Students with mental ill-health or are neurodivergent are more likely to miss class time through absenteeism and exclusion. This can be particularly damaging as poor school attendance impacts considerably on a child’s future prospects, not only through education achievement but also socially and developmentally.

In light of that trend, a study led by Professor Ann John, Swansea University, has highlighted the importance of using absence data to indicate problems and then using an integrated school-based and healthcare strategy to support young people through their education.

Prof John said: "Health and educational professionals, services and policymakers should be aware that children with poor attendance may be experiencing emotional ill health, whether this is diagnosed in school or early adulthood.”

“Absences and exclusions may provide a useful tool to identify those who require additional support. Early intervention will not only reduce immediate distress and difficulties for the young person but also may also interrupt poor life trajectories and improve outcomes in later life.”

Data could be used to focus limited school resources

The research paper published in The Lancet Psychiatry highlighted the many ways attendance might be impacted by mental health problems. From disruptive behaviours resulting in an escalation of disciplinary measures potentially resulting in exclusion to somatic symptoms such as headaches and sickness leading to authorised absences and family, peer problems, and bullying.

Prof John added that the key to understanding different types of school absences is young people's varying gendered behavioural expressions of distress. She said: “Within the diagnosed populations, girls with neurodevelopmental disorders, depression and substance misuse were more likely to be absent, and boys were more likely to be excluded.”

“Boys [are more likely to] express their mental distress through their behaviour which in turn impacts the school environment resulting in their exclusion, whereas girls, especially with emotional disorders or delayed diagnosis of neurodevelopmental disorders, tend to be more anxious and withdraw from social contact.”

The research team emphasised figures showing that having special educational needs (SEN) status reduces the likelihood of a pupil being absent or excluded, which they said is potentially due to the positive role of recognition, diagnosis, and educational intervention.

Prof John concluded: “Attendance and exclusion data could provide useful information about where to focus limited resources. School-based mental health prevention strategies may also help build resilience, enabling pupils to develop strategies for managing and improving their mental health and wellbeing as well as to understand when and how to seek additional help.”