Student absenteeism on the rise

Absenteeism for compulsory schools in Japan rose in fiscal 2013 for the first time in six years, according to a recent report from the education ministry.

Nationwide, 119,617 students in elementary and junior high schools were absent for 30 days or more for reasons other than health or economics. This extraordinarily high number of absent students is a terrible loss to those individuals and to society, and points out again the need for changes at schools.

While that number was still down from the record 138,733 absent students in 2001, it is up 7,000 from the previous year.

A startling 95,442 junior high school students, around 2.7 percent of the total of junior high school students, stayed away for a month or more.

With class sizes averaging around 40, that is roughly one missing student from every homeroom in the country.

The report did not list the causes behind the increase, pending a report later in the year, but the reasons are many and various. Students who become physically ill and need longer treatment find it hard to return after their absence, particularly since the curriculum is too lockstep and inflexible.

As a result, some of those students feel permanently behind and give up going. A better system of reintroducing such students to the school environment needs to be in place. Many students who suffer deeply from performance anxiety about exams, presentations and other challenging work end up missing a few classes, which turns into many more.

While the traditional response is to be strict with such students, anxiety cannot be dismissed. A better response for parents and teachers is to address the student’s worries directly. Assistance from psychologists, consultants and counselors can help students overcome extreme anxiety and keep up, even when it is tough.

Unfortunately the over-emphasis on performance, especially on exams, keeps all students’ anxiety at a high level. The focus on achievement and class rank based primarily on exam results increases students’ worries over their future prospects. Unless changed, the exam-based system will always drive some students away, especially those who are hypersensitive, over-anxious or uncompetitive.

Students, especially in junior high school, also face social issues that can make them stay away. While bullying is surely one of the main reasons for avoiding school, other students who feel excessively shy, have low self-esteem or find it difficult to make friends may end up not going, too.

Personal confrontations with teachers or disagreements over school rules can be the start of longer-term absences.

Administrators need to find solutions to disciplinary problems with reasonable, meaningful and instructive rules and procedures that are educational rather than punitive. Teenagers tend to have a lot of fears and worries related to undergoing puberty, yet these often go unacknowledged. Schools have slightly improved sex education and physical education to help resolve the confusion and embarrassment accompanying this change, but it is far from sufficient.

More direct and realistic instruction about these issues will help students to feel less isolated, stay on track and understand the changes they are going through.

Many students also quit going to school because they lack interest. Because a significant portion of the current curriculum is still aimed at passing entrance exams, many students become bored and unengaged. A greater variety of activities, relevant content and age-appropriate tasks will help students maintain interest.

Feeling bored, frustrated or angry with school is among the most basic reasons for absences.

At many schools, overly strict policies drive students away, too. Excessive punishment for small infractions pushes many students away. At the same time, though, students can be overly indulged and problems ignored. Teachers and administrators need to have direct but flexible policies aimed at keeping students in school.

The solutions to absences involve significant changes, increased budgets and additional personnel. Increasing the number of counselors, especially at junior high schools from where most students drop out, is a crucial first step. At present, teachers end up doing a great deal of this counseling work in addition to their teaching duties. Designated counselors would ease that burden and bring trained, professional approaches to difficult situations.

Since parents are also involved in students’ absences — sometimes by condoning it, other times by working too much to notice their children’s absences — counselors could also work better with families, assisting with problems in students’ home environments and with psychological issues that do not show up at school. Counselors can help to get students restarted when they have had long absences, for whatever reason, and find them extra tutoring or other services needed to re-integrate.

Recent approaches to identifying and reducing harassment, bullying and other abuse will surely help many students who are at risk of becoming long-term absentees. Teachers and administrators are hugely overworked, but they need to be alert for potential problems and to intervene early. The education ministry can help by reducing teachers’ and administrators’ workloads, and by conducting more and better research and providing more budget to address this crisis. The high rate of student absenteeism is one of the strongest indicators of the need for educational reforms.

Students, more than 100,000 of them every year staying away from school, deserve a new approach and much greater help.