The Research Files Episode 75: How do school absences impact student outcomes?

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Zoe Kaskamanidis.

Each year at Teacher, we carry out a reader survey to give our readers and listeners an opportunity to tell us what kind of content you’d like to see from us. In our most recent survey responses, many of you told us you’d like more content on student absences. In this episode of The Research Files, we’ll be digging into the research on this topic with Kirsten Hancock, Honorary Research Associate from Telethon Kids Institute in Western Australia.

So we know that students miss school for a whole range of different reasons, such as illness, suspension, or family holidays. And a missed day of school might just seem like a missed day at school, but research is showing that the effect on student achievement can vary considerably depending on the reason for absence.

Today we’ll be taking a look at some of the concepts covered in Kirsten’s research on the reasons behind student absences, including how different types of absences affect student outcomes, and what families and schools can do to tailor their support to students who are missing school.

Zoe Kaskamanidis: So Kirsten, thank you for joining us for this episode of The Research Files.

Kirsten Hancock: Thanks for having me.

ZK: So to start us off, I was wondering if you can give us a little bit of an overview of your research project Understanding the reasons behind student absences.

KH: Okay, so I’d worked for a little while in student attendance research looking at overall attendance and NAPLAN outcomes. And when we did that research of course the first question that came back was, ‘well what do we do about it?’ And the response to that is – you have to know why students are missing school if you want to do anything about doing that.

So, I embarked on a PhD looking at this question, and we had sort of three major questions. And that’s about, why is it that students miss school; what are the most common reasons for that; which sort of students have which types of absences; how different types of absences relate to achievement outcomes, and if you see similar patterns across different reasons; and finally if there are some students who are more affected by missing school across different reasons for absences.

I was able to work with the attendance records for government school students in Western Australia. And in WA we’ve got nine different codes (about nine) to categorise absences from school, and these are broadly categorised into absences that are authorised by the school and those that are unauthorised.

So authorised absences include – the most common are sick days – every student gets sick from time to time, this is very common. But, also things like cultural absences which are fairly infrequent, suspensions (this is an authorised absence from the school), and a raft of other absences that schools have determined to be totally fine. They might be sporting commitments, dentist appointments, anything really, but they kind of just get lumped into this ‘reasonable absence’ category.

Unauthorised absences can include absences that have been explained but not accepted by the school – again, that could be a whole different bunch of things – but in WA we found that the vast majority of unauthorised absences were simply unexplained, so the school didn’t have a reason recorded for those.

There’s also another category which is vacations, so in-term holidays where parents are pulling kids out of school to go on a holiday, and they’ve told the school about it. And there’s an option to put these either in the authorised column or the unauthorised column, and that’s really at the discretion of the school and what policies they have in place. For the purpose of research, they didn’t really look that different, so they’ve just been lumped together.

So, through this research, we looked at how these patterns of absences vary across different students, and how they related to their NAPLAN scores. And we set it up so that we’d look at what the outcomes in Year 5 were, depending on the amount of school students had missed across Year 4. So it was kind of in this, you know, it was timed properly.

And the major thing that we found was that the effect of missing school on NAPLAN outcomes really depends on the type of absence that a student has. I found absolutely no relationship between these in-term vacations and NAPLAN outcomes. It was a zero effect across all different … any way I looked at it, I could not find an effect. So that was the first part.

Illnesses still did have an impact on achievement outcomes, even though it’s something that all students experience, and it’s a reasonable thing for students to miss school when they’re sick, but students were still falling behind when they had those absences. And then, as you’d expect, the students with unauthorised or unexplained absences – these had the biggest impacts on learning outcomes over time.

The second finding that was quite interesting for us was that, for any particular type of absence, whether its illness or unexplained, high-achieving students were the students who were most affected by missing school. Which is a little bit different to what we often hear about who misses out most when they miss school. So, high achievers tend not to have many absences as a rule, but when they do have them, they tend to fall further behind their high-achieving peers than low-achieving students do. And there’s a message in there about what students are picking up when they’re there [at school], and what they’re missing out on when they’re away, and what students are doing in the classroom when they’re away.

At a high level, high achievers – they’re not missing much school. But at an individual level, it can mean they fall behind, and that might have implications for their long-term plans for, you know, ATAR or university and that kind of thing.

And the third part of that research is we found much larger impacts across the board for numeracy scores, than for reading and literacy-related things. And, overall, the impacts for missing school across these different reasons, the patterns are broadly similar for primary and secondary students.

So, all those findings come together to tell us a few things. And the first is that it’s not really that useful to talk about the ‘average effects’ of missing school on learning. It depends on the student, what they’re getting out of going to school normally, why they’ve missed school, and the opportunities or encouragement they have to catch up on what they’ve missed.

So the finding relating to the vacations, for example. I think there’s a big part of this that it’s, you know, I think departments and schools spend a lot of effort on discouraging those types of absences. They might be planned for times in the year when there’s not a lot going on in the curriculum, the last week of school, perhaps. It might be that parents only choose to do that if they think their student can deal with that absence and catch up at a later point. And sometimes they ask for homework packages and those sorts of things. So I feel like, for some absences there, might be more of an effort to catch up when that happens, and so there’s no effect overall. So it’s not the case that we’d advocate for ‘just do what you want, go on holidays whenever you want,’ but there’s things happening when those absences happen that mean they don’t have as much of an effect as we might have thought otherwise.

The same thing perhaps with illnesses. If there’s an attitude or general understanding that it happens for everyone and it’s not a big deal, then maybe people aren’t making the effort to catch up after a couple of days. And those couple of days could be in the middle of a very busy term where you’re learning something very important, and if you miss those particular days it might be hard to catch up if that’s a really important part of the curriculum that you’ve missed.

ZK: And, of course, student absence is then a big topic, and there’s a lot to consider when we think about the causes and impacts of missing school. But to begin with, I was wondering if we can take a step back and look at the broader picture. Why is student absence an important issue? And what are the impacts on students during and post-school?

KH: Well, at a very high level, I think there’s a general understanding that if you’re not at school you’re missing some very important opportunities to learn. It’s not the case that schools provide the only opportunities, but it’s, you know, we structure our entire developmental process for students through education. It’s one of those key things. And so, there’s an expectation or an understanding that students will attend, to realise the benefits of this institution, this education institution that’s been provided for them, whether that’s in government schools or private schools.

So, yes, it provides important opportunities to learn and to progress their learning over time. But, of course, there’s other things going on as well. So, attending school is a very important social opportunity, it allows opportunities to develop routine over time, and to develop, make and keep relationships with friends and peers and teachers. And when you’re missing school a lot, or you’re attending irregularly, it can be very hard to maintain those sorts of relationships, to maintain your connections with school, with learning – all of those things going on. And the more you miss, the further behind you fall, and it can be very hard to want to keep going in those sorts of circumstances.

ZK: We’ll hear more from Kirsten after this quick message from our sponsor.

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ZK: So, what does the research say about the factors leading to poor attendance for students? And what are some of the most common reasons students miss school, and what are some of the misconceptions?

KH: Most students miss some school. We just know that that happens, it a good thing that if you’re sick and contagious, please stay home and that’s fine. But there are particular groups of students who tend to miss more school than other students. We know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds in particular have higher rates on average. That’s just a correlation, I want to stress, it’s not a prediction. It’s not the case that all disadvantaged students are missing school. The majority of disadvantaged students attend school pretty regularly. Just as there is a minority of advantaged students who miss a substantial amount of school, but on average we see these differences.

And for disadvantaged students in particular, there are lots of things going on that can pile up into missing more school than other students. And it’s not the case that there’s just one thing going on and that’s the thing you address and they’ll be attending school regularly. So, if you’re living in poverty, you might be more likely to be dealing with transportation issues, if the car breaks down and you can’t afford a mechanic, or you can’t get it repaired, you might not be able to afford the right uniform for your child, and that child might feel a bit embarrassed about going to school and say they have a sore tummy and don’t want to go to school.

So, there’s lots of things going up – you can’t really pin it down to one thing, and they just accumulate over and above the absences you’d expect to happen, when they do get the cold and have to stay home. So they have those absences, they’re recorded that way, but there’s also all these other things going on, that it can be hard to pinpoint it down to one thing.

So some families, students might be disengaged with school. So something that’s more common among older students. And for a very small number of students you can also get a thing called ‘school refusal’, where this is a young person who feels this mental block about walking onto school grounds and they just can’t bring themselves to do it, and that needs professional help to sort out.

Some students experience bullying – this can be more common in particular schools than others – some students are dealing with things like anxiety or depression, and that affects their ability to get to school. It’s really different for every student, and it looks different in every school as well.

So, one of the things I really push is that we cannot make assumptions about why an individual student is missing school. So, did some work a few years ago with doing some attendance workshops with some schools, and one of the tasks they had was to look at the list of students in their school who were missing more school than they’d like, and to go and talk to those students about what was going on – or to the families in the case of primary students. And a lot of the teachers or the school staff who were in this workshop kind of came with preconceptions about what they thought was happening, and when they went to speak to the student or the family they learnt something completely different. So there were misconceptions even at the school level about what was going on for these students. And all it took was a conversation – a targeted conversation – to understand what was happening and then to start to implement some changes to support those students.

And I think, too, from a statistical point of view – I’m a quantitative researcher – we often look at averages, and differences in averages, and assume that that average applies to every student with that particular characteristic and it’s really not the case. So I don’t think that’s helpful, for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s far better to look at the individual student in those circumstances and to understand what’s going on for them.

ZK: Are these factors different for students in primary school, compared to those in secondary school?

KH: Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s very clear that secondary students miss more school. This happens immediately on the transition into high school and then their attendance rates, on average, drop off. Of course, there’s a good proportion of students who maintain very high achievement across the board, but the average does decrease.

In the WA data we saw pretty obvious increases in the rate of illness, and in unexplained absences in particular, as the things that were driving these increases. So some absences go down. The older students get, the less family holidays they’re going on, but the illness does pick up, and the unexplained absences pick up. There’s a lot of things going on there.

So, adolescence and developmental circumstances of students – that’s all changing, all at the same time. There’s increased health issues that start to appear in adolescence. We’ve got an increase in the prevalence of mental health issues as well – anxiety, depression, other things. You’ve got increases in, you know, the social complexity of what happens in high schools and the relationships that are going on. You’ve got increases in independence, about what young people themselves think about school and whether or not they want to go.

So all of these things happen for primary students as well, but they happen far more frequency among secondary students. So yes, it looks very different.

ZK: So, a really important part of responding to student absences is of course being aware of what’s happening as a teacher in your classroom, as a principal in your school, or as a student being aware of your own attendance record. What are the first steps that school communities can take to have a better awareness and understanding of this?

KH: Well, the first thing I’d note is that schools are awash in data. They’ve got data at their fingertips that help them understand, sort of at a broad level, how much school their students are missing. I think most departments and systems have processes and dashboards and reporting systems in place that help schools identify or flag students that might be a particular concern.

I think this is getting more sophisticated, too, as data develops, that early warning flags can start to pop up as issues arise and it’s not the case that you get to the end of the year or the end of semester and look back and say, ‘well, who’s having a problem?’ I think schools have the tools now to be much more responsive on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis than perhaps they might have in the past. So that’s the first thing – the data is there to keep that awareness.

The second part relates to what I mentioned about before about understanding what’s going on for the individual student that you might have concerns with. And that might look different, how you approach that might be different, depending on how their progress has been over time. So you might have a student this year, in Year 8 who has an attendance rate of 70 per cent and that doesn’t look very good, but last year it was 90 per cent. So that’s a conversation about trying to get them back to something that they were doing before. So something’s happened in between that has led to this, so how do you address that. That conversation might look very different to a student who’s consistently at 70 per cent every year, and what’s going on for that family. But you need to, you know, have those conversations. To have those conversations requires a level of trust and a positive relationship between the school and the families involved, to be able to understand those issues and to get that engagement on all sides.

I think too, you mentioned about students being aware of their own attendance record. And again, in recent years, maybe over the last decade, schools have been doing a lot of work in communicating attendance records back to students and families through text messages, and dashboards, and emails and those sorts of things which are really helpful.

And there’s been some pretty good research out of the US that shows very clearly that parents typically underestimate the amount of school their student is missing by quite a substantial degree. The research I’ve done suggests that parents overall know when their students are missing school. So, it’s not that they’re unaware of absences, broadly, but they don’t understand how they can add up over time.

So, as an example, one of the metrics we use at a national level for reporting is whether or not students have an attendance rate of at least 90 per cent as an indicator of good attendance. But if you look at that, you know, that’s a day a fortnight. So 90 per cent sounds good until it’s a day a fortnight, or two days a month or a month out of the school year. So those absences do add up over time. And communicating in different ways to families about how much school students are missing, how that compares to other students perhaps, if they are aware but don’t think it’s a big deal. There are different things that schools can do to communicate those things just to keep that awareness going at the family level.

ZK: What can schools and parents do to improve student attendance? As part of this, how can schools foster good communication with parents about their child’s attendance?

So yeah, improving student attendance – I think most schools have in place some version of a multi-tiered systems of supports model, which if you think about it is a pyramid. So, the bottom layer of the pyramid are things that schools can do to address attendance at a very broad level, it effects every student in the school. So that would be things like, ‘here’s our attendance policy; this relates to everybody’. It’s about communicating the value of attendance regularly through the school newsletters, by making sure teachers are on board with promoting student attendance and how to respond in cases where it’s not happening – those sorts of things.

Then in the middle tier you’ve got, you know, there’s an attendance issue going on but you might not call it chronic. It just requires some kind of light-level intervention, a conversation with the family, or the student, understanding what’s going on. If it’s a bullying issue, for example, then addressing that bullying issue. Or if it’s a student feeling like they’re left behind because they don’t understand what’s happening or they’ve got too much homework, that’s about setting strategies about how to deal with that and then hopefully seeing that attendance improve.

And then at the top level you’ve got the sort of ongoing, accumulating, high levels of absenteeism, you know, we’re talking about 5 per cent of the student population, where there’s lots of things going on where you might require partnerships with community organisations. Depending on the community you’re in – with the police, with support services, with health services, mental health services. Those sorts of things that can help give the students what they need to address whatever those issues are that’s preventing them from going to school. So that’s a real partnership approach.

So, I think most schools have some version of that. What they do, again, is going to depend on the school. If you’ve got, you know in a very disadvantaged area with lots of students dealing with lots of things that might take up a fairly substantial amount of time and resources compared to a school where it’s really just affecting one or two students. So that will look different in different schools.

But communication, good communication with parents is really key. And the research has not shown – there is an absence of research – the role of punitive approaches (so, ‘if you’re not going to school, we’re going to fine you, or take you to court, because your student is basically not showing up at all’) … there’s no evidence that these sorts of approaches work. But, on the other hand, the positive approaches that draw on students’ strengths, on the family’s strengths and the positive relationships that can be formed between schools and families is so, so important for this area. It enables that trust to be built so that parents can talk about what’s going on, or students can talk about what’s going on, that the school might then be able to then find ways of helping that student.

So that’s about positive relationships, it’s not about punishment or the punitive approach of, ‘you’re not going to school, why not? This is what the law says, you must show up on these days’. It’s more about, ‘Well look, we’re really missing John in the classroom, he really makes a good contribution when he’s here, we’d love to see him in the classroom more often. What can we do to make that happen?’ is a far more effective approach than drawing on the negatives.

ZK: So, reflecting on the great points you’ve talked about today, on a practical note, how can schools appropriately tailor their support to students who are missing school for different reasons, including for disadvantaged students and those struggling with different vulnerabilities?

KH: The key messages that I’d promote here is: don’t make assumptions, talk to the student or the young person. And that’s tailoring your support to that young person and trying to help them. The overall strategies are really important. They’re kind of integral scaffolds for a school to implement around the policy and the positive messaging and all of those sorts of things are very important.

But at the individual level, for a student, they need to feel heard, and understood, and that their issues are being listened to. I mentioned before this workshop with the schools on attendance. One of the participants in this workshop came back and said, a particular student they spoke to, they said, ‘look, we’ve noticed you kind of slipped from 90 per cent down to 80 per cent attendance, what’s going on?’ And this student just was amazed that anyone cared – ‘I thought no one would notice.’ And it was just the process of having that conversation about what was going on that led to improved attendance for that particular student. So that was a really positive outcome, it took almost no effort, and it was really important for that individual young person to get back into the classroom.

I’d say as a broad note that the research attention into this issue is really picking up. There are international research networks now that are really focusing on this issue, and overwhelmingly the focus is on the role of relationships between schools and the communities that they’re operating in and how to develop those positive relationships. I think that’s an excellent approach and a positive approach and hopefully we can see some good outcomes through that about how we address this and get some good evidence on the board that these sorts of approaches really do work.

ZK: Absolutely. Well it’s been fantastic to talk with you Kirsten, thank you so much.

KH: Thanks for having me!

That’s all for this episode of The Research Files, thanks for listening. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify, Apple podcasts, SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts from, so you can keep up to date with our latest episodes. If you want to keep listening now, you can access the 200+ episodes already in our archive. And, while you’re there, we’d love it if you could rate and review us.

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Further reading:

Hancock, K., Gottfried, M. A., & Zubrick, S. R. (2018) Does the reason matter? How student-reported reasons for school absence contribute to differences in achievement outcomes among 14–15 year olds. British Educational Research Journal, 44(1), 141-174.

Rogers, T. & Feller, A. (2018) Reducing student absences at scale by targeting parents’ misbeliefs. Nature Human Behaviour, 2, 335–342.

In this episode, Kirsten Hancock shares some strategies that schools can implement to check in with students who are struggling with attendance. With colleagues, discuss how you can use these strategies with students and parents to acknowledge and support students with the individual issues they may be facing.

As a school leader or principal, consider how you can use the data you already have to identify students with increasing absenteeism. Discuss with your staff how you can best communicate these data to students and their families.