My twin sister, Dana, became chronically ill in eighth grade. We didn't know until years later that she suffered from cyclic vomiting syndrome, a rare stomach disorder. Back then, I also didn't know what it meant to be a sister to someone who was so sick, but I knew that I had to learn.
Dana missed large portions of school because of bouts of illness and hospital visits. As a result, I had the added responsibility to catch her up on what she missed. In my teenage angst, I wondered why our teachers didn't do more to support chronically ill students like Dana, who, if they had a choice, would be at school more often. Yet, my sister—and other students who miss school as a result of medical conditions or other circumstances outside their control—experience compounded consequences for being absent. On top of daily struggles, they miss out on the academic learning and the out-of-class lessons of survival and friendship at school.
When I started teaching, I carried Dana’s frustrations and anxieties as a student with me. For one, I learned that she did not want her teachers to bring attention to her absence through special treatment or questions about her illness in front of other students. Singling her out in public like that made her feel vulnerable and susceptible to peer victimization. As a new educator, I knew that I did not want to traumatize any student inadvertently through naïve attempts to engage them.
Dana also taught me to push my instruction to be inclusive, not only of the diversity of the personalities and identities in my classroom, but also of the experiences of students who just cannot make it to school either because of poor health, familial responsibilities or emotional or mental health issues.
I would like to encourage my fellow educators to be deliberate in including students who often miss school. Consider how best you could support their learning despite their absences.
Here are seven practices that I use to engage students who miss class.
Keep a catch-up binder.
Put your handouts for each day in the catch-up binder with students' names on top. That way, those students who missed school feel that you thought of them and can catch up with the handouts you've provided. If you have a lesson plan or notes, share it with students so that they have access to necessary foundational knowledge to keep up with their peers.
Empower their friends to support.
Ask the absent students to list their trusted friends, who you can ask (and support) to take good notes to share. You could spread this responsibility among several students as not to overburden any one student. These friends can also support the absent students by filling them in on what they missed socially and by checking in via phone or email. The task of having students look out for another has the potential to teach them to think of another’s circumstances, which, in turn, builds empathy.
Keep a class blog or online portal.
To enhance the learning of all students, not only those who are absent, keep a blog, Google portal or Edmodo page of lessons and other resources. You could link to videos and webpages that complement student learning. For example, Khan Academy, TED-Ed, MIT+K12 Videos and YouTube Education, among others, have numerous educational resources for students.
Schedule one-on-one time.
A good way to build relationships with frequently absent students is to meet with them individually over lunch, after school or during a prep period. These meetings provide students the opportunity to get special time with you and to share with you what they need to feel included, supported and successful at school and at home.
Incorporate characters with diverse abilities and health statuses into curricula.
It is rare to read or to learn about a historical figure, character or role model who suffers from a chronic illness or who has a learning, mental or physical difference. Including characters with diverse abilities empowers students who struggle with disease or disability and also promotes acceptance and empathy from their peers. Here is a list of books that portray characters with diseases or disabilities.
If feasible, call, text or email students who are absent to ask how they are feeling and to check in. For students who miss school often, it is likely that they feel isolated. Having someone, especially a teacher, call to express care and concern will help students feel like they matter and are a part of the classroom community.
Work with other educators and staff to support students who are absent, as well as their families. Build off of each other’s strengths and create a plan of action for supporting students. Keep lines of communication open with your colleagues so that they can be mindful of the needs of absent students and so that they do not inadvertently offend these students by asking an insensitive question or assigning a task that they are not able to perform.
There are other ideas out there, I know, and if you have them, please be sure to share what you do. Together, we can support all students, including the ones who do not have the privilege to show up at school every day.
Simmons is a lifelong activist, educator and student of life from the Bronx, New York. She currently serves as the director of implementation at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.