Truancy, or wagging, is a complex and unresolved long-term educational issue which has terrible ramifications for young people, with outcomes including criminal activity and incarceration.
My PhD thesis, Under the skin of truancy in Aotearoa New Zealand, saw me work with 13 students from four New Zealand secondary schools, to better understand how truancy begins, what happens when students gather together outside class during school time, how it is resolved, and how students can come to reengage in their education.
I found that although truancy happens for a variety of reasons, it begins in class when students detach from teachers, peers and learning. Students almost always begin wagging with a single subject, then various factors attract them to extend their time outside the classroom. A powerful factor was that they had found a community outside the classroom.
This outsider community showed them care, showed them respect, shared their dilemmas, and accepted them into their group. This offering is quite heady for a young person who truants, providing momentum to keep students away from the classroom. And escaping was better than experiencing anxiety and stress, being in class with teachers and peers they disliked.
We as adults can follow this reasoning—anybody would prefer to feel they fit in. But if students aren’t in class, they cannot get an education, which leads to a continuation of the cycle of poverty and criminality. So how do we prevent the wagging? How do we start the year right?
I suggest teachers start the year by establishing a cohesive, sacred space for learning where students feel safe, before beginning work with the curriculum. This is the way forward. I’m not asking teachers to be social workers, but rather to establish positive relationships with their students, facilitate positive relationships between peers and develop a culturally sustaining learning environment.
If teachers can give themselves more time to start the year and getting to know their students, they will be able to help these students to develop the scaffolding to support their learning, and take time to develop relationships with the students’ whānau that will help from a family perspective. If they know that there is trauma which explains the behaviour of these children, they can work within the school system to help them to stay.
In the interviews I ran with students who identified as young people who truant, I found that many of them didn’t think that their teachers or school cared about them, or took their problems seriously. One of the students involved in my study was accruing detentions at her school, but nobody was enforcing them. She believed she didn’t matter.
Truancy will not be solved by individuals. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to support a young person who truants to overcome personal issues and barriers to learning, to be accepted, and to help them build positive relationships so they feel validated, cared for and connect with others in a sacred learning space.
The students I talked with who had moved away from wagging pointed to supportive relationships as the most positive reason that they stopped. They realised that they had agency and that they mattered. It takes timely adult interventions and intentional adult support and guidance to help students to understand wagging has a negative impact on their future. They also need to be willing to change.
We need to understand what has happened to these vulnerable youth. We need to focus not on a crisis response, but instead address underlying factors and notice all students who wag before it becomes a habit. Wagging starts with one class by detaching from peers, teachers or learning. If the adults and peers in their community show young people respect and care from the beginning, they may realise that they matter. That their learning matters. That their lives matter.