Over the past couple of years, attending school has meant different things to different students. For some students, the impact of lockdowns, remote learning, and isolation from peers was extremely difficult and disruptive, while others thrived.
In a recent webinar hosted on the Student Wellbeing Hub, Dr Lyn O’Grady explains 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.
SCHOOL ATTENDANCE IS NOT A NEW PROBLEM
School attendance has always been a concern for schools and families alike, but the pandemic has certainly heightened this issue. Of the educators surveyed during the webinar, 83 per cent indicated they have significantly more concerns regarding school attendance than they did before the pandemic.
The reasons for students to become absent from school are many and varied, but they can be broken down into four main categories (Havik & Ingul, 2021):
- School exclusion: school-enforced punishments such as suspensions and expulsions
- School withdrawal: predominantly related to parent/carer factors
- School refusal: a result of emotional difficulties such as anxiety and depression
- Truancy: unexcused school non-attendance where students choose not to attend (with their parents/carers often unaware).
Dr O’Grady notes that school refusal and truancy are the most worrisome when it comes to the health and wellbeing of our students, as they may have been struggling for a long time before the visible signs appear at school. She explains that school reluctance — tiredness, tardiness, reluctance to participate in class activities, and general disengagement — ‘might be the very first sign that a student is developing school refusal’.
‘Some of the projects I’ve seen that have been really effective is when there is parent and family support, to help parents navigate and feel confident in talking to their children about how it’s okay for them to get to school and how the parents will be fine and are getting support at home.’
SCHOOL ENGAGEMENT AND WARNING SIGNS OF SCHOOL REFUSAL
When contemplating school attendance, it’s important to consider the difference between physical attendance and engagement. Dr O’Grady highlights that, although students might physically be present, whether online or in-person, they may ‘not necessarily be engaged, actively participating, and enjoying the experience of it’.
‘Once students disengage, it can be very difficult to get them back again long-term,’ Dr O’Grady states. ‘It’s a very vulnerable period. You get them back in for a period of time and you’re walking this knife-edge where something small can happen and they drop off [again].’
To address the issue of school attendance, it’s important that schools and parents take notice of the warning signs and consider what we can do to prevent this in future. Often, when we do start to notice the warning signs, O’Grady says that ‘school refusal may be well and truly entrenched, developing for a while before we actually see it’, which can make it harder to tackle.
It takes a multi-tiered whole-school approach to increase school engagement and attendance, and will often require support from families, the local community, and outside agencies.
STRATEGIES FOR PROMOTING SCHOOL ENGAGEMENT AND ATTENDANCE
Set up processes to address non-attendance
- Hold regular check-ins with parents and carers to provide support
- Contact parents as soon as non-attendance is recorded
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. Dr O’Grady suggests schools look at what they are already doing to keep students engaged and consider what more can be done. She recommends revisiting strategies that have worked in the past that might have dropped off, or updating and refreshing 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