to school.

Once he was in the classroom, he was well-behaved and an "A" student. If not for the struggle of getting him there (and his terrible attendance record) his teachers would have never known he had a problem.

As he got older and bigger it became increasingly difficult (and finally impossible) for my parents to force him to do anything. My parents were exhausted. My other brother, sister, and I were mortified. It took a huge toll on the entire family.

My brother was finally diagnosed with school phobia, but the psychologist was not helpful in finding a solution. By the time he reached junior high, he was rarely attending classes. The principal threatened my parents every week with legal action.

In the end, my brother dropped out of school in the 9th grade. He attempted home schooling, but eventually quit that, too. When he was 19, he left an envelope next to my parents' computer. In it was his GED. Since then, he's always had a good-paying job. He owns a home. He is a great father to his son.

I don't know about other people's experiences with school phobia. But my childhood taught me that I can't judge any family from the outside.

Sent by Erin in Indiana | 10:04 PM | 7-1-2008

I found it weird that she sent her daughter to modeling school. I guess it can be argued that it was for self esteem issues, but how about sending her to some sort of accredited self esteem program rather than a school that's concerned with "looking pretty". Hopefully, the daughter didn't come out of the modeling thing with any changes in her eating habits.

Is there not a school that she could attend outdoors or something? She mentioned that it was the school building itself... somewhere there must be a school that looks more home-y or something.

I don't know, something about the modeling school just rubbed me the wrong way. The mother saying that the modeling thing and the multi-thousand dollar summer camp were all for the daughter's self esteem--it just seemed like that excuse could've said that about anything: "Well, we figured a Porsche would help her with her self esteem..."

Plus I guess I was rubbed the wrong way that the daughter has gone without schooling for about 5 years and the parents didn't get with it enough to say "Well, maybe being in an school building is out, but I'm going to home school you or something so that you're not 5 grades beneath your peers--so you're not struggling to string together a sentence on an Arby's application while your friends are heading off to college."

Sent by Jack | 10:26 PM | 7-1-2008

This mom has found a way to make money by using her daughter. Sick! If her daughter needs help, there is plenty of help that can be provided by district's various education specialists and her doctor. If a child can attend boarding school, she can most certainly go to a school with modifications. A 504 plan or IEP can be developed, if she qualifies, to meet her severe needs.

Sent by TK | 1:30 AM | 7-2-2008

Just because some parents can homeschool their children doesn't mean that all parents can. Do working parents (Who have absolutely postively no choice but to work in order to self-sufficiently support their children and themselves) have time to homeschool their kids? Preferably if they work second-third shifts. There are plenty of educators I know of who are adamantely opposed to home-schooling (there was a recent ruling in California regafding the matter). This parent has indeed failed to seek other educational options for her daughter. There are "alternative" schools that are equipped to handle her - if she had just taken even more time to search around. If there are shortages of educational resources for children that is reliable, then demanding that our leaders make educating special needs children a legislative priority should be on the table. It takes people to speak out and become pro-actively involved in order for any kind of educational progress to be made.

Sent by Lori | 4:58 AM | 7-2-2008

Not all schools are the same, and if the parent were really interested in the benefits of her daughter's education, she'd research one. As an educator, I find it an increasing trend, to have parents allow children to make decisions that have long-term results on their lives. While I totally agree that children need to have a voice and be heard, it is up to an intelligent and patient adult, to sit the child down and explain what is the mature and logical way to handle situations. What's going to happen when she goes for a job? Will she then develop job phobia?

Sent by lauren schexnider | 7:24 AM | 7-2-2008

I can remember having what would maybe be classified or called school phobia now. I was badly made fun of in school and as a result I dreaded it. It was a very small town country school, and the kids were very clique-ish and snobby and if you didn't wear certain designer brands and styles, that was it, you were out, but if you were fat like me? Oh god forbid even worse. I was a no one. I can remember dreading school from 7th grade through about my sophomore year in high school. I did learn, though, and I was able to conquer my fears and was a good student. My brother, though, had to be taken out of public school and put into private school, paid for by my grandparents as my mom could not afford it since my dad was a deadbeat and didn't pay child support (and this was these same grandparent's son!) At any rate I know that this is a real thing, and that people all learn in different ways, and we are all born diferent and have different brain chemistries, different weaknesses and strengths. Not everyone can fit into the public school mold, molded to become a corporate goon and work 8 to 5 forever. Whatever happened to the days of entrepreneurialship in America? The corporate world is manipulating our children to fit their corporate mold - degrees are getting more specified, and general knowledge is frowned upon and specific knowledge is wanted. Why? That way they can get you in a job and keep you there and you have no way to move in your position unless you go back to school and get a completely new degree. So, yes, if this girl can't take public school for whatever the reason, she shouldn't have to go and her parents should not be fined, that's ridiculous!

Sent by Paula | 10:55 AM | 7-2-2008

I'm with Todd Dumas- but I turned this off after the first minute. The interviewer quite obviously led Ms. Maykish into the answers he wanted, and in doing so sounded like a dishonest political pollster interviewing a feeble octogenarian. Horrible editing, NPR. And bad management of your reporters.
I would ageee that as teenagers, we're all a little funny in the head. However, giving creedence to a "diagnosis" of "school phobia" is endemic of a larger problem we have in this country- making excuses for not doing the things we simply have to do be productive members of society. Please, wake up America. There are some experiences that we must teach our children to grin and bear. Tough times usually don't last a lifetime, and what's more, they build character. The healthy skepticism of "school phobia" expressed in the comments above is a sign of hope (and also a sign that not all NPR listeners, myself included, are liberal zealots content with any plausible excuse to live the Bohemian lifestyle).

Sent by John Derscheid | 11:21 AM | 7-2-2008

@Dave (Elementary School Principal), I normally follow the rule not to correct other people's grammar when commenting on a blog. This is the Internet, after all, and, as one who's marginally dyslexic, I have my own problems.

That said, I counted three punctuation errors and two sentence fragments in your comment. I'm certain that if my high school English teacher, Brother Ruhl, were still with us, he would probably find a few more errors that I missed.

Now, if you just signed the comment, "Dan," no would be the wiser, but, since you included your profession, you left yourself wide open for scrutiny. My advise to you is not to tell anyone you're a principal. That way, no one will hold to a higher standard.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 1:52 PM | 7-2-2008

I am in total aggrement with John H. Rennick, M.D. comment above.(I am a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist). This is clearly an exemple of a severe Separation Anxiety Disorder and should have been treated as such after an adequate psychiatric evaluation.
It is a pity the article calls it "School Phobia" which confuses the issues.
Even worse is that apparently the needed psychiatric evaluation-tretment never took place.
It seemed more important (in the article) to talk about the money than the core problems which included the family pathology that probably included sociopatic tendencies (truancy).

Sent by Arturo Mendoza-Lopez, M.D. | 4:15 PM | 7-2-2008

Boarding school is very different from public school. Boarding school becomes more like a family. You live there and attend school there.
Rebecca did have evaluations. Millions of them. The doctors were quick to diagnose her with "school phobia" but had no solutions. I did everything any parent would do to help Rebecca get an education and to attend school.. There was medication, therapy, psychologists, doctors,desentiziations, in vivo, etc. etc. Behaviorists. Too much focus is being put on the money and not enough about the undercurrent there is more here. This was retailiation. There were 111 truancy fines. The money from the fines goes right back to the district. The courts refused to admit the medical evidence. I have boxes of it. Called it "heresay" evidence and ruled against me. Felt like I was in a third world country. It was just unbelievable. Rebecca did get educational software, and programs reading material, therapy., tudors, computer instruction, etc. The public does not realilze that comp ed funds are common. The schools don't want you to know about it. If you google ODR Office for Dispute Resolution or Pattan you can get more information. You can even read the decisions from the due process hearings. They are quite interesting. Home schooling was not an option for my daughter for many reasons. I did a lot of home schooling with her in her younger years but, after a certain level she needed highly qualified instruction and specific reading programs and assistive technology that I could not provide. This district did a lot of malicious things to our family. This was not discussed on NPR. Tuition for a private school would be 55,000 a year. The turnover in the administration is crazy. We have had three different superintendents, and five LEA's. This led to a breakdown in programming for Rebecca. Many thanks to all of you that have offered understanding and compassion. We appreciate it. I felt somewhat on a hotseat during this interview. I wanted to tell our story and felt too much time was being spent on "the money" and not enough about the bigger issue. I think all in all the article was fair and wanted to fill in a few details. Thanks you Paula, Erin, Lisa and Edward.

Sent by Barbara Maykish | 12:37 AM | 7-3-2008

When worlds collide . . . As a public school teacher, I have had several students over nearly twenty years whose parents or grandparents allowed them to avoid school for various reasons. In that time, I had one girl who became truly unhinged (at fourth grade level) about coming to school. She actually had tantrums and became violent. The family pulled her out, and I don't know where she went. We never even had time to "diagnose" her. Fortunately these kinds of stories are rare, otherwise our public school system and its poorly funded economics would overwhelmed. Although the federal government mandates that we meet special needs for children, it has funded such programs at less than twenty percent since the outset; and there is an artificial limit of ten percent (so if you live an an urban inner city environment where you have a lot of crack babies with special needs on top of all the other children with physical and/or learning challenges, and that takes you over your ten percent limit, it's just tough luck for some of those affected kids -- some of your children will not be served). It sounds like this young lady needed to be shopped around until the right match with a school was found. Sadly, that takes lots of time and LOTS of money. And while I cannot say that this situation smacks of money-grubbing, I can say that I have dealt with at least twenty families over my career who were gaming the system -- especially trying to get Social Security benefits for children who had very mild symptoms or problems (such as ADD, ADHD, etc.) There were two families who I think were actually coaching children to behave in certain ways (to ascertain a specific diagnosis) and/or were scamming medical professionals to prescribe high-powered psychotropic drugs for children in whom we never saw significant symptoms. The world of public education has become a strangely tangled and darker place over the last thirty years. I'm proud of the work we do with the vast majority of our students. It's too bad that there are always going to be exceptions to the norm; and sometimes we just never find the right prescription of services. Schools are human institutions dealing with developing humans -- there are bound to be unsolvable puzzles.

Sent by Tracey, California teacher | 4:10 PM | 7-3-2008

My daughter had/has multiple health concerns including "school phobia" or school avoidance. This is an extremely misunderstood condition, and there is very little worthwhile information on it. However, it is REAL and very hard to overcome. Every parent who experiences this with their child is driven to try everything possible to get their child to school, many times without success, and without much understanding from the school system. I should write a book on all of the steps we took with our daughter. She was recently diagnosed with one of the 6 forms of ADHD. We started medication and many of her anxiety and other symptoms seem to be in remission. We will see in September, when she starts school again. She also mentions the sounds and smells of school, and the overwhelming feeling of walking through the halls with the crowds of other kids. I experienced it during back to school night, when the parents follow the kids schedules and meet the teachers. Incidentally, her father experienced the same school phobia during his high school years, and was diagnosed with ADD in his 30's. I'm not sure why the doctors didn't put 2 and 2 together sooner, but at least we can move forward now. Maybe all school phobic children should be tested for one of the 6 ADHD types. In addition, we have found that food additives and high fructose corn syrup (and similar sugary substances) seem to help escalate her anxiety.

Sent by concerned parent | 11:53 PM | 7-3-2008

I have to agree with both M.D's concerning separation anxiety. However, I'm surprised that aspberger's wasn't mentioned as a possible diagnosis. Nor should we assume the being ADHD is a cause for this form of anxiety. I was fortunate not be labelled as ADHD/ADD and, despite chronic poor grades I enjoyed school-esp. high school.
It could be worse as this child may have been designated as an {Indigo}nor do I approve of spending school funds for one individual under the label of being a special needs child.

Sent by Toby | 5:43 PM | 7-4-2008

Jennifer Natko, Thank you for calling in with the secondary adrenal problem and its possible connection to school phobia. I will be investigating that possibility immediately. This is the reason we did this show. For answers. Thank you.

Sent by Barbara Maykish | 12:46 PM | 7-9-2008