University of Gothenburg
Wooden desk and chair at school and empty
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Problematic school absenteeism

Maria Davidsson discusses problematic school absenteeism, a common problem which affects the education of children and adolescents with ESSENCE.

About absenteeism

Problematic school absenteeism and school refusal may not be clinical diagnoses, but these are issues that create major challenges for children, parents, teachers and clinical professionals. The terms can be defined in many different ways, but they basically refer to children who are absent from school for a long period of time and then dread having to go back.

All Swedish children and adolescents are both entitled and obligated to attend school. School is important because it has a major impact on the child’s social and emotional development, and high attendance is conducive to good performance. Kids with problematic school absenteeism are more likely to lack critical knowledge and end up with incomplete grades, which in turn leads to diminished career opportunities and increased risk of alienation.


Maria Davidsson

How many children do not attend school?

A survey performed by the Swedish Schools Inspectorate found that 1,700 students (bound by compulsory school attendance) had at least one month of consecutive unexcused absences, in other words about 0.17% of all students in that age group (preschool class through ninth grade). Beyond that, the survey also showed that almost 18,000 students had scattered but repeated absences – often a sign that a more prolonged absence could be looming in the future. The Swedish Schools Inspectorate measured school absence at one specific point in time, but studies that have measured absence over longer stretches of time have found that 5-28% of all students display absentee behaviour at one point or another.

Problematic school absenteeism is as common in girls as it is in boys; most cases arise during the early teens. Prevalence is somewhat higher in larger schools. There is significant evidence to suggest that problematic school absenteeism is more common among students with autism spectrum disorder; prevalence among children with ASD is estimated at around 40-53%.

Why do these children not attend school?

Children with problematic school absenteeism are a heterogeneous group, characterised by any number of different intermingling causes and maintaining factors. Nevertheless, though the causes may vary, there are individual, school-related and social factors that unite many of the children affected by this issue. Research divides these factors into three categories: individual, domestic and school.

Individual factors might be anxiety disorder, depression, oppositional defiant disorder, somatic disorders and emotional instability. Difficulty making friends is also a common individual factor.

Domestic factors might be conflicts, disorders or diseases affecting parents or siblings, or a lack of support from one’s parents.

School-related factors that might lead to increased absence include lax attendance checks, bullying and lack of support from teachers. Feelings of unease after switching schools and/or advancing to higher grades can also play a role. Some students also find unstructured teaching hard to follow.

Previous research has identified factors associated with problematic school absenteeism specifically for children with autism spectrum problems. Children with autism and problematic school absenteeism often have a lower social drive and greater difficulties in terms of executive functioning, i.e. initiating tasks, solving problems, planning and organising tasks. They also show several symptoms of avoidance and depression, as well as more negative thoughts about their relationships with peers, teachers and school subjects (especially physical education). In a survey performed by the Autism and Asperger Association, 77% of the participating parents reported that poor knowledge about autism was the main reason for their child’s absence.

How can we help children get back to school?

Research indicates a large need for early detection in order to prevent both short-term and long-term consequences. The issue of school absenteeism requires preventive measures, including adjustments for children with disorders, actively addressing bullying and creating a good working environment.

Once the issue of absenteeism has taken root, interventions must be tailored individually – after all, each case has unique causes and maintaining factors. Key points are to motivate the child to return to school, create good relationships with educators and classmates, and improve the child’s self-confidence. It is crucial that children and parents, the school, child and adolescent psychiatric services and social services all cooperate!

Autism-och Aspergerförbundets undersökning om skolan, våren 2013
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