Is Attendance the Real Issue? Why We Should Focus on Getting Kids Engaged at School Instead.

By Lauren Brooks

Engagement is a critical component of helping children thrive at school, but can be difficult to master in more traditional settings. With a system that pulls together groups of children by age first and, in secondary school, by grade averages with the set system, there is little room for creating classroom environments that suit the diversity of learning styles, interests, and types of intellect that are present in a room of over 30 children.

Creating engagement is, of course, not an easy feat when dealing with any group en masse.  Wanting to improve engagement is not a new phenomenon - in the adult world, companies spend billions of dollars each year on employee engagement initiatives in order to improve the overall job satisfaction and personal wellbeing of staff. 

This isn’t just an altruistic motive, of course - poor employee engagement causes significant financial losses. Absenteeism is one of the most common side effects of poor employee engagement, causing a loss of over £340 billion a year in the UK alone. Companies that have high levels of staff engagement see significant improvements in sales, productivity, and company growth. 

The growing rates of absenteeism at schools suggest we may equally have a growing engagement issue in our education system. A chronically absent child could be the result of poor engagement in school. We must also factor in how physically and emotionally safe children need to feel at school before they are able to engage - bullying, feeling behind or anxious about the workload, and worries at home can all contribute to how engaged a child will be in lessons. If we consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the ideal scenario for learning and engagement can’t really exist unless a child’s physiological, security and sense of belonging are well-established beforehand. Many children struggle to have all these needs met in traditional school environments.

If children felt a true sense of home and belonging at school, and lessons were exciting and engaging, then they would be far more likely to want to go in the first place. Studies have consistently proven that high engagement results in reduced absence, improved productivity, better work outcomes and improved overall wellbeing. 

We must also remember that - put simply - a present child does not equal a PRESENT child. It is very easy to have a disengaged child with high attendance - a child with good attendance but poor or worsening grades can be a clear sign of this. We must also remember that some days, just like adults, are harder than others for many kids, and a day at school where their mind is elsewhere may perhaps be better spent at home resting and dealing with the challenges they are experiencing instead, in the same way that a mental health day off work can help us in the workplace. 

A lot of focus is put on attendance at school. Studies suggest that higher attendance results in better GCSE and A Level exam results. What is not often discussed around this issue, however, is that engagement is highly subjective, and those children who have higher attendance at school may simply be more naturally engaged by the more traditional approach to education.

We should therefore look at school engagement in the same way that we try to understand the diversity of engagement needs of employees in a large company. Without financial metrics and goals attached to learner engagement, however, it can be tricky to understand the exact causes and effects of engagement in classrooms. But indeed, when we think about the purpose of school - to teach and prepare children for the working world - we should be just as determined to create engaging classroom environments as we are to create engaging workplaces.

How Does Gaia Learning Improve Engagement?

Interest-Based Learning
Children (and even grumpy teens!) are wildly curious, and are naturally more exploratory than adults. This means that, once a point of interest is established with a learner, it really isn’t very difficult to significantly increase their engagement in a learning activity.

Interest-based learning (IBL) is a strategy that we use to focus learners’ natural desire to learn around the hobbies and obsessions that they have and do in in their spare time. When faced with a learner with a chronic school absence history, we ensure that our first sessions are light, easy-going, and highly focused around getting to know the child as an individual - rather than as a learner.

It then becomes natural to guide them towards learning activities that inspire them to write about, conduct research and experiments on, or calculate graphs and formulas around a topic of interest. (Obsessed with their hamster? We’ll help them with their online shopping for hamster toys and cage add-ons by measuring up the cage and comparing with the sizes indicated online, and write out a ‘How To Look After My Pet’ guide to give to any future hamster babysitters).

Feeling lost and unheard at school is a common complaint that we hear from most of our learners, so interest-based learning helps the child to feel more in control and engaged with their learning and also helps them to understand the ‘WHY’ behind what they are learning.

Shorter and Simplified Lessons
Our lessons are only 30 minutes long, which allows for shorter bursts of focus and concentration. This also fosters a ‘less is more’ approach, also known as ‘spaced’ or ‘micro’ learning. Hour-long lessons tend to need filling out more, and therefore can involve overloading learners with too much information that they can’t recall. Given the fact that few people can pay attention for longer than 40 minutes at a time, this also means that the last 20 minutes of an hour-long lesson can become a bit redundant.

30 minutes is the perfect amount of time to teach a concept, discuss any questions, and put the information into practice or revision. This means that children don’t feel overwhelmed with their lengthy timetable, and can take a break to enjoy their free time more frequently through the day.

Educators as Respected Older Friends and Mentors
Many children who struggle with traditional schools are neurodivergent, and within neurodivergent brains frequently emerges a challenge of not ‘getting’ societal norms and the traditional hierarchies that exist within the education system. This means that if they don’t gel with a teacher at school, children can become defiant and reluctant to engage with the authority. Unfortunately, one bad experience with one teacher can have a huge impact on a child’s willingness to attend school or respect any other teachers they come across.

We take a different approach - we cultivate a mentor relationship with the kids - someone they feel relaxed and safe to discuss all aspects of their inner world with. This creates a secure environment for learning to occur fluidly and naturally, and for us to really get to know what will and won’t work for our learners. It also allows the ever-inquisitive children to get to know and understand the world from the adult’s perspective too, building their understanding of respecting and appreciating those in positions of power.

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About the author

Lauren is a Gaia educator and writer. She is determined to bring education into the 21st Century with Gaia Learning and nurturing the gift of neurodivergent students.