Students can’t learn when they aren’t physically in the school building. That’s something schools understand well, and there are strategies schools can use to decrease chronic absenteeism and ensure their students are present and ready to learn.
Take the Building Bridges for Children’s Mental Health Project in Colorado, for example. The project is designed to build a statewide system for connecting public schools and local behavioral health systems, increasing access to behavioral health services and improving outcomes for school-aged children. It integrates a System of Care within a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a proactive approach to establishing the behavioral supports and social culture needed for all students in a school to achieve social, emotional and academic success.
In 2009, Mesa County began a pilot of the Building Bridges program. Building Bridges helped the school district make a stronger connection to its community partners, particularly mental health provider Colorado West (now Mind Springs Health) by emphasizing school-community collaboration to improve behavioral health supports.
As a result of Building Bridges, teachers and school staff—including bus drivers—were trained on how to identify and refer students while supporting those students in the classroom through a PBIS model. This allowed students to receive the services they needed as well as the school community—teachers, administrators, counselors and social workers—the collaboration necessary to provide wraparound services to Mesa County students.
Up to 20 percent of children experience a behavioral health disorder in a given year. Yet only 25 percent of children in need of behavioral health care get the help they need—and students of color are less likely to have access to health services. Building Bridges is helping to increase the number of children seeking help, which is an integral part of reducing chronic absenteeism.
Along with the Colorado Department of Education, Mesa County student services professionals created tip sheets for teachers about how to call families whose students were exhibiting behavioral health problems; this helped teachers feel more comfortable with calling families to express their concerns about students’ behavioral health. A common referral form and informational one-pagers about various mental health issues were developed, and school staff members were trained on how to refer students to services.
The largest project that resulted from the work of Building Bridges is a Social/Emotional Standards rubric outlining the expected measurable behaviors a child might exhibit at certain stages of development. These rubrics help school and community agency staff as well as families and teachers “talk the same language” and understand social/emotional stages in a student’s development.
The impact of the Building Bridges program is clear. After implementing the program, participating schools saw a decrease in suspensions and expulsions, increases in GPA and improvements in parent satisfaction with the schools. Each of these improvements has a positive impact on student attendance and helps create a school culture that students and their families want to be a part of.
While challenges remain, the program has had a meaningful impact and serves as a useful model for other districts. You can learn more about school-based strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism in section three of Addressing the Health-Related Causes of Chronic Absenteeism: A Toolkit for Action.