Study throws light on school absences

Posted on: 1 June 2016

A study commissioned by Devon County Council has looked into the reasons why some children miss school due to anxiety.

The findings are helping the Council provide practical advice and information to schools in order that they can better support students, enabling them to keep up their attendance.

Educational Psychologists conducted the study as part of a wider exploration of ‘anxiety based school avoidance’ across Devon.

Their report acknowledges that students miss school, or find it hard to attend, for various reasons such as following a period of illness or truancy. But they distinguish these students as different from a small number of others for whom attending school in itself is very anxiety provoking.

Their avoidance from school stems from significant levels of anxiety.

Students struggling with anxiety sometimes miss school or attend sporadically, while others attend successfully with modified timetables and a lot of school support.

It’s estimated that between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of school-age pupils are affected by such anxiety, mostly among secondary school children.

If unchecked, research suggests, these young people are at greater risk of developing mental ill-health later in life, and continued absence from school has serious repercussions on their educational attainment, future career prospects, and potentially their quality of life.

Early identification of the anxiety and support for the pupil is vital, psychologists writing the report say.

They spoke to a sample of Year 10 and Year 11 students who struggle with anxiety but who were attending school with support, as well as to their families and teachers.

While the students shared some common experiences, there was no clearly identifiable cause for their anxieties, and instead there was a complex mix of factors relating to school, family and home, out-of-school incidents and their own wellbeing.

These ranged from significant feelings of anxiety often linked to feeling down and finding it hard to manage overwhelming emotions, to a lack of confidence.

Influential other factors included bereavement, parental separation, and traumatic events such as a car accident.

Use of social media, unresolved fallings out with friends at school and bullying, and high levels of pressure around performance and exams were also factors identified that lead to school avoidance behaviours.

Asked what was it that made them feel that they can manage their anxieties and to attend school, the collective responses from students described feelings of safety and security; development of trusting relationships with familiar adults; feeling understood and accepted by teachers and non-teaching staff; and a strong sense of belonging to the school.

Sue Clarke is Devon County Council’s Head of Schools. She said:

“This is where we and schools can make the difference for children that otherwise stand a high chance of slipping through the net and not realising their potential in life.

“Understanding the fundamental reasons why pupils feel this way and equally what support is needed to help maintain their engagement and interest with school, means that schools can learn from each other’s good practice.”

The study points to the things that schools can do to help support children having difficulty with anxiety.

The report refers to good professional development, training and support for staff; developing a strong culture among staff to work inclusively with students; acknowledgement that these pupils need personalised approaches and have realistic plans that take small steps; and that excellent communication links between schools and students’ homes are vital.

Having a safe space physically within the school that is quiet and welcoming is also very important.

“These all engender a positive environment that help children feel confident enough to manage their behaviour and continue their education,” says Sue.

In response to the study, Devon County Council has made available to all of its schools Good Practice Guidance to help them identify students at risk of school avoidance at an early stage to stop difficulties escalating or becoming entrenched.

There’s also help for schools in developing a personalised plan for a student who avoids school; a self-audit tool for schools; and advice for teachers and what works and what to avoid.

Devon Association of Secondary Heads’ Coordinator, Kevin Bawn, said:

“Schools are at the front line in identifying, responding to and supporting a wide range of issues including young people’s mental health.

“Many students suffering from anxiety really want to do well and to remain in school just like their friends, so it can be heart breaking to see how difficult this is for them.

“It’s vitally important to help students suffering from anxiety to stay in contact with their school to gradually overcome their anxiety. It can take months or longer, but ultimately it does improve their life chances.

“Schools need to be welcoming places for anxious students and their families, and there are many ways of achieving this, outlined in the good practice guide.”

The study took place this year and was commissioned by Devon County Council. Babcock LDP Educational Psychology Service carried out the research.

Babcock’s Jenny Pearce Riddy, Principal Educational Psychologist, said:

“In conducting this research on behalf of Devon County council, it has enabled us to highlight the issues and possible protective factors for children and young people, alongside providing practical suggestions and tools for schools to use. We hope the local authority and schools will be able to benefit from the findings.”

1 comment on “Study throws light on school absences

  1. SC says:

    My 14 year old daughter attends a school in Newton Abbot. She suffered severe neglect as a young child before being adopted by myself and my husband. She has attachment disorder and struggles every day in a school environment. There is not enough done in schools to support children with these needs. I am looking for an alternative school who understand her needs and would give her the education she so deserves. I am fed up with the blame lying on the child and the families for low attendance, when the schools are not doing more to help and support these children.

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