How schools can improve student engagement and attendance

How schools can improve student engagement and attendance

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.

Complicating this important goal, however, is the reality that for some students, the impact of lockdowns, remote learning, and isolation from peers was extremely difficult and disruptive, while others thrived.

Read more: 8 reasons students hate school – and how you can motivate them

The Student Wellbeing Hub recently invited community psychologist Dr Lyn O'Grady onto a webinar where, drawing from her own research, she shared her insights on how teachers and leaders can improve student engagement and school attendance.

Dr O’Grady explained that some students have loved the independence and opportunity to learn in their own way, despite the fact that attending school is usually seen as a precondition for academic, social and emotional learning. While some students welcomed the return to normalcy after months of remote learning, others have begun questioning the best ways for them to learn.

Below is a summary of O’Grady’s presentation, where she shared several strategies for promoting school engagement and attendance.

Host special events and engagement activities

  • Create groups and programs to boost wellness and engagement, such as lunchtime craft group or ‘get active’ group activities
  • Provide student volunteer opportunities in the canteen or around the school
  • Assign ‘bridge builder’ roles for older students, to assist with issues in the playground
  • Engage parents and carers with weekly class activities

Set up processes to address non-attendance

  • Hold regular check-ins with parents and carers to provide support
  • Implement house visits to engage with families
  • Contact parents as soon as non-attendance is recorded
  • Allow students to work in a wellbeing area or quiet space before they settle back into the classroom, or use a partial day return plan that builds to full day attendance
  • Make use of standardised behavioural checklists and mental health scales for students and parents, such as School Refusal Assessment Scale (SRAS-R) and/or Screen for Child Anxiety Related Disorders (SCARED)

Seek external support

  • Partner with local agencies such as Uniting Care, The Smith Family or Ardoch to remove barriers for attendance
  • Make use of The Smith Family Participation, Attendance, Retention program
  • Provide access to mental health and/or counselling services for students

Planning for action

There are many reasons why students might disengage from school and shift to non-attendance, says Dr O'Grady. She suggests schools look at what they are already doing to keep students engaged and consider what more can be done.

Dr O'Grady also recommends that schools revisit strategies that have worked in the past that might have dropped off or update and refresh them for the current climate.

It is also important to foster a sense of belonging in the school community, notice any warning signs of school reluctance, and work with parents, families, the local community and external agencies to promote school attendance and engagement.

In summary, Dr O’Grady suggests ‘the more we connect together, the easier it will become, and the more cohesive it will be in terms of parents and students to get the support and lessen the load on schools’.

The original version of this article appeared as a media release from Education Services Australia.