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Members of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Commissioner’s Principal Advisory Council (PrAC) met on Dec. 14 to discuss chronic absenteeism and mental health concerns within schools.

The council allows for discussion and feedback from school leaders about topics that will lead to the improvement of Kentucky’s public schools and the opportunities they afford students.

Florence Chang, a program consultant in the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE’s) Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, gave an overview of chronic absenteeism across the state.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as when a student misses 10% more of his or her enrolled academic year, which equates to missing a combined total of 17 days of instructional time if the school year is 170 days.

“Just a quick reminder, it’s not the same as truancy,” said Chang. “It includes both excused and unexcused absences such as suspensions, illnesses, as well as things just like missing school for doctor’s appointments and getting to school late.”

Chang said the department started to see an increase in chronic absenteeism before the pandemic and believes it exacerbated the issue.

“In the 2016-2017 school year, we saw 17% of students in the state were chronically absent,” she said. “The most recent data from this past year shows it’s gone up to 30%.”

Christina Watford, a program consultant in KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, shared strategies to address some of the factors impacting attendance, such as different barriers in students’ lives, disengagement and misconceptions.

“First, we need to start by looking at how we foster a welcoming and supportive culture for students and for adults using positive and nurturing language that emphasizes the well-being of everyone in the school, not only for students, but include our adults as well,” said Watford.

Watford provided additional ideas to help decrease absenteeism, such as ensuring academically engaging and challenging environments, creating an attendance campaign, tracking attendance and using data, and engaging with families and communities.

“One thing that we can probably all agree on is that chronic absenteeism requires a comprehensive approach and that all of the staff members in your schools have to contribute toward that approach,” said Watford.

Mental Health

Lori DeHart, an educational consultant for the Kentucky Educational Development Corporation, spoke with the members of the council about mental health concerns with students.

“About 50% of all cases of mental illness begin at a very young age, around the age of 14, and then 75% by the age of 24,” said DeHart. “So that’s pretty scary within itself. And we know that mental health concerns occur much earlier as well in our students.”

DeHart asked the principals to express some of their concerns when it comes to their students and how their mental health has impacted behavioral issues.

“I would say one of the big issues we’re seeing is students being able to regulate themselves when things don’t go well,” said Wolfe County Middle School Principal Nick Brooks. “What used to be a minor incident that we could work through blows up much quicker than what I was seeing in the past.”

DeHart said this concern is one the of biggest issues she is hearing from schools across Kentucky.

“Our students lack those skills (to regulate their emotions),” said DeHart. “And even if they have the skill, they don’t know what to do.

“First of all, we have to make sure that our students understand emotions. Identifying emotions and other people’s emotions. Then, can they identify those emotions in themselves? They’re not going to be able to self-regulate without having that knowledge.”

DeHart said it’s important to break things down for students and teach them the skills they are missing to help them understand their emotions and mental health.

“We have to teach intently the skill of perspective, and if they don’t understand, they can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Then it’s really hard for them to empathize with anyone,” said DeHart. “Those are just the little pieces of it.”

The next Commissioner’s Principal Advisory Council meeting will be held on March 14.