Chronic absenteeism in school linked to poor mental health
By Camal Shorter, Coolidge High School
June 15, 2020
Many promising students are becoming disinterested and disengaged from school, underperforming academically and becoming part of the public health problem of chronic absenteeism.
This is yet another issue made worse by the novel coronavirus. There is no District-wide data available yet on overall attendance via Zoom. But it is unlikely to have increased, as even students who are regular attendees report technical difficulties in attending class virtually.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, chronic absenteeism had been recognized to be both a reflection of a public health issue and a cause of public health problems. As of July 2019, 16 percent of the nation’s public school student population were missing 10 percent or more of the school year. To put this into perspective, missing that much of the school year can leave third graders unable to read proficiently, sixth graders struggling with coursework and high school students off track for graduation.
In addition, a link has been found between school attendance and good health, specifically mental health. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found a 25 percent decrease in tardiness and a 50 percent drop in absenteeism for high school students who participated in school-based mental health services.
These numbers show that for many, school has become much more than a place for students to receive an education to prepare them for life. For many, it can be a place that fosters good mental health in the here and now.
“I like to go to school everyday and see my friends,” said Neiman Holt, a high school junior at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland. “My school offers counseling which helps a lot with mental health, and my teachers make me feel like they care about my involvement.”
Yet the problem of chronic absenteeism persists. Students are absent or chronically absent because of factors such as transportation troubles, safety concerns, and other challenges. In addition, students often say they skip school because it’s boring, they don’t like their classes, it starts too early or that hanging out with friends is more fun.
In fact, chronic absenteeism often is made worse by school practices that ultimately push students out of school. Practices such as out-of-school suspensions may stifle academic success and thus encourage more absenteeism.
Education experts say there are proven ways to reverse the trend.
“Everything I’ve learned from theory and research over 30 years of teaching leads me to a specific conclusion,” said Dr. Teresa Redd, founding director of The Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Assessment (CETLA) at Howard University. “In order to engage students, teachers need to create opportunities for students to participate in meaningful and active learning.”
Some experts say utilizing restorative justice approaches reduces absences and creates safer and fairer school climates that are shown to improve attendance. Instead of punishing students in ways that contribute to absenteeism, restorative practices lay the groundwork for other solutions.
“If you're not making it to school, I don't want to punish you, I want to help eliminate roadblocks ... How can I help you?“ said Michael B. Horn, co-author of Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life.
Solutions include culturally relevant instruction, school-based health services, home visits, nudging parents, and early warning systems.
Proper mental health services in schools are vital. Students say they need to believe teachers are genuinely concerned with their mental health care to keep school on their priority list.
“Coming from a charter school where we only had a behavioral counselor, if you weren't a ‘bad’ student you had no one to talk to,” said a D.C. high school student who asked to not be named. “The reason I’m acting the way I am is because I’m getting physically abused at home, or I go home and don't eat, or I walk home by myself and no one is home to take care of me.
“School doesn't support mental health the way it should and the statistics of attempted suicides made by kids between 3rd-12th grade proves that,” he added.
Children who have a supportive and consistent teacher to rely on can help overcome the effects of any outside adversities they face. When teachers take the time to try to acknowledge challenges and help find solutions in the lives of their students, they can ultimately make a difference in changing a life.
Teachers also should take student opinions into account. After doing informal polling of a small group of high school students in D.C. about how they would change their schools, answers ranged from providing better breakfasts and lunches to shortening the length of their classes. The most popular response was starting school at a later time.
“I would also recommend more skills classes,” said Ashlee Davis, a freshman at Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C. “I think we should have more opportunities to learn other things [besides art].”
Schools should make an attempt to see individual strengths of students and allow them to foster those talents.
“Students should get to work on something and take the time to master it,” said Horn.
Experts add that project-based and problem-based learning are effective methods to keeping students engaged in their studies.
“The more the project or problem resembles projects or problems in the real world, the better. That kind of authenticity gives meaning and purpose to the students’ learning,” said Redd. “My advice to students is ‘Find a purpose. Look for connections to something or someone that matters to you. Set your own goals.’”
Camal Shorter, a rising senior at Coolidge High School, is a member of the Urban Health Media Project. He worked with longtime journalist Richard Willing on this report.