Good attendance starts with a healthy mind and body

Mounting evidence shows poor physical and mental health is detrimental to students’ academic outcomes, which in turn negatively impacts long term health outcomes.

It’s a vicious cycle that the American Academy of Pediatrics says can be interrupted, however, if schools, pediatricians and organizations that support children’s health can come together to promote attendance and access to healthcare.

In a policy statement released at the end of January, the pediatrics association said more than 6.5 million children in the United States–approximately 13 percent of all students–miss 15 or more days of school each year. Regardless of whether absences are unexcused or excused, chronic absenteeism typically results in poor academic outcomes and is linked to poor health outcomes, according to authors of the statement, Dr. Mandy A. Allison and Elliott Attisha, chief health officer for the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

“Although occasional absences attributable to health conditions can be expected, absences can quickly add up and lead to chronic absenteeism if a child experiences multiple health conditions, unrecognized or undertreated conditions, or lack of access to care,” Allison and Attisha wrote. “Absenteeism attributable to physical health conditions can be compounded by the presence of mental or behavioral health conditions and socioeconomic factors.”

Research has long linked factors including poverty, unstable housing conditions, poor parental health, and racial or ethnic minority status to poor child health outcomes. And children with a history of maltreatment or exposure to major trauma, such as witnessing domestic violence or experiencing a natural disaster, are more likely to experience high rates of absenteeism, truancy, school suspension and dropout–often due to poor mental and behavioral health, poverty and homelessness, among other challenges.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that students living in poverty are more likely than students from higher-income families to be chronically absent from school.

Meanwhile, studies also show that poor school performance is often tied to poor adult health outcomes. Not earning a high school diploma is associated with lower life expectancy, while obtaining advanced degrees and additional years of education is associated with better outcomes. In fact, disparities in mortality rates based on educational attainment have worsened for preventable causes of death over the past 20 years, according to the policy statement.

There are many organizations making efforts to promote school attendance at community, state, and national levels by bringing together parents, education officials, members of the juvenile justice system, and public health and health care leaders.

Some of those partnerships are already making a difference in the lives of students throughout the country. In California, one school district is incorporating proper hand washing technique into the curriculum. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, promoting good hand hygiene practices among children and school staff and can be used to reduce the spread of flu and respiratory tract illness symptoms and reduce absenteeism rates.

In some communities, school-based health centers that include preventive services, dental services, and mental or behavioral health services have been shown to improve education outcomes such as grade point average and high school graduation. Missouri’s Kingston School District announced in January that it would be partnering with a private non-profit community health center to provide such services to students, parents, faculty and employees of the district.

And in Oregon, a school nurse noticed a 7-year-old student was presenting unusual symptoms, and upon seeing a neurologist, it was found the boy seizure disorder. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest policy statement concludes that school nurses play a significant role in student success and attendance because they have the expertise to identify and intervene on health issues that may affect the learning environment.