Addressing the challenges of disengagement

Issue: Volume 103, Number 7

Posted: 6 June 2024
Reference #: 1HAgsg

In this Q&A with Tawa Kāhui Ako, Education Gazette explores the evolving challenges of student disengagement and the holistic, community-driven approach being implemented to improve attendance and support student wellbeing.

Jo Keats works with students who have a pattern of low attendance.

Jo Keats works with students who have a pattern of low attendance.

Tawa Kāhui Ako is made up of one college, one intermediate, and six primary schools in north Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.

In 2022, the kāhui ako sought a new way to address attendance by creating a position dedicated to supporting ākonga who were not engaging with school.

Kāhui ako lead Zac Mills says this is an example of a role and service which individual schools could not afford independently but is made possible by working collaboratively across all schools and with the Ministry of Education.

“If students are not attending school or are not well, it is hard for them to achieve academic success.”

Education Gazette published an article at the beginning of this journey, with then re-engagement officer Mariah Scott. Now, with additional funding from the Ministry to continue this important mahi, the reins have passed to Jo Keats.

Read what Jo has to say about the evolution of this role and its impact on student attendance and engagement today.

The challenges

Q: What are the specific challenges faced by students in your kāhui ako who are not engaging with school? How does the re-engagement officer aim to address these?

I work with a small number of students who have disengaged and/or have a pattern of low attendance. We find that the more a student misses school, the harder it is for them to re-engage.

Anxiety plays a huge role in re-engagement. Students feel lost in class and, at times, find that their friend group has connected to others because the student has been away so much.

In these cases, we not only have to identify the barrier and work towards eliminating it, but we have to add a level of support to assist with the anxiety issues that have developed due to the length of time off school.

For all students, whānau is involved – low attendance is not a problem but a symptom of a bigger issue.

Quite often, a student’s absence or disengagement from school is a result of challenges facing the entire whānau.  These challenges can range from resistance to parenting styles or be more complex issues such as mental health, family violence, or financial insecurity. It takes a whānau approach to identify the barrier or barriers and put support in place for the students – as well as the whānau, if needed.

Q: Given the diverse range of challenges students may face, how do you navigate the process of making referrals to other services?

It’s all about student and whānau voice. I make a lot of home visits – I find it’s less formal and provides a better opportunity to build trust. I regularly meet with students just to touch base and see how things are going. Once trust is established, both students and whānau are more likely to disclose the challenges they are facing. This then allows me to find the specialised support that they need.

When a student’s engagement improves in the short term, I continue to monitor and meet with them to ensure that the engagement is consistent. I also liaise with support agencies and we work together to provide a wrap-around approach.

Jo Keats is a re-engagement officer for Tawa Kāhui Ako.

Jo Keats is a re-engagement officer for Tawa Kāhui Ako.

Evolution of the role

Q: How has the role of the re-engagement officer evolved since 2022? What learnings, challenges, and successes can you share?

I have only been the re-engagement officer for the last year, but what I can see is that the number of students referred to me is ever-increasing. There are more and more referrals and some are very complex involving a variety of agencies and support teams.

At the same time as addressing the most severe cases, we are also proactively working to identify patterns of mild to moderate absenteeism so that we can work with these students earlier – before the patterns have become much more ingrained. When I receive a referral, I first gather information about potential siblings across the schools so that all tamariki are included and all schools are involved in the
re-engagement process.

In addition to attendance issues, I can get referrals for whānau who need support due to mental health issues, family crisis, or other challenges. Because I have a connection to many service providers, I can easily refer families to get support. I try to offer support before it potentially leads to school disengagement.

The Ministry recently provided additional funding so that I could add a third day to my week. This has helped in managing my workload, but I still struggle to handle the large number of cases referred by all the Tawa schools. The role and the community would be better served if it was funded full-time, but I do the best I can with what I have.

Enhanced support and strategies

Q: With the extended tenure of the re-engagement officer position, how has continuity and consistency in supporting attendance been enhanced?

The extended tenure means that I can track students who have been identified in primary or intermediate level as they move on to college. The role is much easier when there is consistency each year so that strong relationships can be established with whānau and staff at the various schools and students can be monitored throughout their school years.

Q: What new strategies or approaches have been introduced by the re-engagement officer to address attendance issues?

I think the best approach is a team approach. It is true that it takes a village. My approach can’t be successful if I work in isolation – it takes a team to reduce the barriers to engagement. This includes school staff, and at times, outside support and government agencies to support our students and whānau.

Each term, I create a report that shows the number of referrals carried over, the number of new referrals, the number of referrals closed, and highlights trends, challenges, and barriers.

Late last year, I collated a large list of service providers and shared it with the principals in my kāhui ako. This list is constantly updated so that I can find as many support services as possible that work with the unique needs of each case. For Tawa College referrals, I work with the guidance team at the college so that we can collaborate and best meet the needs of the specific case.

Success stories

Q: Can you share any success stories that highlight the impact of the re-engagement officer’s interventions on student attendance?

The wide remit of the role and the variety of cases means that success can look very different for each student. Sometimes, success is just about getting a whānau to engage in meaningful dialogue with the school when previously there has been a barrier.

We’ve had great success with some students in terms of providing them with some basic essentials so they can feel confident coming to school.

In some respects, linking whānau and students with the support they need is the first step to success. This is particularly true when mental health is a factor.

Student and whānau voice is key to re-engagement for Tawa Kāhui Ako.

Student and whānau voice is key to re-engagement for Tawa Kāhui Ako.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:14 am, 6 June 2024

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