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How my son overcame his school phobia

Summer is over, and students are now trooping back to school to resume classes. This reminded me of my only son Nico, who developed a crippling fear of going to school as a young boy — and how he overcame that fear.

School year 1992-93 started normally for Nico, as it did in the past years. He was class vice president and one of the top students by the end of the first quarter in his Grade 5 class at La Salle Greenhills. My wife Thelma and I were so proud of him, and were never expecting any problem — until he started to skip classes due to all sorts of imagined reasons.

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We spoke to his class adviser and counselor, but they could not cite any reason for his sudden change in attitude toward school. Groping for some answers and solutions, we brought him to a family counselor, who said Nico seemed to be acting out some personal issues that should eventually dissipate if handled properly. She suggested using positive reinforcements in the meantime. We tried her advice without success.

After Nico began showing some alarming symptoms, we pulled him out of La Salle and consulted a respected child psychiatrist to assess his condition. He explained to us that Nico’s case was a full-blown school phobia rooted in several issues.

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One major issue was Nico’s undeveloped relationship with me. I was an absentee parent busy with my career, who often worked away from home while Nico was growing up and in need of a father to answer his questions and to identify himself with. Another critical issue was Nico’s unresolved resentment against our high expectations for him to maintain his high grades and academic standing. And then there was a bullying episode in school that Nico kept from us.

The following school year, 1993-94, we transferred Nico to another private school in Caloocan as advised by his doctor. But his first day in class was also his last.

We next approached a reputable public school in Manila, with an excellent program for children with special needs. Nico took the school’s exam and qualified for its accelerated program for exceptional pupils. He completed Grades 5 and 6 and graduated from grade school that same year, while doing take-home lessons and attending classes only for exams.

When school year 1994-95 opened, we went back to the school in Caloocan and enrolled Nico in first year high school. Everything was going well, until midyear when he was physically bullied in class. His class attendance dipped once again, which earned him “passed-out” marks at school year’s end.

Nico agreed to return to school the following year, 1995-96, seemingly now healed from the bullying. But we were then told that he was ineligible to enroll due to the school’s policy on “passed-out” students. The rejection affected Nico harshly; he became depressed and refused to try for any other school anymore.

At this point, Thelma and I were almost at our wits’ end, but we held on.

I changed my parenting ways and tried to build a stronger father-son relationship with Nico, while Thelma and our three daughters continued to pray for and rally behind him.

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By God’s grace, we found a teacher who specialized in individualized instruction for students with special needs. For three years, he patiently tutored Nico in the sciences, mathematics, literature and even religion.

Our prayers were answered in the summer of 1998.

As if by God’s design, Nico learned just in time about the Department of Education’s Philippine Educational Placement Test, set for April that year. He signed up for it right before the deadline and took the exam a week later.

After a month or so of waiting, he tearfully announced to us that he had obtained an assessment of “Eligible for College.”

He enrolled that following term at De La Salle’s College of St. Benilde, and graduated in 2002 with a BS in Computer Application degree.

Today, Nico is living his American dream as a successful information tech professional in California.

* * *

Danilo G. Mendiola, 77, is the proud father of four grown-ups and the doting grandfather to four lovable grandchildren.

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