League of Education Voters works with Seattle’s South Shore PreK-8 on their preschool, social emotional learning, and student supports. This blog series focuses on how South Shore engages students who come from a background of trauma.
By Justin Hendrickson, South Shore PreK-8 Assistant Principal
Attendance matters. That is a common saying in education these days, and research backs this up. Studies have shown again and again that students with fewer absences achieve at higher academic levels. In fact, a recent study looking at young children found that absenteeism in kindergarten was associated with negative first grade outcomes, such as greater absenteeism in subsequent years and lower achievement in reading, math, and general knowledge.*
At South Shore, we have been working hard to build systems that are able to quickly identify students with academic concerns by triangulating several sets of data including absences, tardies, and office referrals, as well as teacher concerns. We then begin building individual plans to address these concerns through a relationship stance; we build support rather than assume ill intent and move in a punitive direction. What we have found over and over is that there are many reasons that students are missing school. Some reasons include transportation, lack of childcare for siblings, illness in the family, or in some cases, severe anxiety in students.
In fact, a study examining absenteeism and anxiety by Egger et al. found that approximately two out of three school refusers in a community sample met criteria for a psychiatric disorder, with anxiety disorders, depression, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) being the most common.** In other words, this type of anxiety requires stronger supports in school than are typically available from a part time school counselor. These students miss a lot of school in many cases for this reason.
At South Shore, we recognize the additional supports required to serve our community and have adjusted our staffing model, with support from League of Education Voters, to reflect these needs. The first year that South Shore brought Clinical Specialist, Ms. Rachel, on staff, she, in conjunction with the wellness team, identified a 4th grade student who was missing significant amounts of school.
James was new to South Shore and was a perfect example of a student who was falling through the cracks. Ms. Rachel knew she had to build a relationship with the family in order to best serve James and, although language was a barrier, the need for meaningful contact was a priority. In subsequent conversations with his mother, it was discovered that James missed significant amounts of school in previous years, and had been to the doctor many times for different health complaints.
James was described as “very quiet” in class by teachers and didn’t have behavior challenges, so it was easy to fly under the radar. Upon starting at South Shore, James once again complained constantly of stomach pain and headaches, and was a regular in the nurse’s office. Our school nurse quickly connected with our Clinical Specialist Ms. Rachel during wellness meetings to talk about how much class James missed while with the nurse, and she told the team about the many times he started the day at school and then went home ill. At the end of the first few weeks, our data points indicated that James had already missed multiple days of school, and would regularly make himself vomit at school to try to convince the school nurse that he needed to return home. This undiagnosed medical issue was once again becoming a huge hurdle to finding academic success.
The wellness team kicked into gear and, through continued conversations with his mother, Ms. Rachel learned that medical issues had been ruled out, which led her to think about this child from a different perspective. She knew that these symptoms had occurred at different schools and had been going on for a while. This led her to believe there may be the possibility that James was experiencing somatic symptoms as a result of anxiety about something at school. In addition, from the data she had quickly gathered, she also felt that his participation in one specific activity outside of school triggered anxiety, as well. Ms. Rachel devised a plan with the wellness team to begin gathering specific data over time to better identify the triggers of his anxiety, and they also began implementing several interventions to best support James and his mother in and out of class.
Ms. Rachel began training James to keep a daily tracking sheet of symptoms, such as headaches, stomach ache, nausea, etc. She also helped him record the time, the school subject occurring at that time, as well as how James was feeling emotionally at that time, tied to the RULER curriculum. James was diligent about tracking his symptoms, and would check in with Ms. Rachel three times a week about how things were going, in addition to charting his progress (better attendance and more class time.) Ms. Rachel and James were able to determine triggers that happened at school that made him feel anxious and caused the symptoms. They also co-created a menu of strategies that he could try to reduce the somatic symptoms when they were occurring. She helped him take ownership of his health.
Ms. Rachel stated, “As a result of this ongoing work, his attendance started to improve immediately, and his trips to the nurse’s office reduced drastically. James was able to finally attend class field trips with specific preparation, as field trips were identified as one of his biggest triggers. By second semester, he had trailed off tracking his daily progress as the symptoms were happening sporadically, and would come to say hello and tell me about his day rather than check in about how many times he felt sick that day.”
Currently, James’ attendance is not at risk, and he is able to use check-ins and meetings with Ms. Rachel much less frequently. This robust and early identifying social emotional system allows South Shore to devise a research-based plan for individual students that can address hurdles to their school success and often remove them or make them less daunting.
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* Romero, M., and Lee, Y. (2007). A National Portrait of Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades. New York, NY: The National Center for Children in Poverty.
** Egger HL, Costello EJ, Angold A. School refusal and psychiatric disorders: a community study. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2003;42(7):797–807. doi: 10.1097/01.CHI.0000046865.56865.79.