Lil Davey’s many ailments

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(I wrote this post last year, but I lost track of it in my drafts file. Please share this post with new teachers especially.)

He’s thin to the point of scrawniness, a smiling kid with many friends. He’s not afraid to speak up in class and he likes to be silly. He seems young for his age, but he’s popular. The girls definitely like him. He’s behind in class and falling farther behind, and I don’t know how to solve the problem that’s been unfolding. He keeps coming up with the oddest physical symptoms to explain absences or trips to the nurse. The kids all tell me he’s skipping. I checked with the nurse recently and she did not know anything about the “notes he had to bring to the nurse” and other excuses.

I need to send Davey to the nurse shortly. His last bloodwork showed sugar problems, he said. His mom does not seem to know what is happening. He has doctors but she cannot tell me what — if anything — is wrong with him. I believe Davey tells her that he feels bad and she lets him stay home. He suffered a genuine illness around Christmas, and mom was naturally spooked by his brief hospital stay.

Eduhonesty: Every year, my school has a few of these kids. They miss day after day of school, suffering from amorphous complaints that parents indulge. Frequently, a real event kicked off the absences, often a scary illness or injury. As part of that event, our Daveys discover they like staying home. They like mom fussing over them and fixing them special food while they watch TV all day.

“She has always been sickly,” dad or mom will say to me. These parents don’t understand the academic cost of all those many sick days.

Many of my strongest students have been sick this year. I had a mild case of the flu and a long, aggravating head cold. Almost all my students have come into class hacking and sneezing. Sometimes I send students to the nurse when I suspect fevers. Sometimes she sends feverish kids home, at least when she can find a parent or guardian to take care of them. Mostly, I cringe a little and then place the hand cleaner in a prominent position. Conditions permitting, I open windows.

I support keeping feverish kids home. I encourage parents to let kids spend the first day or two of a cold at home. But Davey is going to crash and burn academically if mom does not stop him from opting out of school. To my teacher-readers: Do you have a Davey or two? I have not found a solution, but I can offer a few suggestions:

♦ If you have a nurse on the premises, talk to the nurse. Let the nurse know your concerns. If Davey is truly sick, the school needs to know what is happening. Schools are monster petri dishes in the best of times. On the other hand, if Davey does not seem to have a diagnosable illness, the nurse can then push him back into class as quickly as possible.

♦ Talk to mom and dad. Show them the effect of missed classes and tests in some concrete form. You might show them the material your Davey missed during his last absence and his subsequent failed quiz. Looking at textbook pages, activity sheets and failed quizzes can make lost schooling real for parents.

♦ Don’t be too sympathetic. I am usually among the first to express sympathy for my sick kids, but sympathy absolutely will not help Davey. Sympathy becomes another perk of being sick, like those pajama days of watching TV while eating Takis.

♦ Talk to Davey’s other teachers. A united front by the adults can help keep Davey on track. Praise Davey for being in class.

♦ Be proactive. You may have to kick the truancy machinery into motion at some point. Especially in academically-disadvantaged and urban schools, your classes may suffer from many absences, but repeated absences quickly become toxic to learning. Unless your school has received proof of a physical problem, when a student misses too many days of classes, sending the local truancy officer out may help. It can’t hurt.

♦ You might try a behavior contract in which the student promises to attend and you offer rewards for meeting attendance goals.

♦ CONSIDER BULLYING as a possible issue. Is Nadia feigning illness so she can get a day off to relax? Or is Nadia afraid to come to school? I can see the faces of two girls in particular as I write this last bullet point — both of whom were staying home out of fear. One suddenly started attending school regularly when a mean girl moved. Bullying can be especially tough to manage — but students must get the help they need. Your classroom and school should always be safe for students.

Eduhonesty: Teacher-readers might want to show this post to friends who wonder where all your time goes. I can’t imagine how many hours of my life I have spent on this one issue. Every year, I have had a few of these students. I did not always solve the problem, but I made phone calls and held parent/guardian conferences. I talked with the nurse. I talked with my students. I talked with administration. I talked with truancy specialists. I created behavior contracts and incentive systems for attendance. Hour by hour by hour…

P.S. When I express concern about planning time loss from meetings and data-gathering requirements, issues such as Davey’s attendance are part of the reason. Managing absenteeism is a necessary duty for teachers, but also an easy duty to push off for another day. When bureaucratic and data requirements suck up too much teacher planning time, our Daveys may end up on the back-burner until their absences become a chronic and intractable problem. Absenteeism can quickly become a habit. That’s why I would like to encourage new teachers to start managing their chronically absent students now. If you have not already waded into this morass, you might take a few minutes today to strategize how you will tackle absenteeism when you return to class. You can win this one. That win may get a kid through high school and beyond. I will always remember that crying mom in her lace dress with her fistful of Mylar balloons and flowers, sobbing as she thanked me for helping her once chronically-absent daughter to cross the stage and pick up her diploma.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!