A student who frequently is absent from school demands the teacher's attention. It might be true that the student genuinely is sick; it also might be true that he is absent for reasons other than illness. Frequent absences can reflect school-related anxiety -- and be the precursor to a more significant problem.
In most cases, with teamwork by parents and teacher, a child's anxiety about attending school can be resolved and the child quickly returned to full time attendance. In some cases, however, the anxiety can take the form of resistance to attending school. At its most extreme, school resistance can become school phobia -- also called school refusal.
The problem of school refusal requires immediate attention. Prolonged absence from school can result in significant academic and social difficulties. In addition, the longer a student is absent from school, the greater his anxiety about returning is likely to become -- and the harder it will be to get him back.
Some students' resistance to school is related to issues within the family. For others, it stems from events that happen in school. Some anxiety-provoking situations that can cause resistance to attending school include difficulties with schoolwork, ridicule or bullying by classmates, an embarrassing incident, lack of acceptance by peers, loss of a close friend, and fear of a strict teacher. In identifying what is causing a child's anxiety, think about what might have changed for him and carefully observe his interactions with his peers.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Call home. If one of your students has been absent for even a short time, contact the parents to find out the reason. If you find that he will be out for a lengthy period, arrange for classmates to write him letters telling him they hope he comes back soon. When he returns, instruct students to say simply that they are glad he is back, and not bombard him with questions about why he was absent.
Give priority to the student's immediate return to school. Encourage the parents of a school-resistant child to send him to school even if he is upset. Reassure them that the school has dealt with the problem many times and that most children adjust and calm down after a short period of discomfort. Let them know that the school will make their child as comfortable as possible and will help him cope with his distress. Advise them not to argue with or yell at their child before school, but to tell him in a calm, matter-of-fact way that all children must go to school and that it is not possible for him to stay home.
If necessary, adjust the student's schedule. Ideally you want the student to return to his regular school schedule. You might find, however, that the only way you can get him to come back is to make some adjustments to his school day, including:
With time, you will want to gradually phase out those adjustments as the child begins to feel more settled in school. Strenuously avoid placing the student on home instruction; that will make it harder to get him to return to school in the future.
Get to the source of the problem. If the child's physician has ruled out a medical basis for his frequent absences and you suspect they are due to school anxiety, schedule a meeting with the parents. You also might involve the child in part or all of the discussion. If he has difficulty putting his concerns into words, mention some potential sources of anxiety in school. His reactions might tell you when you hit a nerve: he might look away, pause, or become teary-eyed when you mention a sensitive area. If you are able to pinpoint the source of his distress, take his concern seriously and work together to develop some solutions.
Weather the student's distress. Brace yourself for a crying episode after the parent drops off the student -- although you might be surprised at how quickly he calms down. The behaviors might be his way of testing your resolve. You also might try to distract him by involving him in an activity he enjoys. Whatever you do, avoid the impulse to call the parents to have them pick up their child. That will make the next day that much harder. If he complains of a stomachache or headache and you conclude it is anxiety-related, send him to the nurse, but make sure she is aware of the importance of keeping him in school.
Make school inviting for the student. Ask the student's parents what kinds of activities are comforting to him, and try to incorporate those activities into the class routine. You also might take a few minutes each day to talk with the student about his interests or activities, to help him see you and, by association, school in a positive light. In addition, help him develop friendships with classmates so he feels a sense of belonging and acceptance in school.
Suggest that the student carry a security item. The student's separation anxiety might be eased by carrying to school an item that connects him with home, such as a picture of his family or a favorite doll, book, or toy.
Provide incentives for school attendance. Talk with the parents about rewarding the student for attending in school. He might, for example, receive points for participating in class, not crying in school, staying in school all day, and completing assignments. Those points could be exchanged for special privileges or tangible rewards, in school or at home. As the student's attendance stabilizes, you can gradually phase out the rewards.