Standardized screening, school and community integration help keep kids in school

Canada has one of the highest school absenteeism rates in the world, and bullying, family conflict, substance use and ADHD are the main reasons, a new study from Western University’s Faculty of Education says.

Standardized in-school screening for these problems, coupled with greater integration of school and community supports, could lead to earlier interventions, keep more kids in school and ward off later-life problems resulting from poor school performance, said the study by Shannon Stewart and her team published in the Canadian Journal of School Psychology.

Stewart, associate professor in the Faculty of Education, and students Li Sun and Valbona Semovski, investigated the factors associated with school disengagement. They found family functioning, bullying, substance use and an ADHD diagnosis were key factors leading to absenteeism, which interrupts both learning and relationships with teachers and peers.

Negative family dynamics and family conflict can lead to poor grades and impact a student’s relationships with others, Stewart said. And kids who are struggling with family and mental health issues are also at increased risk for being bullied.

A bullied child feels unsafe, and likely won’t want to go to school, she said. “Additionally, if a child is bullied, parents often struggle to send their child to school if they believe their child will have an unsafe social, emotional or physical experience.”

The study found adolescents who use drugs and alcohol are less likely to do well in school and more likely to drop out. Alcohol and drug use often hinders school performance because it impairs cognition, memory and attention, Stewart said. It can also lead to conflict with the law.

While the two most dominant factors for school absenteeism were a lack of family cohesion and substance use, an ADHD diagnosis was another factor. Children who are attentive and focused on their lessons are more likely to be successful in school, she said, and those who are highly distracted and have difficulty focusing are at heightened risk.

The good news, Stewart said, is that these factors are largely modifiable through early identification and intervention.

She recommends standardized screening and assessment within schools that are integrated with community supports and assessment approaches to enhance the provision of needed services.

“We need professionals from health, addiction services, mental health, school and the police to be at the table to try and improve the likelihood that these children will remain in school and foster opportunities for success in all domains of their lives.”

Such an approach could improve prioritization, triaging and expedited access to resources, she said.

Improving family cohesion and fostering positive parental involvement in the education process is a crucial component to retaining children in school and reducing the risks of teen pregnancies, unemployment, underemployment, poverty, homelessness and involvement in the criminal justice system, Stewart said.

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