School attendance

What does it tell us about how students feel about school – and what can we do about it?

The Student Wellbeing Hub recently invited community psychologist Dr Lyn O'Grady to share her insights on issues around school attendance, drawing upon research and practice. In this article, we share some of the key takeaways from the webinar with helpful tips from educators across Australia.

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.

Dr O’Grady recommends thinking about the systems and processes in place within school settings to help us pick up on the warning signs, and stresses that ‘early intervention, noticing the changes when things are starting to shift, checking in with students, and showing them you care can be really important.’

Cultivating a sense of belonging

Dr O’Grady emphasises the importance of making sure students feel like they belong – that they have someone at school that they can go to for support, and that notices them. These relationships ‘play an important role in students’ school life and can impact behavioural or classroom engagement levels’.

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

Here are some steps your school can take to address the issue of school non-attendance, as shared by educators across Australia.

Taking into account factors that are within or outside of the student’s control, e.g. students who have been sick or have experienced other challenges in school attendance or engagement, recognise efforts:

  • Run lucky draws with prizes sponsored by community businesses, such as meat trays from the local butcher
  • Provide positive rewards or awards related to attendance (e.g. high attendance, improved attendance, other examples of student engagement), such as a Principal’s Tea Party
  • Present a prize to student/s in the class with the highest attendance/participation in school activities
  • Provide a birthday cape for students who attend school on their birthday
  • 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
  • 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)
  • 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.’