Patrick Mulkern, MSW, PPSC
Student engagement has always been an important part of schools, learning, and the role of the school social worker. It cannot solely be a focus in August and September because engagement anchors and strengthens the work that school social workers can achieve and acts as the central foundation to all work done in schools. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there have been numerous necessary and sudden shifts in the way that school social workers engage with students and their families including the location of services, times of day contact is made, platforms used, and types of support offered. School social workers skillfully navigated these shifts to online learning in the Spring of 2020 and the shifts to hybrid and in person learning during the 2020-2021 academic school year. Now most schools throughout the country are returning to school buildings fully in person and school social workers are called to shift and pivot again. The disruptions that have been occurring over the past 18 months continue to exacerbate the challenges that students experience both in and out of school.
A National Attendance Crisis
In 2019, the the United States Department of Education published a report and data story titled, Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s School: A Hidden Educational Crisis using the most recent data from the 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection. During the 2015-2016 academic school year, more than 7 million students (16% of the US student population) were absent from school for 15 or more days. These numbers concern educators, families, and students because school absenteeism is linked to lower academic performance including literacy and math skills, challenges in social development, both internalizing and externalizing behaviors, and dropping out (Ansari & Pianta, 2019; Gottfried, 2014; Young, Sollose, & Carey, 2020). As schools shut down and remained closed for over a year, many students stopped attending and an estimated 1 million or more students did not enroll in school during the 2020-2021 school year (Ko, 2021). Doctors, politicians, educators, and families worry about what the short and long term impacts of COVID-19 will be on children and their education and many have turned their concern and attention to attendance. Although attendance is an important data point to observe, especially for states who utilize attendance data as an indicator under the Every Student Succeeds Act, school social workers and all members of the school community must look beyond attendance, which is a symptom caused by a deeper issue occurring in the student’s ecosystem.
Barriers to Attendance
Getting to and performing in school is about more than “just showing up”. There are barriers at the micro, mezo, exo, and macro level that prevent students from attending school (Sugrue, Zuel, & LaLiberte, 2016). Upon initial review, these barriers may appear to be individual challenges such as a lack of access to reliable transportation or academic struggles leading to school avoidance; however, at the root of these are the societal barriers of racism, intergenerational trauma, and poverty. Schools with disproportionate disciplinary practices, a lack of culturally and linguistically responsive curriculum, and a climate where students and families are viewed as the problem create hostile and unwelcoming environments that prevent students from feeling connected, supported, and engaged (Anyon, Zheng, & Hazel, 2016; Johnston-Goodstar & Roholt, 2017; Voight, Hanson, O’Malley, & Adekanye, 2015). Schools have a lot within their locus of control to create educational spaces open, accepting, and celebratory of all students. By shifting from viewing attendance as a behavior or challenge experienced by individual students and families to critically viewing the barriers as created and maintained by schools and society, schools will experience greater success in improving attendance.
Schools can focus their attention on student engagement, which “can be a lever for school improvement” and relates strongly to the concept of school connectedness, as one way to make an impact on student attendance (Walls, Ryu, Fairchild, & Johnson, 2021, p. 750). School connectedness has been shown to act as a protective factor against the impacts of victimization that occurs in schools as well as attenuate the relationship between barriers to education and dropping out of school (Liu, Carney, Kim, & Guo, 2020; McWhirter, Garcia, & Bines, 2018). Students with higher levels of school connectedness demonstrate a plethora of improved academic achievements as well as experience better physical and mental health outcomes (Hendron & Kearney, 2016; Millings, Buck, Montgomery, Spears, & Stallard, 2012; Walls, Ryu, Fairchild, & Johnson, 2021). Relationships are at the root of connectedness and evidence indicates that a valuable predictor of mental health is relational health (Perry & Winfrey, 2021). While school connectedness and student engagement will not address barriers such as transportation, caregiving duties, and other responsibilities outside of school, it can make a difference in welcoming students and creating a space where they feel seen, heard, valued, accepted, and welcomed.
The concept of student engagement is theoretically complex due to the numerous constructs that it encompasses, the various definitions for each of these constructs, and the difficulty in measuring the impacts that each of these constructs has individually or collectively (Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Lawson, 2017). The literature usually breaks student engagement into three categories: emotional engagement, behavioral engagement, and cognitive engagement, each of which has been linked and correlated to student achievement in some way (Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). When considering how schools can engage students, it is important to address each construct by implementing systems, structures, and interventions to support students to identify and feel empowered as learners, be active participants in their learning, and be motivated by an interesting, relevant, and reflective curriculum. Dr. Bruce Perry (2021) discusses the Sequence of Engagement: regulate, relate, and reason, which illustrates neuroscience to consider when providing mental health or school social work services and serves as a helpful roadmap for engaging students, families, and school community members.
The Sequence of Engagement begins with regulation because that is “the key to creating a safe connection. And being connected is the most efficient and effective way to get information up to the cortex” (Perry & Winfrey, 2021, p. 144). Once someone begins to feel safe internally and in the school building, the focus of the work can transition to the relationships, which are a key component to feelings of school connectedness. Supporting the regulation of others has to begin with self-regulation. School social workers and other educators who participate in self and community care practices that center and enrich their own wellness model the importance of regulation to their peers and students while also building up resilience and skills necessary to coregulate the people with whom they work. Examples of self and community care include mindfulness practices, sharing meals with loved ones, spending time in nature, music and dance, and organizing for social change. Universal Tier 1 practices in schools can also help students regulate. Setting and intentionally teaching expectations, keeping a predictable schedule, addressing the holistic needs of the child, and maintaining a clean and orderly physical space creates an environment and routine where students can thrive.
When people are regulated they begin to develop and nurture positive relationships with others; however, historically and currently, schools are not a safe and supportive place for many students and families. In order to build authentic relationships with students and families, school social workers must first acknowledge and identify the ways in which they and the profession have contributed to and upheld racism in the educational system and work to interrupt the disproportionalities in the opportunity gap and school discipline practices that occur in schools (Crutchfield, Phillipo, & Frey, 2020). School social workers are part of a profession and a system that has caused disproportionate harm against Black, Indigenous, and students of color as well as their families. They must work to repair this harm in order to earn trust and build relationships. Taking a stance of cultural humility and inquiring about what the students, families, and community have identified as needs as well as barriers to success acts as an initial foundational step to creating institutional change. School social workers can use their power in the educational system to implement these recommendations or step back and create space for students and families to build and utilize their power within the school to make vital changes.
Working to increase visibility and transparency can also support the establishment of trust. School social workers can increase visibility by participating in community events hosted by the school’s partner organizations, attending sporting and art events where students perform, hosting informal chats with families, and listening to and collaborating with students and families to implement changes that they know to be necessary for the health and success of the school. They can greet students and families at drop off and pick up times, eat lunch with students, and play with them during recess. Transparency, clarity, and communication of services provided to the school community as well as individual students supports the inclusion of families into the education of their children. School social workers can assist teachers in contacting families with positive phone calls home as well as updates on what students are learning, so that families have positive experiences with school staff. Unfortunately, there are times when families are first contacted when there is a challenge or barrier being experienced by a student or teacher.
In addition to forming relationships with individual students and families, school social workers can act as leaders by creating opportunities and fostering the development of relationships between school staff and students, families, and the community. Each member of the school community brings expertise and can be a positive point of contact at school for students. Developing mentoring programs, facilitating school wide events that focus on joy, and sponsoring groups and extracurricular activities can create spaces for school staff and students to build relationships with each other in a context outside of the classroom, which can positively impact their feelings of belonging, school connectedness, and academic performance (Lawson & Lawson, 2015; Walls, Ryu, Fairchild, & Johnson 2021). School social workers can also support teachers, administrators, and other school staff in advocating for ensuring that the curriculum that students receive is reflective, relevant, and engaging.
Reasoning, Reflection, and Academic Success
When people are regulated and have positive trusting relationships, they are able to utilize their prefrontal cortex in order to reason, reflect, and engage in critical thinking that supports their academic success. More importantly, students who feel safe at school and have positive relationships experience feelings of school connectedness, which is strongly related to school attendance, graduation rates, and academic success (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009). The work done to holistically support the health and wellness of students has a direct impact on their feelings of belonging, attendance, and academic performance. Although attendance and academic success are important and often goals of school social work programming, school social workers should be cautious of the ways that working to increased attendance and improve academics as the main outcome can create false, deficit-based narratives about students and families, emphasize compliance and control, and contribute to the disproportionate disciplinary practices (Simmons, 2021). School social workers can support schools by providing psychoeducation and training on the Sequence of Engagement and importance of all school staff starting with regulation and relationships before moving into goals centered in reasoning and reflection.
Students throughout the country continue to struggle with attending school consistently, which can impact their academic success and outcomes later in life. To address this, schools must partner with communities in order to meet the basic needs of children and families in order to reduce barriers to attendance caused by a lack of access to appropriate housing, transportation, food, and child care. Additionally, school staff must interrogate the role that they have historically and currently play in the creation of schools as sites of trauma and harm and work diligently to repair that harm. In addition to advocating for social change and supporting policy initiatives, school social workers can take the lead by looking within their school community and attend to creating physical and emotional spaces where students feel a sense of belonging, are engaged, and connected to staff, peers, and the curriculum.
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Patrick Mulkern, LCSW, PPSC has worked as a School Social Worker in San Francisco Unified School District since graduating with an MSW and PPSC from the University of California, Berkeley in 2016. He currently coordinates the Wellness Center at Phillip & Sala Burton Academic High School, where he implements individual, group, and school-wide interventions while collaborating with students and families to create a more equitable educational environment. Since the summer of 2019, Patrick has been a Community Lecturer in the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare teaching courses on social practice in schools, education policy, human sexuality, and psychopathology. He has a passion for supporting students both in the K-12 and university environments and learns so much from his work supervising, training, and mentoring graduate student interns. In addition to school social work, Patrick's interests include working with LGBTQ+ youth, healing-centered and anti-oppressive social work, and narrative practices. Patrick also serves as the Vice President of the California Association of School Social Workers and Chair of the Board of the Randy Fisher Legacy Endowment of the School Social Work Association of America.