School’s responsibilities where a mental health issue is affecting attendance – Navigating New Guidance: Mental Health’s Impact on School Attendance
Mental health issues can have a significant impact on school attendance. As schools adapt to ever-changing circumstances and prioritise the wellbeing of children, guidance has been published (Summary of responsibilities where a mental health issue is affecting attendance February 2023) to address the impact of mental health on school attendance rates. According to the Department for Education, around 1 in 6 children and young people in the UK have a mental health problem. Of these, around 1 in 25 have a severe mental health problem. Research has shown that children with mental health problems are more likely to miss school than children without mental health problems.
Identifying the warning signs
The first step in addressing attendance issues related to mental health is recognising the challenges children face. Children with mental health problems may experience anxiety or depression, which can make it difficult for them to focus in class, resulting in a decline in academic performance. They may have difficulty sleeping or eating, which can make it hard for them to get up and go to school in the morning and further contribute to their poor attendance. Other challenges include bullying and personal struggles that can contribute to mental health issues. It is important that schools be vigilant and empathetic towards children’s emotional wellbeing, and that they continue to provide safe, nurturing environments that support pupil mental health.
What can schools do?
Schools can play a vital role in supporting children with mental health problems to attend school more regularly by providing early intervention. Identify children who are struggling by being aware of the signs and symptoms of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and self-harm. Schools can support children by:
- Providing counselling services
- Access to mental health services
- Offering peer support groups or key adults
- Making adjustments to the school environment
- Working closely with parents and carers to support their child’s mental health
- Working with healthcare professionals to support children with mental health problems. This includes sharing information about the child’s mental health
Creating a Supportive Environment
Schools must prioritise creating a supportive environment that fosters positive mental health. This entails nurturing open lines of communication, implementing anti-bullying polices and organising mental health awareness campaigns. This can help to break down the stigma associated with mental health problems and encourage children to seek help if they need it. By de-stigmatising mental health challenges, children feel more comfortable seeking help and support.
School should develop a plan for supporting the child, and monitoring their progress. Each child’s mental health journey is unique, so personalised support plans are crucial. These plans should be developed collaboratively, involving children, parents, teachers, counsellors, and other relevant professionals. Regular check-ins, targeted interventions, and adjustments to academic expectations can help children manage their mental health while staying engaged in their education.
Education and Awareness
Promoting education and awareness around mental health within school is vital. This can be achieved through workshops, guest speakers, and incorporating mental health topics into the curriculum. By fostering a culture of understanding and empathy, children, teachers, and parents can better support one another.
How can schools work with parents/carers?
Parents also have an important role to play in supporting children with mental health problems to attend school more regularly. Parents should be encouraged to talk to their child about their mental health and how it is affecting their school attendance. This will help them to understand what their child is going through and how they can best support them.
- Work with parents to develop a plan for supporting their child. This plan should include helping their child to develop skills to manage their mental health, and monitor their child’s progress.
- Encourage parents to seek professional help. If their child is struggling with their mental health, it is important to seek help. A health care practitioner can help the child to understand their mental health problems and develop their coping skills.
Examples of effective practice
Here are two examples of what a primary and secondary school implemented to improve attendance for pupils with mental health issues.
This primary school child had been experiencing social anxiety and panic attacks, which resulted in extremely poor school attendance and reluctance to attend school. The situation was rapidly declining. The school scheduled meetings with the parents and made a referral to early help for targeted support. This resulted in the child being referred to CAMHS, offered counselling support and a support worker assigned. The school collaborated with the child’s parents to implement a personalised plan to gradually ease the child back into school. This involved a later start time and the parent staying with the child until they settled. The child was allowed to go home at lunchtime initially, followed by staying for lunch and a gradual process of staying in school until the end of the day. A friend of the child was also involved by greeting the child at the start of day and acting as a buddy. The school implemented a reward system for the child acknowledging their progress in attending school.
This High School student had been struggling with anxiety and depression, which had led to frequent absences from school. The student’s teacher had noticed a decline in their participation and attendance. A referral was made to the school’s Student Support Service that includes a school counsellor. A meeting to discuss the student’s situation was arranged with the parents to find out their input on the mental health challenges and attendance issues the student faced. An individual support plan was created. The plan included flexible attendance options, to allow the student to complete assignments remotely when unable to attend school. The school counsellor had regular meetings with the student to provide emotional support and coping strategies for managing the anxiety and depression. The student was also paired with a peer mentor, another student who has overcome similar challenges. The mentor provided encouragement, listened, shared concerns and tips for managing school-related stress. Another important factor was the student’s teachers being informed about the situation and encouraged to provide additional support and understanding. The student was given a “check-in” card to use whenever a break was needed. This allowed them to step out of class briefly to manage the anxiety and return when ready. The Student Support Team continued to regularly review the student’s attendance and progress. This resulted in improved attendance and engagement.
Mental health problems can have a significant impact on school attendance. However, by recognising the challenges, identifying warning signs, creating a supportive environment, fostering collaboration, implementing individualised support plans, and promoting education and awareness, schools can play an important role in supporting children’s mental health and improving attendance rates. Reference
Schools are expected to set and maintain high expectations for attendance for children with mental health concerns and work with pupils and parents/carers to maximise their attendance. If your school could benefit from advice and support around the new guidelines, One Education offers attendance training courses, and school attendance adviser support. Please contact us for more information.