Teens, Absenteeism & School-Connectedness: 1 Simple Fix
Busy? Here's the TL;DR
1. Teens have the highest rate of chronic absenteeism
2. One way to help is by boosting school-connectedness
3. School communications are a great place to start
4. A simple weekly classroom update + analytics tells a lot
5. Follow it up with 1:1 communications as needed
6. Teens & their grownups need to know someone cares
Teenagers in the US are struggling.
While the teenage years are always synonymous with angst (see: all the kids in The Breakfast Club to Rue Bennet in Euphoria), what’s happening right now is something new. The perfect storm of social media + pandemic + gun violence + structural racism has led the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association to declare a national state of emergency in children’s health.
Recent CDC data show 42% of teens feel “persistently sad or hopeless” and 1 in 5 have seriously considered suicide. It’s not so surprising. We all saw the news about Instagram, depression, and teenage girls, and every parent of a teen could hold forth on the harmful impact of social media on their child’s wellbeing. The pandemic led to significantly increased numbers of anxious and depressed adolescents, far too many of whom lost a close relative, or experienced economic or food insecurity due to parental job loss. Where school might be a respite, students are regularly pausing to practice for when an active shooter bursts into their classroom, leading to a syndrome called vicarious traumatization.
It’s no wonder absenteeism is at an all-time high.
So, where do we go from here?
As educators, we know attending school matters, both for the short and long term health and life prospects of every child. One starting place is implementing preventative absenteeism measures. School Innovations & Achievement (SI&A), which helps K-12 districts track and improve student attendance, recommends a proactive, relationship-based approach to attendance rather than a truancy, deficit-oriented stance. For students already struggling with anxiety and depression, focusing on relationship and belonging is far more likely to create the conditions for showing up. When the Louisiana DOE shelved a punitive approach to absenteeism for a restorative one, they quickly saw a reduction in chronic absenteeism. Shelneka Adams, the LDOE Child Welfare and Attendance Liaison, says, “I’ve seen what works, and starting off with addressing psychosocial needs of students has always promoted better attendance.”
One way schools can quickly implement universal Tier-1 absenteeism measures is by consciously aligning school communications with school-connectedness.
Let’s take the simple classroom/homeroom update.
Once a week, the classroom/homeroom teacher or advisor sends a digital, translatable update via email & posts it to a class webpage or social media. Digital so that home adults can access it on any device; translatable so they can access it in their preferred language. Consistent day and time so that families can anticipate its arrival and rely on its delivery. It becomes a relationship-based experience:
‘I am sharing with you, on your device, in your language, what’s happening at school. It matters to me that you know.’
Each week, the update should contain the same basic information:
- The schedule
- The lunch menu
- Attendance-focused shoutouts for students
- Due dates & assignments
- Upcoming events
- Contact information for the teacher & school counselors
Step 2 is working the data.
Teachers & leaders responsible for sharing weekly updates must analyze data for patterns of engagement. That’s where an integrated data analytics and communications platform becomes essential for driving results. It enables teachers to review past communications, and get insight into the relationship between students’ behavior, academic achievement, home life, and attendance. When teachers see folks at home aren’t engaging, they have the data in hand to initiate a positive 1:1 conversation and together develop an attendance plan.
It’s never that home adults don’t care.
In this era of tech, teachers, principals, and district admin need not spend hours managing attendance. There are excellent, equitable tools for easy school newsletters, 1:1 text messaging, and automated attendance management systems that, when used in combination, will be both efficient and effective. In Ginny and Georgia, a Netflix series about a teenage girl and her questionable mom, the high school in girls part ways with the expression, “Love ya. Mean it!” There has to be a reason to come to school, especially when there are barriers to attendance.
That reason is a caring adult says it matters you’re there, and they mean it.