August is National Truancy Prevention Month and as school starts for many districts this month it is a good time to consider the impact that underlying mental health factors may have on a child’s repeated unexcused absences. Research conducted by the Clark County Truancy Project found that truant youth have a higher prevalence of underlying mental health issues than the general youth population. Findings revealed that 74% of truant children had experienced one or more adverse childhood events including abuse and neglect, separation or divorce of parents, substance abuse (self or parent), family domestic violence, parent incarceration, a low learning level or learning disability (self or parent), or mental or physical health problems (self or parent).

The most prevalent reported behaviors of truant youth included:

  • A pattern of frequent use of alcohol or drugs, with risk for substance abuse
  • Frustration, lasting anger and moodiness
  • A mix of depressed and anxious feelings
  • Body aches and pains associated with emotional distress
  • Thoughts and intentions to harm oneself
  • Unusual beliefs or perceptions suggestive of thought disorder
  • Lifetime exposure to traumatic experiences

Other characteristics associated with truant behavior include low grades in math and reading; neurological factors (dyslexia, etc.); an inability to make friends with students or teachers; and negative attitudes toward teachers or school.

What can be done to keep youth in school and on the path to being productive adults? Communities can employ a screening tool to identify mental health needs of youth with a pattern of truancy. In addition, Baker, Simon, and Nugent (2001) identified five key elements in reducing truancy: parental involvement; meaningful sanctions or consequences for truancy; meaningful incentives for attendance; ongoing school-based truancy-reduction programs; and involvement of community resources.

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