Every day in school counts towards the academic success of a student. Many parents say that they believe this, but still think students ‘can get away with a day or two off every month’ without a genuine excuse. In this month’s Ilm o Amal we explore the reasons for chronic absenteeism and what teachers can do about it.

An organisation called Ad Council, which creates and disseminates public service messages released a research study attendance-2that found that even though an overwhelming majority (86%) of parents understand that their child’s school attendance plays a big role in helping them graduate from high school, 49% of them think it is okay to miss three or more days of school every month. These parents think that this does not affect their performance significantly.

Research conducted by the Department of Education in the US found that absenteeism affects academic performance with students falling behind even when they miss just two days of school.

Here is a common scenario that we come across over and over here in Pakistan. A wedding that takes place on a weekday goes on till late night and the venue is overrun by sleepy young children who clearly won’t be able to wake up for school in time. If you ask parents how their child will reach school on time the next day,  pat comes the reply, ‘It’s just a day/She is still in preschool. They can miss school.’ Sadly too many children skip school even when they are not ill and even if there is no emergency or family crisis.
The bottom-line is that if a child misses school, he misses what was taught that day in class.

Factors that affect school attendance

Valuing education
There are many factors that affect school attendance and the major one seems to be that many parents do not value education enough, especially when children are in the pre-primary or primary years. Parents assume that nothing serious or useful is being taught in class and so they do not make a serious effort to enforce a routine at home where their child benefits from going to bed and waking up on time.

School culture
Another factor is the value placed on attendance by the school. If absenteeism crops up as a problem over and over, schools need to check their school culture. Is attendance an integral part of school culture and is it celebrated and encouraged?  Schools need to ensure that students, parents and families are made aware of attendance policies , procedures and the school’s expectations at the beginning of the year. Consequences also need to be shared with everyone.

Anxiety is another big factor that leads to children missing school. There are various school-related situations absenteeismand issues that can trigger anxiety and depression in a child. Sometimes parental pressure, especially where academic expectations from a child are unreasonably high, can cause the child to get anxious. Children who perform poorly in school or have a learning disability can also end up avoiding school. Conditions such as separation anxiety and panic disorders can also cause children to miss school. Anxiety can also arise when a child wants to avoid tests, or a specific lessons or teachers or even bullies.
Teacher-student relationship
Finally a critical factor in missing school is the teacher-student relationships or the lack of relationship.
While some factors that affect a student’s attendance record are beyond a teacher or even a school’s control, there are certain factors that a teacher and other school staff can influence.  For issues that require professional help such as uncontrolled anxiety, the teacher or school staff may refer the child for cognitive behavior therapy.
There are many ways that teachers can discourage absenteeism.

A genuine interest in teaching the student
Being genuinely interested both in what they are teaching and in the child doing well, can go a long way in encouraging students to attend school. When a teacher demonstrates to the child that she is trying to help him, he is likely to try harder and make more of an effort to come to school. This does not mean entertaining children or lavishing them with rewards that are not always warranted. It means working with a child to help them learn the subject well.  

Cultivate an individual relationship with the student
At a personal level teachers should demonstrate to students that he or she is important to them. Teachers should make an effort to cultivate an individual relationship with the student and be genuinely interested in his or her life. Teachers need to be careful though, that the student does not take this as an excuse for the teacher to let him or her get away with bad behavior.

Raise your expectations
Another way to support children in coming to school every day involves raising expectations. It is very easy for a everyschoolday2teachers to fall into a rut of being resigned to a particular student’s chronic absenteeism. Teachers lower their expectations from a poorly performing child or a child who has a learning disability. Some teachers even come to expect absenteeism in such children which only leads to a worsening of the original problem.
Know that every child can try harder and do better in school and a good teacher will raise her expectation from her students and motivate them to do well, regardless of their track record.

Extracurricular activity
Another way to deal with absenteeism is to encourage children to participate in a thriving extracurricular and after school programme. This can help ‘pull’ children to school and help them connect to the school community. A school’s extracurricular activities can become a source of pride for all students. Extracurricular activities allow teachers to connect with children outside of the classroom and students are able to see them in a different light.

Get parents involved in school
Apart from scheduled parent-teacher meetings, parents and teachers need to communicate closely in order to engage students in schools. The more teachers and parents talk and the more parents get involved in the school, the better it is to engage their children in school.
If a child is chronically absent for reasons apart from being ill or some other unavoidable crisis, Teachers can use opportunities such as a parent-teacher meeting to communicate and educate families about the value of education and the adverse effects of absenteeism on school achievement.  Schools should also consider incentives such as recognising the parent if a student’s school attendance improves.
Every time a child is absent, the school should notify the parent through a call home or an email. If a child is missing school regularly reach out to the family and find out why.
The general message about valuing education and the specific one about regular school attendance needs to be conveyed repeatedly during Parent-teacher meetings and through school newsletter and any other avenues through which the school reaches out to parents.

Mentoring programme
Schools can implement an informal mentoring programme to reach out to students who regularly miss school, don’t seem to fit in and are not involved. A mentor can be a staff member that the student already has a natural connection with or even an older student. Mentors can connect with the students informally and learn a little about the student’s interests from their teachers. The mentor should demonstrate an interest in the student and connect with them frequently during the school week. The mentor should be committed and not give up at the sign of resistance from the child. They should realise that resistance is expected from a child who has been having difficulty forming a connection.

Be aware
If you are fair and enforce rules in the classroom, student’s attendance and performance will increase. Teachers can enhance outcomes in the classroom if they stay alert and keep an eye out for whatever is happening in the classroom. Catch children doing well and being good and convey to them that you noticed it and praise it. On the other hand, nip bad behavior in the bud by addressing it as soon as you become aware of it.
School attendance is vital to academic success. Missing school days can quickly add up and leave students struggling to catch up. It is crucial that teachers help schools evaluate the reasons behind a student’s  absences and work on individual strategies that can help connect such students to the school. 

September 2016