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Re-thinking pupil absence by using psychological perspectives

04 December 2020 | by Guest

What impact can poverty have on school attendance? How can psychology help change the way we view truancy and improve school attendance and children’s future prospects? Alex Jones, a member of our Poverty to Flourishing Expert Reference Group and director of Attendance Plus, discusses his experiences.

Currently there are 4.2 million children living in poverty.

Awareness about poverty is crucial to understand the impact it has on families, and in turn, on children’s learning.

Being in poverty can negatively impact all areas of life, including mental bandwidth for decision making.

It can tunnel thinking, giving primary focus to the means of survival, making thinking about attending school secondary.

It is therefore important we re-think absence and see it as an opportunity, and to understand absence in context of children’s lives and their unique experiences.

There’s a great study by Feinstein et al, ‘A Model of the Inter-Generational Transmission of Educational Success’, which puts forward the notion that to break cycles of poverty you need to understand the influences on children.

With foundations in developmental psychology, the model promotes understanding about how people learn behaviours (by family influences) and by circumstance (psychosocial determinants).

This requires sensitive and informed thinking to be in a position to aid alternative pathways for educational success, combined with Early Help (single or multi-agency).

Similarly, we apply psychological perspectives to understand truancy and why children truant.

When you understand about the vulnerabilities associated with being absent from school, being at risk of harm, becoming involved in crime, perhaps being involved in County Lines, then it becomes difficult to comprehend that children would actually ‘play’ at being truant - they don’t. Children become involved in difficult and knotty circumstances.

So, there’s a call to re-think attitudes to truancy through applying psychological perspectives. In fact, a recent systemic review looked at truancy across six countries and found associations between truancy and anxiety, particularly social anxiety.

Being more ‘attachment-aware’ helps to understand motivations behind behaviour including being absent from school.

We’ve therefore moved to incorporate understanding both about attachment and trauma with regards to supporting children and young people in our practice

 It’s a method influenced by Professor Peter Fonagy and his approach for ‘Mentalization’.

To ‘mentalize’ helps aid children’s thinking, to help them reflect upon, and to understand states of mind; to have insight about what they’re feeling, and why.

By doing this we help children and young people think, to make sense of their thoughts, beliefs, wishes and feelings and to link these to actions and behaviours.

In this way, Mentalization helps a different understanding about attendance and promotes a new relationship to change.

To mentalize about absence helps understand worries and anxieties about attending school, and understand motivations about being absent, and most importantly what wishes and feelings they may have about their futures.

It’s by doing this, and importantly, in a trusting relationship, that we can help children and young people think about their personal ambitions, education and futures, including the necessary actions to achieve and fulfil aspirations, including attending school.

It’s this combination, of being poverty aware, understanding the clustering of factors about poverty, providing early help and by changing practice to incorporate psychological perspectives, that we enable pathways and opportunity for children and families to move from poverty to flourishing.

Read more about our From Poverty to Flourishing campaign.

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