Taking days off school: Is it really such a big deal?
By Linda Stade
I missed five days in my whole school life… and they were all for illness. I remember thinking it was so unfair. Other kids got to stay home on their birthdays. Other kids got to go on holiday before school broke up officially. Other kids had days when their parents just wanted to spend time with them at home. My parents were brutal.
Hindsight is an illuminating perspective.
Kids should go to school as often as their health allows them. From an educational perspective, it is self-evident. Consistent attendance at school makes a difference to learning and wellbeing outcomes. However, in Australia and many other western countries, attendance rates are falling.
Data released by ACARA shows that around Australia, attendance rates at school have decreased in the time since Covid lockdowns ended. Given how desperately most people wanted students to return to school, it seems odd. What is going on?
National Years 7 to 10 school attendance rate
Includes government and non-government schools. No data available for 2020
Reasons for declining attendance
There are several reasons why this might be happening. Among them:
Some students became disengaged from school in the time they were forcibly absent from face-to-face education.
Some students developed anxieties about being in the school community.
Schools may have become more lenient in their approach to absenteeism. They are not following up in the way they did before Covid. The pressure schools were placed under and the overwhelming absenteeism from staff and students, have caused routines and procedures to become more relaxed.
Family routines and expectations may have also become less strict. In some cases, there is an attitude that ‘In the big scheme of things, what does it really matter?’
It’s hard to attend when things aren’t going well
When your child is struggling with academic or social issues at school, it can be so tempting to keep them home where things are easier, and you can wrap them up in love. It’s understandable, but not necessarily the best approach.
Mrs Kay Gleeson is the Principal at Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane. She says, “When things aren’t going well, that is the time students really need to be at school. This is where they can be offered specialised support and connection. This is where they can access their pastoral and academic staff and the support of their peers.”
A good school also has the desire and expertise to partner with parents at times when students are struggling.
Mental health days
If a child is suffering from poor mental health, they should be treated in the same way as a student suffering from any other illness. There should be empathy and a wrap-around approach to supporting them. That includes the professional advice of health practitioners and the support of school. In no way, am I implying that these students should not have sick days as deemed appropriate in their health care plan.
That said, there has been a recent trend to take kids out of school to have special parent-child time. This is often called a ‘mental health day’. Perhaps they should be called ‘bonding days’ as they are often about building connection on missed school days.
Mrs Gleeson says, “Connection with our children is something that needs to be built into every day rather than one-off special days. Connection as part of daily routine is very powerful. Little things, like picking your child up from school and stopping for ice cream and a chat on the way home, work wonders. They build connection and show you value education.”
Not all absenteeism is for a whole day. There is a growing number of students choosing parts of the day to miss. For example, they will choose to arrive late and miss the morning Homeroom period or a class they don’t value highly.
Part-time absenteeism teaches students they can simply opt out of the parts of life they don’t enjoy, or they find hard.
Mrs Gleeson says, “The want-tos are easy, the must-dos are harder. When things are difficult, we need to lean in and listen to those who can help us, rather than withdraw.”
Going on holidays
What about holidays? It is now common for a student to miss the days before or after a holiday break so families can get an early start on their time together or avoid premium travel fares. On some level that is understandable, however, it assumes nothing valuable happens in those missed days or weeks.
Mrs Gleeson says, “Learning happens right up to the final bell, especially in high school. Yes, absent students can catch up on basic content, but they miss the learning conversations where real growth occurs. There is no consolidation of learning or future proofing against repeated errors.”
There is no doubt that some forms of travel are invaluable in a child’s development. That fact makes the line difficult to draw officially. However, in our hearts, we all know the difference between those rich learning opportunities and a beach holiday.
Why is attendance so important?
The reasons for regular school attendance may seem obvious, but let’s recap:
Learning is a building process, and it is important not to miss any of the steps
Consistency builds success in learning
More school equals more opportunities for social-emotional learning and more opportunities for building self-worth
Students become more comfortable and increase their risk-taking in learning when they are regularly at school
The inner critic quietens when our kids are busy and engaged. Humans need purpose.
Looking for solutions: A communication-based approach
Principal Kay Gleeson is leading her staff in a concerted push to ensure students are present at school, and when they are present, they feel connected and engaged. In her approach, Mrs Gleeson is focused on what school adds to students.
Mrs Gleeson and the key leadership staff at Lourdes Hill College are rostered to supervise in the attendance office each morning. That means, when a student arrives late, they have a conversation with an experienced educator and the conversation is planned and restorative.
The team member highlights the importance of being at school on time. They use language that makes the child feel valued but challenged. The discussion addresses the benefits of high attendance rates and the factors that are impacting a student’s attendance.
Then there is forward planning. It sounds like, “In order to be on time tomorrow, what will need to change? All conversations then bridge into positive relationships.
If your child misses one day per fortnight of school, they miss a whole year of education over the course of their twelve years. Let that sink in. A whole year! It isn’t just a year of tuition, it is a year of socialisation, community, and self-management.
Maybe, my brutal parents were on the money.