Ten ideas for attendance: What does a safe school look like?

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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With attendance and emotionally based school avoidance a continuing challenge for schools, Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers 10 ideas to make school feel safe for children struggling to attend

Non-attendance is an increasing issue among our vulnerable learners. Here are 10 ideas to make school feel more possible for students struggling to attend.

Start of the day

Getting the day off to the right start really matters for students whose attendance appears to be on the wane. The first interactions of the day set the weather for the entire day for the student – or the entire week or term if it is a Monday or back-to-school day.

1, Warm welcome

Start by making sure that every student knows that they belong here and we are happy that they have come to school. This matters for every child but is especially important for those students whose attendance has been patchy or who we have not seen in a while. Getting themselves onto the premises can indicate a hard-fought battle with anxiety won – reward that battle by making it clear you are delighted that the student is here today.

Get it right by asking frontline staff to use an approach of “unconditional positive regard” for students arriving, especially those with lower attendance.

2, Pick your battles

If a student has overcome the hurdles that might have kept them away from school, let’s see the positives in the situation – they are here! – rather than the negatives (they don’t have their tie, they’re late, they didn’t do their homework). Pick your battles carefully and if your key concern is supporting attendance, do not jeopardise this by adhering too closely to your standard behaviour policy.

Get it right by exploring with colleagues what your priorities are for students with low attendance and taking a consistent approach that makes students feel positive about having made it into school.

3, Morning routine

When we repeatedly do things, our anxiety response will become habitual, and we become more able to cope and manage. We can use this trick of biology to our advantage by giving students a consistent experience when they arrive at school – think about when, where and with whom they arrive and what kind of activities might motivate them on arrival. Doing things in a similar fashion every day will mean that what feels almost impossible on day one could feel second-nature within a few weeks.

Get it right by exploring with a student what a good routine for their arrival might look like. Where and with whom do they feel safe? What would they like to do?

Vulnerable Learners Supplement: Free download

This article is one of many to feature in the March 2023 vulnerable learners supplement published by our sister magazine SecEd. The free 18-page download focuses on boosting attendance for vulnerable students as well as tackling the impact of poverty and other issues. It includes practical advice from colleagues working in our schools as well as three case studies of how schools are supporting their students. You can download the supplement in pdf format here.

During lessons

For some (but not all) students, academic anxiety is a key issue that makes them worry about school and can keep them away. There are a few strategies that can be easily applied in lessons to lessen this anxiety and make your classes feel like a safer place for anxious students.

4, Anxiety-free engagement

Students who experience social anxiety can spend all lesson worrying about whether they will be randomly picked on to speak up in front of the class. This fear can prevent them from taking on board anything you share in the lesson.

Anxious students will be more able to engage if you agree with them never to pick on them randomly but find alternative ways for them to engage in the lesson instead. Some will be happy to raise a hand, others might like to write answers down or share their ideas with you one-to-one during quiet working time. Others may simply prefer to observe for now.

Get it right by talking to anxious students about how they would feel confident engaging in your lessons.

5, Quiet praise

Many students thrive on praise, but for others this can be a source of significant social anxiety as attention is drawn to them. For students who do not respond well to traditional praise you could instead:

  • Defer it: Give your praise quietly, one-to-one after the fact rather than drawing everyone’s attention at the time.
  • Smile: Some students will respond well to a simple nod or a smile. A quiet acknowledgement between you and them that you have noticed what they are up to and that you are proud of them.
  • Note it: Write your praise down and give it to the student at the end of the lesson. These notes will often be treasured (even if the student pretends to brush them off at the time).

6, Academic safety

Every student needs to feel safe enough within your lessons to be a bold brave learner who is prepared to try new things, who is not scared to make mistakes, and who knows how and where to seek help when needed.

Get it right by becoming a learning role model to your students. Learn out loud and share with them how you help-seek and problem-solve. You can also work to actively praise and encourage the behaviours you hope to see. This might mean praising the process or unsuccessful first attempts rather than always celebrating successful outcomes.

Break and lunch

Unstructured times in the day can be especially challenging for some students, such as those who are neurodiverse. Small changes here can transform these students’ experience of school and make them less anxious about attending.

7, Control the fun!

Students who struggle to make and keep friends, who get overwhelmed by the hubbub of unstructured time, or who struggle with social interactions may benefit from organised downtime. This can take the form of organised sports or clubs centred around children’s interests. This can help foster a sense of belonging and connection and give students the reassurance of clear rules of engagement, unlike totally unstructured time.

Get it right by identifying students with shared interests and running, or enabling them to run, break or lunchtime clubs or meet-ups centred on those interests.

8, Quiet lunch

The lunch hall can be overwhelming for some students, and some of them will have the double whammy of also finding food overwhelming due to social anxiety, eating difficulties or sensory processing issues. Somewhere quiet to eat lunch can be the difference between some children eating their lunch or not. Hungry children will not thrive in the afternoon and will be less able to manage other underlying anxieties or distress.

Get it right by identifying somewhere quiet where students can eat lunch. Ensure there are clear rules for using this area and make it available to anyone who needs it (and who is happy to respect the rules).

End of the day

While the start of the day sets the weather for the day, how we finish the day sets the weather for tomorrow and can either support or jeopardise a positive transition from school to home.

9, End with positives

Hunt for the good at the end of the day and also take care to wrap up any negatives that have happened so that students can start with a clean sheet tomorrow and do not end up taking worries home with them.

10, Tell a new story

Give families a new story to tell about school by sharing good news with them. This can be something as simple as an email, a phone call or a postcard home.

When we take a little time to reach out to parents and carers with the positives, we instantly transform the tenet of the conversations that will happen about school outside of school. Persistence here can pay off and can begin to change hearts and minds, even in those families who have experienced challenges with school across multiple generations.

Final thoughts

When trying any of these ideas, try to work in collaboration with the student and their family, keeping the student’s motivations and strengths at the heart of every conversation.

Good luck and remember you don’t need to do all of these things at once – just pick a few that feel like a good fit for the student you have in mind, try things out, and see what works!

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Follow her on Twitter @PookyH, find her previous articles via http://bit.ly/htu-knightsmith or visit www.pookyknightsmith.com

Further information & resources

Headteacher Update Podcast: This episode looks at why some students struggle to attend school and what we can do about it. Listen here.

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