For most students attending school is not a major problem. From the earliest days of childcare, children adjust to consistent attendance.
However, some students are at risk of habitual absenteeism with some genuinely feeling alienated and disaffected.
To find out how schools can combat this, Dr Terry Bowles and Daniela Russo from the University of Melbourne collaborated with associate professor Janet Scull from Monash University on an important research project.
While it might sound like common sense to many, their study found that in order to make students feel a sense of belonging and engagement in their learning, school staff must be welcoming, genuinely enthusiastic and ready to adjust to the needs of all children – however disengaged they may seem.
“People who are better connected are less lonely, less anxious and feel as if they’re part of something meaningful,” Dr Bowles told The Educator.
“A lot of their social needs are met by being involved in an organisation that is more connected than not connected. By and large, nearly all social and psychosocial parameters are improved as a function of feeling connected.”
Replicating wholesome home environments
Dr Bowles said that in northern Europe, many schools design their curriculum around “a model of house” whereby classrooms strongly resemble wholesome home environments.
“Instead of having classrooms, there are loungerooms and living rooms that are designed like a traditional house, and there isn’t just one teacher, there are several teachers that act like significant others,” he said.
The best example of connectedness that Dr Bowles saw in Australia was at a school in northern Western Australia, where student absenteeism was becoming a significant problem.
The Clontarf Foundation, a non-profit organisation which aims to improve the education, discipline, life skills, self-esteem and employment prospects of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, assisted Dr Bowles in his research.
Dr Bowles said the Foundation’s staff drive to the homes of absent students and invite them to a range of fun and engaging social activities before expecting them to step into the classroom.
“For example, staff take the students to basketball, then put on a big breakfast where they can socialise and relax before the formal school day even begins,” Dr Bowles said.
“Staff provided students with uniforms, special units within the school and targeted support. They also helped students form groups and teams that they were interested in and gave them ongoing academic and pastoral support throughout the day.”
Dr Bowles said that this model let staff reach disengaged students in a way that demonstrated that they genuinely cared about the students as human beings and not just students in a classroom.
“If staff engage students in those sorts activities long enough, students will feel very good about their school experience, and the people helping them through it,” he said.