Studies have shown that students who refuse school and do not return to school experience poor life outcomes, including lower employment prospects, issues maintaining social relationships and mental health challenges.
Recognising this, Australia’s school leaders are mindful of the need to set up comprehensive supports for disengaged students, including return to school strategies and mentoring.
Dr Emily Berger, senior lecturer in the School of Educational psychology and counselling at Monash University, has conducted extensive research on child mental health and academic outcomes, teacher education and trauma informed practices. She says school attendance challenges are often impacted by several factors.
“These can include family socioeconomic background, family adversity, student sense of school belonging, learning difficulties, and experiences of bullying at school,” Dr Berger told The Educator.
“Students who have trouble attending school often report anxiety, which can manifest as separation anxiety for younger children, and social anxiety or generalised anxiety for older children and youth. Any school non-attendance should be addressed immediately.”
However, the approach to managing school absenteeism will often depend on the reason for the student’s absence and the frequency of their school non-attendance, she noted.
Below, Dr Berger shares 10 tips for principals and teachers to consider when managing student school non-attendance.
1. Work with a mental health professional
It is essential that school principals, parents and children work with a professional who has experience managing the complexities of school non-attendance. A mental health professional will be able to assess the reasons for a child’s non-attendance, help the school and family to create a school attendance plan, and support the child.
2. Work as a team
When managing issues associated with school non-attendance, principals, teachers, parents and mental health professionals must work together to understand and create a plan to manage the child’s non-attendance. The plan should be modified over time as the child becomes more confident to attend school, however, changes should be decided as a team.
3. Communicate with the child
The reasons for school non-attendance vary and can change over time so it is important that students have an opportunity to express their concerns and collaborate on their school attendance plan. The child can also be encouraged to set rewards for themselves for attending school and a mental health professional should provide ongoing support.
4. Create a shared plan
Often when managing issues of school non-attendance, issues occur when principals, teachers and families do not agree on the best course of action. It is important that there is consensus regarding a child’s school attendance and the approaches to increase the child’s attendance at school.
5. Show confidence and be consistent
Principals and families can help a child who is refusing to attend school by showing confidence in the child’s ability to attend school. It is also important that principals, teachers and parents show their willingness to listen and address the concerns of the student.
6. Make school appealing
A common reason for school non-attendance is that students are trying to avoid unpleasant, anxiety-provoking situations at school. Principals and teachers can increase a student’s school attendance by changing the school environment and setting fewer expectations (e.g., academic expectations) on the child to lower their anxiety.
7. Make home unappealing
Principals and teachers can support parents to make home less appealing by reducing access to electronics, games and activities during the school day. Teachers can send schoolwork home and students should only have access their computer to complete schoolwork, and they should only eat food from their school lunch box.
8. Always keep school attendance on the agenda
In line with the school attendance plan, if the student was scheduled to attend school, then students should be encouraged throughout the day to attend school. Even if students can only attend school at the end of the day or for 10 minutes of the day, school attendance should be on the agenda.
9. Provide social support
Principals and teachers can ensure that students have a smooth social transition back to school, such as sitting children next to friends. Children who have been absent from school are often worried that teachers and peers will ask them questions or make statements about their non-attendance. Principals and teachers can help students to come up with responses to questions about why they have been away.
10. Keep going
School attendance problems are complex and not easy to solve. Principals, parents and mental health professionals should continue to work together to understand and address issues related to a child’s non-attendance.