I’ve been studying the effects of school disengagement on kids for decades. It’s a complex issue and extremely important. When a child struggles with truancy issues, it can have a major impact on his or her trajectory, both in school and in life. The problem often goes deeper than that. Truancy can be an indicator of a student’s wellbeing and sometimes an indicator of potential problems within the family. Some kids who are reported for truancy or educational neglect likely need the help of deeper systems services.
In my 29 years of work in this field, I’ve come to realize that the child protection model that is currently used to address truant and delinquent children isn’t always ideal. By digging deeper and examining the roots of what causes truancy, we can adapt current intervention models to better serve kids.
The Complicated Causes of Truancy
In 2014, I did a study for Hennepin County to find out what was preventing children ages 11 and under from attending school. After interviewing 30-40 professionals who work with kids with attendance issues, we acquired a lot of data resulting in several common reasons that lead to truancy:
- Transportation: The number one reason that kids weren’t going to school has to do with getting there in the first place. If you live in a certain neighborhood, and you want your child to go to a school outside of that neighborhood, the responsibility of transportation falls on the parent and not on the school. There also may be an instance of a child missing the bus and the parent having no capacity to bring them (i.e. more kids to take care of, low income).
- Family & Housing: Sometimes a child may be moved to several different residences, perhaps due to family chaos and lack of routine. We also found that some parents may not have graduated high school themselves, and thereby don’t place value on education.
- Mental Health & Chemical Dependency: Other common reasons that lead to truancy are mental health issues in both the child and the parent, as well as chemical dependency with the adults in the home.
It’s important to note that there is a difference between early childhood truancy and adolescent truancy; the interventions required for both are not the same. When a six- or seven-year-old isn’t attending school, it’s not by their own choice – it’s often because their families lack the ability or coordination to get them there. That’s why the intervention for children in that age range must be more family-focused. Interventions for adolescent students are more complicated because they’re often exposed to potential peer influence and substance abuse outside the home.
In Minnesota, current policy states that if a student at any age has seven unexcused absences from school, the school must call the local authorities, who are responsible for the intervention. This policy employs the child protection model of intervention for children under age 12, which relies on the assessment of safety and risk. It’s used to examine whether a child is at a high risk of being physically hurt – if they are, they will be removed from that environment. But educational neglect – the lack of value placed on education in the home – doesn’t fit into that model. The child may not be in physical danger, but the harm will appear down the road when he or she continues to academically slip behind their peers. That’s why our current model of intervention does not work.
The Importance of Routine & Consistency
School is a major part of a person’s life. It offers consistency and a relatively rigid routine, which is very important for kids. A way to ensure healthy wellbeing is for a child to wake up in the morning and be able to predict their day. On the flip side, children who can’t predict their day, or the behavior of the adults in their lives, will feel insecure and fearful – or aggressive. They may lash out as a way to regain control and predictability in their lives. School offers a way to build resiliency in a child through daily routine, consistent expectations, positive feedback and affirmations and, hopefully, an ongoing connection with adults in their lives.
Another, less-discussed aspect of truancy that ties into routine is something those with a relatively normal childhood learned early on: going to school is not a democracy. When I was growing up, I tried everything under the sun to avoid going to school. But my mother was firm – attendance was not optional. If truancy is common, the message then becomes clear for the child: if going to school is optional, what else don’t I have to do that everyone else does? Consistent school engagement teaches kids to civically engage in our cultural and societal norms. It’s no surprise that there’s a statistical correlation between people who don’t vote and people who did not finish school on time.
Making Improvements in Three Key Areas
With my research, the goal has always been to create interventions that prevent children from falling into truancy and delinquency. In order to do that, I’ve identified three key areas that need to be improved upon:
- Collaboration: Sharing information between systems is vital, yet the barriers preventing this are profound. For an effective intervention to take place, there needs to be synergistic collaboration. When school districts and counties work together, the intervention is significantly more effective. For example, we found kids in Minneapolis shelters performed better because there were school personnel working in the shelters to make sure they attended school.
- Use of Data: An elementary school teacher tends to know a lot about his or her students. But since the passage of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in 1974, teachers are not able to share that information across systems. In order to implement effective interventions, it would be helpful to know if a student had seven unexcused absences the prior school year. However, that barrier between the exchange of information means that a teacher legally cannot file a report with the local authorities until it’s too late. In 2004, roughly 4,000 2nd grade students out of a sample size of 50,000 in Minnesota had missed at least 10% of the school year. Of those students, only 240 received child protection interventions. There’s a disconnect between one source of data and another, which tells me the child protection model is broken with regards to educational neglect.
- Accounting for Everyone: My work in truancy and delinquency stems from one of the biggest dilemmas facing Minnesota education – school drop-outs. Each year, there are upwards of 9,000 kids statewide that drop out of school, or become classified as “not enrolled.” The problem is that there’s no law that requires schools to report a child to local government once they become unenrolled. Current systems are only set up to report kids who are enrolled – and by definition, a student can’t be truant if they are no longer enrolled in school.
The bright side is there’s always room for improvement. While addressing truancy and delinquency in our schools is a complex and nuanced issue, we can better serve these kids by breaking down the barriers of communication and being smarter about our interventions.
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