The Qualitative Report
Youths' Perspectives on the Reasons U nderlying O pportunities to Im prove
Qualitative Report 0 1 2 3 4
Tony Kuo 0 1 2 3 4
0 Los Angeles County Department of Health Services
1 Los Angeles County Department of Public Health
2 Opportunities to Improve School Attendance. Th e Qualitative Report , 21(2), 299-320. Retrieved from
3 Gase, L. N., DeFosset , A., Perry, R. , & Kuo, T. (2016). Youths' Perspectives on the Reasons Underlying School Truancy
4 Los Angeles County Department of Public Health/University of California , Los Angeles , USA
Lauren Nichol Gase Amelia DeFosset Raymond Perry Follow this and additional works at: http://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr Part of the Education Commons, and the Social and Behavioral Sciences Commons Recommended APA Citation
Youths' Perspectives on the Reasons Underlying School Truancy and
Opportunities to Improve School Attendance
School truancy is common in the United States; however, youths’ perspectives on the underlying reasons for
and the best ways to curtail this phenomenon are lacking. This project sought to better understand what
factors contribute to youths’ decisions to skip classes or ditch full days of school over time and to solicit
youths’ recommendations on how to reduce truancy and improve system functioning. We used a community
partnered qualitative descriptive approach to conduct in-depth interviews with 39 youths with a history of
truancy from South and East Los Angeles. Youths’ experiences and recommendations illustrate the multiple
factors that influence school truancy and suggest potential leverage points for reducing truancy, including
modifications to the school environment to increase student engagement; a more effective school response to
address truancy; and further involvement and engagement of parents. Researchers, policy makers, and school
practitioners can use results to help inform efforts to address school truancy.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.
The authors thank Juan Pena, Mario Rodriguez, and Nafeesa Toney from the Youth Justice Coalition for
serving as youth research assistants. The research described was supported in part by the National Institutes of
Health/National Center for Advancing Translational Science UCLA CTSI [grant numbers: UL1TR000124
and TL1TR000121]. The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the authors and do not
necessarily represent the views or the official position of the Los Angeles County Department of Public
Health, the University of California, Los Angeles, or the funding agencies.
This article is available in The Qualitative Report: http://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol21/iss2/8
Youths’ Perspectives on the Reasons Underlying School Truancy
and Opportunities to Improve School Attendance
Lauren Nichol Gase and Amelia DeFosset
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Los Angeles, California, USA
Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, Los Angeles, California, USA
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health / University of California, Los Angeles,
Los Angeles, California, USA
School truancy is common in the United States; however, youths’ perspectives
on the underlying reasons for and the best ways to curtail this phenomenon are
lacking. This project sought to better understand what factors contribute to
youths’ decisions to skip classes or ditch full days of school over time and to
solicit youths’ recommendations on how to reduce truancy and improve system
functioning. We used a community partnered qualitative descriptive approach
to conduct in-depth interviews with 39 youths with a history of truancy from
South and East Los Angeles. Youths’ experiences and recommendations
illustrate the multiple factors that influence school truancy and suggest
potential leverage points for reducing truancy, including modifications to the
school environment to increase student engagement; a more effective school
response to address truancy; and further involvement and engagement of
parents. Researchers, policy makers, and school practitioners can use results
to help inform efforts to address school truancy. Keywords: Truancy, Chronic
Absenteeism, Qualitative, Community-Partnered Research
School truancy, defined as any intentional unauthorized or illegal absence from school,
is a significant problem in the United States. Truancy contributes to the related problem of
chronic absenteeism, which refers to students missing 10% or more of a given school year,
including authorized and unauthorized absences
. A recent study estimated that
nationally, 11% of adolescents between the age of 12 and 17 skipped class in the past 30 days
(Vaughn et al., 2013)
. High absenteeism has garnered increased attention from a variety of
stakeholders, including the California Attorney General who has defined reducing truancy, and
thereby chronic absenteeism, as a priority
Previous research suggests that truancy is a complex phenomenon. Kearney’s (2008a)
interdisciplinary model of school absenteeism – based on a synthesis of research studies
describes six proximal and distal factors related to truancy and chronic absenteeism, including
characteristics and circumstances related to the child, parents, family, peers, school, and
community. Other studies have also identified associations between truancy and home
environments, social relationships, school variables (e.g., student-to-teacher ratio, educational
style, safety and disciplinary procedures) and individual characteristics such as students’ level
of engagement with learning
(Freudenber & Reglis, 2007; Tyler & Lofstrom, 2009)
Previous studies examining the determinants of school truancy have primarily utilized
and have therefore lacked an explicit focus on
understanding youths’ perspectives and lived experiences, for example, the combinations of
factors that contribute to youths’ decisions to skip class, youths’ emotional reactions to truancy
interventions, or how truancy patterns changed over time. What qualitative work has been
conducted to date provides important perspectives on the central role of relationships with
teachers, school climate, peer relationships, and school/community partnerships in promoting
school attendance (Attwood & Croll; 2006; Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Morrison, 2006;
MacDonald & Marsh, 2004
Rodriguez & Conchas 2009
Ventura & Miller, 2005
Unfortunately, the majority of this work has been conducted in the context of a specific
program evaluation or outside of the United States. Qualitative perspectives from underserved
youth of color in the United States, who are at disproportionate risk of not graduating from
high school, are particularly limited.
A better understanding of youths’ perspectives could help contribute to the development
of effective truancy-reduction strategies. As shown in a recent systematic review, despite the
decades of work to better understand the causes of school truancy, relatively little is known
about how to effectively reduce it
(Maynard et al., 2013)
. Unfortunately, many
truancyreduction interventions have been designed without explicit input or feedback from the target
population and few qualitative studies of truancy or related behaviors (e.g., drop out) have
combined efforts to understand youths’ experiences and elicit opportunities for system
(Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Morrison, 2006)
. A more in-depth understanding of
youths’ perspectives on system functioning and target areas for intervention could inform
program and policy implementation.
To help address these gaps in the literature, this project sought to explore the
experiences and perspectives of youths with a history of school truancy in Los Angeles County
(LAC). This work was guided by three research questions:
1) what factors contribute to youths’ decisions to skip classes or ditch full days
of school over time?
2) how do youths who skip or ditch perceive the school’s and other’s (e.g.,
family, legal system) response to truancy? and,
3) what recommendations do youths have for reducing truancy?
Since we strove to use youths’ experiences and input to inform intervention strategy
development, we focused our inquiry on what youths perceived as modifiable contributors and
intervention points to address truancy.
We used a qualitative descriptive (QD) approach, which aims to provide a rich
description of an experience or an event, because it allowed us to balance our aims of obtaining
an understanding of youths’ perspectives on truancy and identifying practical implications for
(Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Neergaard et al., 2009)
. In order to ensure that our
project was rooted in community experience, we worked in close collaboration with the Youth
Justice Coalition (YJC) – a community-based organization in South Los Angeles. We chose
three youths currently employed as YJC advocates to serve as project research assistants. The
research assistants were between the ages of 19 and 23 and all had previous personal experience
with school truancy. Research assistants participated in a daylong training in basic research
and interviewing skills. As partners on the study team, they provided input on the study scope,
helped define research questions and methods, recruited study participants, conducted
qualitative interviews, and assisted with the interpretation of results.
Participants and Recruitment
To maximize the scope of the information obtained, we used purposive sampling
techniques, aligned with the QD approach
(Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Neergaard et al., 2009)
recruit youths who had experience skipping or ditching school. In order to ensure youths could
provide in-depth information to address the research questions, we included participants in the
study if they: (a) were a current middle or high school student in LAC or had stopped attending
a LAC middle or high school in the past year, (b) reported skipping class or ditching school at
least once per month currently or in the past year, (c) reported experience with at least one
school-, community- or law enforcement-based truancy reduction approach, and (d) spoke
English or Spanish.
We recruited participants two ways. First, the trained youth research assistants
distributed a one-page screening instrument to potential participants in their existing school
and community networks, which requested potential participants’ contact information (phone
or email). Research assistants gave completed screening forms to the study coordinator, who
assessed eligibility and (if the youth was eligible) scheduled an in-person interview. Second,
in order to increase variation in the types of youths included in the study, we partnered with
five community-based organizations in South and East Los Angeles to recruit and interview
study participants. During an agreed upon time, the research team went to the
communitybased partners’ space, gave a brief presentation on the research goals, and distributed screening
forms to interested youths or youths identified by the organization as being potentially eligible.
We immediately reviewed screening forms, asked eligible youths to participate in an interview,
and (if they agreed and provided written informed assent) conducted an interview at that time.
We completed all recruitment and interviewing over a period of three months.
One of the youth research assistants, with support from one (of two) members of the
study team, led the in-person in-depth interviews. The interview team used a 16-question
opened-ended interview guide, developed based on the study research questions, that asked
participants to describe their “story,” beginning with when they first started skipping or
ditching and ending at the present day (Table 1).
What’s the worst thing that happened to you because you cut or skipped school?
How have you benefited from cutting or skipping class?
How have your parents been involved with you cutting or skipping class?
How has the school been involved with you cutting or skipping class?
How have the police been involved with you cutting or skipping class?
Have you participated in a program at a community center or at the Probation
department to increase school attendance?
Do you plan to continue to cut or skip class? Why/why not?
Do you think you will graduate high school? Why/why not?
What would help/has helped you increase your school attendance?
What could have been different?
How could the system be changed?
*The terms “cut” and “skip” were originally used in the interview guide, but results reflect interviewee preference
for the terms “skip” or “ditch.”
To help participants visualize their story, we used a data elicitation technique in which
participants selected a character and moved him/her along a road map. We conducted all
interviews in a location agreed upon by participants (e.g., classroom, room at a community
center); we made every effort to ensure privacy during the interviews. On average, interviews
lasted 30 minutes. We audio recorded participant responses and compensated participants with
a $20 gift card. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the University of
California, Los Angeles Institutional Review Boards reviewed and approved all study protocol
and instruments prior to implementation.
After every set of interviews, all members of the study team present during that set of
interviews discussed their impressions and thoughts about emerging themes, ways to improve
the design and interview guide, and thoughts on how to obtain maximum variation among
future study participants. The study coordinator kept detailed notes during the process. In
addition, each team member kept a reflexive journal throughout the study period.
Data Management and Analysis
One team member transcribed all audio-recorded interviews verbatim, after which time
she destroyed the digital files, and uploaded transcripts into ATLAS.ti version 7. In accordance
with the QD paradigm, we analyzed data using a two-stage, bottom-up inductive coding
process in which codes and themes were developed solely from the data in order to remain as
close as possible to participant perspectives. First, the two full-time members of the study team
(who had been involved in conducting the interviews) read each interview and used close
coding to assign descriptive codes that reflected the participants’ language and worldview (e.g.,
“no one cared,” “teacher told to get out,” “ditching as a habit”) to short segments of interview
text. Team members took turns independently using this technique with batches of three
transcripts, which were then reviewed by the second team member. The two met after each
batch to discuss and reconcile differences. After analysis of 18 interviews (when codes were
approaching saturation), the two team members did a detailed code review, using pattern
coding to sort the codes into themes based on relationships among code content (e.g., codes of
“bullying,” “gang involvement,” and “conflict within the school” were grouped into a “school
safety” theme). The two then worked together to develop a draft description for each code
(which described the code and provided examples of its use) and a visual (which became Figure
1) to depict the inter-relationships between the themes. The full study team reviewed and
provided feedback on these drafts. The two analysis team members then used the list of defined
and thematically sorted codes (coding scheme) to code the remaining interviews and iteratively
refine the themes using the constant comparison method.
In addition to this close-coding approach, the two analysis team members analyzed each
interview from a holistic perspective to identify a set of key influences, events and
recommendations. Each team member independently read the entire interview and wrote an
analytic memo which summarized (a) the major events and factors that influenced the youth’s
truancy behaviors over time, (b) what the school (or other actors) did in response to truancy,
and (c) how that response influenced the youth, cognitively and emotionally. Team members’
combined their holistic summary memos (for each interview) and refined them through
discussion. In addition, each team member read each transcript and completed an analytic
memo cataloguing youths’ recommendations for reducing truancy. In developing the draft
results (narrative description and Table 3 summary), the study team consulted close codes,
themes, holistic summaries, analytic memos, study notes, and reflexive journals.
In addition to internal discussions, the study team completed two structured member
checks with the youth research assistants. First, we solicited input from research assistants
during a study team meeting after all interviews were completed, but prior to analysis, to
summarize themes they heard during the interviews. The study coordinator summarized results
of this meeting in an analytic memo, which was used during the data analysis process. Second,
the team presented a draft of the results to the research assistants for their input and feedback.
During the second meeting, research assistants provided feedback that supported the research
team’s interpretation of the data, with youth-led discussion focused primarily on generating
action steps to implement the recommendations.
We conducted interviews with 39 youths between the ages of 13 and 19. All interviews
were conducted in English. Most youths (37) were currently enrolled in school, the majority
(26) at a continuation school designed for students who were too low on credits to attend a
traditional public school (Table 2). Overall, the sample represented a group of youths who
reported significant problems with skipping or ditching school in the past (as opposed to current
truancy) and had been able to overcome their truancy problems and continue (or re-enroll) in
* Four of the five community-based organization recruitment sites had schools associated with or
located within the organization. If a participant was a current student of the school at the site,
he/she was categorized as having been recruited from the school.
The results are presented as follows: first, we introduce participants’ descriptions of the
major influences on skipping or ditching. Second, we describe characteristics of the school
and its response to truancy and how participants responded, cognitively and emotionally, to
these factors. Finally, we summarize participants’ recommendations to reduce truancy (Table
3). Because the primary goal of this paper was to inform intervention strategy development,
we focus on describing factors youths perceived as amendable to intervention; major influences
on truancy (peer pressure, family turmoil) that youths did not identify as leverage points for
intervention are not described.
relationship or increase
Family Support and Engagement
Superficial or High, Medium Low Low Schools should provide
minimal increase consistent and personal
identify barriers to
* Ratings of strength and direction of effect and level of cognitive and emotional response were assessed
independently and agreed upon by two full-time members of the study team who conducted the interviews and
primary data analysis.
Major Influences on School Truancy
School factors, including school curriculum and instructional style, relationships with
teachers and counselors, and school structures and climate, were the most frequently reported
influences on truancy. Participants also described the school’s response to truancy and the
ways in which it influenced their decision to skip or ditch (Table 3).
School curriculum and instructional style. Issues relating to the school curriculum
(i.e., subject matter) and instructional style – cited by 23 youths as contributing to school
truancy – were frequently intertwined. Frequently cited reasons for skipping class included not
liking the subject matter (e.g., not interesting or enjoyable), the class was not useful to them
(e.g., pointless, not relevant for their future), the class being too difficult, or not feeling engaged
or challenged by the teacher or the material. Conversely, youths would choose to attend classes
where they understood the material or did well, were interested in the topic, or perceived the
class to be practical or helpful (e.g., directly applicable to their future). The interconnections
between these factors in influencing truancy is illustrated by one 10th grade male as he talks
about the differences between his traditional high school and his continuation high school:
I love the way they do things here [current school]. They make you work with
each other, not individual, like one guy sitting in one seat. They make you work
in groups, and you all sit together, and you all get the knowledge. I’m pretty
sure if other schools had the techniques they had right here, they’d get
motivated, like, “man, like they really showed me something today, like, I want
to be successful, like get a job, like we’re not gonna live forever.” That’s what
this school really makes you think about, the what after. So if they had a what
after thing in the public school, I think it would be better. More people would
start coming to school, getting more motivated and inspired to be successful in
As illustrated in this quote, the youth chose to attend school because he was able to work with
his peers, felt like he was learning something at school, and saw the application of the material
for his future. An engaging instructional style often tended to override the subject matter.
Passive activities (e.g., copying material from a book, completing work sheets, writing long
essays) were highly criticized. After being asked to explain why he chose to attend certain
classes and not others, a 12th grade male described the importance of the teacher, including her
teaching style and dedication, in helping him to understand math,
It [whether to attend class] depends too on the teacher, like the way they teach.
‘Cause I remember this teacher. I hated math, like I don’t like math at all. And
then one day she teach me and I was like “oh this is easy”…. I was doing good,
but then, like, harder subjects came along and then she moved out, so I’m like
“damn.” I like the way she teach too cause she taught me how to do it, like, the
easy way. She was like “it’s easy, just pay attention, focus, and keep practicing.”
That was the reason. I kind of did like math, but in that class only, and it was
because of the teacher…She taught me just one-on-one… ‘cause I needed help
so she just taught me, and I’m, you know, like “this is easy.” (#25)
As illustrated by this quote, youths would attend subjects that they did not like or found
challenging because of their relationship with the teachers or the style that they used. Overall,
when youths did not feel engaged in the material, it was easier for them to become academically
disconnected and ditch class because it was more “fun” or “worthwhile” than attending class.
Relationships with teachers and counselors. Interactions with teachers were at the
center of youths’ experiences with school and had a big impact on whether they chose to attend.
In our interviews, youths reported both extremely negative and positive interactions with
teachers. Youths frequently reported not liking many of their teachers as a reason why they
skipped class. Not liking teachers was related to both instructional style (as described above)
and personal relationships. Youths perceived that some teachers did not care to be good at their
job (e.g., they were only there for the paycheck) or have genuine interest in the students.
Sometimes this general dislike was associated with specific conflicts or confrontations. For
example, when asked about what contributed to her decision to start skipping class in 9th grade,
one female described the following interaction with her teacher:
R: One of my teachers didn’t want me in my class, so I stopped going in there.
That’s when I started ditching for the rest of the day.
I: How did you know the teacher didn’t want you in there?
R: Because I had band class and he told me that I wasn’t playing good so I
needed to get out.
I: Really? So then you started ditching that class all the time?
R: Yeah, like I would leave for that period out of school, and I just wouldn’t
come back for the rest of that period. (#2)
As illustrated in this quote, the conflict with the teacher caused the girl to feel unwelcome in
that class and contributed to her decision to leave school for the rest of the day. This was the
story with which the girl began her history of skipping and ditching, subsequent gang
involvement and juvenile delinquency. In total, 10 youths reported a specific interpersonal
conflict with their teacher as a reason for skipping class.
In reflecting on their experiences, 11 youths reported a positive relationship with at least
one teacher. Youths gave examples of teachers asking them about the reasons for their
skipping/ditching, calling their parents/guardians, and even coming to their house to pick them
up for school. One 12th grade male described a positive relationship he had with one teacher:
One teacher that I had, which was Italian class, she really cared about me
because she would ask me you know oh, how are you doing you know, why you
always ditching? So when the teacher told me that you know, she was like the
only class that I wouldn’t ditch, because I figured oh she cares about me and to
let her down is kinda like you know, I don’t want to let her down. But even
though I didn’t pass her class, she made me realize you know, she actually cares.
As illustrated in this quote, the teacher’s desire to find out the root causes of the student’s
behavior gave him a sense of being cared for. The idea that the teacher cared for him motivated
him to attend that class; however, it was not enough to help him succeed academically. This
type of pattern was common. Individual teacher actions were helpful and appreciated by
youths, but not always enough to help them change their attendance patterns because of the
complex determinants of school truancy.
Youths were also asked about interactions with school counselors in relation to truancy.
Interaction with counselors was infrequent (e.g., meeting one or two times) and primarily
related to academic advising and discussions about needing to leave the school because of low
attendance, grades, or credits. Only three youths described positive interactions with
counselors, for example helping them to improve their attendance. One 12th grade male
described the role his counselor played in communicating with his parents and helping him to
reengage with school:
He [school counselor] actually helped me out…he would actually call my
parents but he wouldn’t tell them in a bad way “oh you know, like your son he
decided to do this instead of going to class,” you know, he would look for like
a different solution. Instead he’d be like “so let’s get him back on track and
let’s give him all the work he missed, and then hopefully he doesn’t do it again”
and then he signed me up for anger management and like therapy, and that’s
when I began to change little by little, I took like baby steps. (#5)
As illustrated by this quote, while the youth did not necessarily expect the counselor to interact
with him to help address his challenges, the counselor had the opportunity to serve as a positive
School structures and climate. Youths described the importance of the size of the
school in influencing their skipping and ditching behaviors. Consistently, youths described
skipping and ditching less at smaller schools due to structural (e.g., closed campus with
nowhere to escape) and staff factors (i.e., staff knew everyone, so they would notice when a
student was missing). Large campuses provided more opportunities for youths to wander
around, jump the gates unnoticed, or hide.
Youths also described the importance of class sizes. Smaller classes allowed for calmer,
controlled classroom environments and more opportunities for students to interact one-on-one
with teachers. When asked to describe the differences between his previous high school and
his current continuation high school, an 11th grade male described the differences in the
classroom environment as such:
[At current school] you learn more and it’s a much more subtle environment.
Like, you could actually pay attention, not like in traditional high school
everything is so crazy and rowdy and you can’t understand or hear what the
teacher’s saying. Here is a totally different story, because the classes are
small…You get a better learning experience. You like actually want to go to
school ever since I came here. (#17)
As illustrated in this quote, the youth felt that he was better able to learn in a smaller classroom
environment. Many of the youths we spoke to (the majority of whom attended non-traditional,
smaller continuation schools) appreciated the feel of the small school, in terms of the attention
they received from teachers, the flexibility in school structure (e.g., fewer classroom hours,
classes later in the day) and pacing (e.g., more ways to get credits, finish assignments at own
In addition to classroom environment, youths also mentioned the importance of the
broader school environment in encouraging attendance. Youths described fighting and
bullying as leading to a dangerous school climate. Although many youths reported directly
being involved in conflicts and fights with other students, only seven youths characterized it as
bullying. Most of those who mentioned bullying were current middle school students or
described instances that occurred during middle school. When the term “bullying” was
explicitly used, it was fairly severe and directly resulted in school avoidance. One 10th grade
female described leaving school in 8th grade because of being bullied:
It [bullying] affected me badly because, to be honest I didn’t graduate from
middle school because of all the things I went through, so like people bully me
and mess with me and stuff like that and I couldn’t take it. It’s like when I be
trying to do my work, they be like making me focus on them and not my work
so it’s like, hey, I’m not concentrating. Yeah, I told them [school administrators]
that I was being bullied, that people were messing with me, please switch my
classes and stuff like that but they didn’t do nothing and I told my parents that
they didn’t do nothing about that and then like it was over, I didn’t graduate, I
didn’t get to do nothing. I just left school. (#29)
Six youths in the sample directly discussed involvement with gangs. Youths who joined
gangs tended to experience greater and more rapid exposure to drugs and violence. Gangs and
other peer situations created a dangerous school climate and exposed students to violence inside
and outside of school. Twelve youths, even those who were not clearly affiliated with a gang,
described school as being filled with too much “drama” (i.e., territorial or racial conflicts) that
made school unsafe for them or prevented them from being able to focus academically.
School Response to Truancy
More than half of the youths in our sample described first skipping or ditching in
elementary (6) or middle school (21). When asked what happened as a result of their first few
acts of skipping or ditching class, 23 youths characterized the school’s response as “nothing.”
They often reported that the school did not notice when they first started skipping and,
therefore, that their parents were not informed. As skipping and ditching progressed, most
youths (26) reported that the school attempted to notify their parents through letters or phone
calls. Youths were often able to manipulate these lines of communication, for example by
giving the school their incorrect phone number, erasing the messages on the machine, or
throwing away the letters.
Almost all youths described having meetings at the school with school staff (e.g.,
principals, counselors) and their parents at some point. While these meetings sometimes led to
temporary reductions in truancy, they were rarely sufficient to get a youth to change his or her
behavior. For example, when asked if there were any meetings at the school with her parents,
a 9th grade female reported:
Yeah, but they [the meetings] didn’t help out. Like all they said was “why did
I do it?” and “what was the reason for it?” And I just kept saying it wasn’t
important and they was like “ok, just come to school.” And then I would always
do the same thing all over again. (#15)
As seen in this quote, for many youths, the meeting itself was not always enough. As a result
of meetings, five youths had to sign contracts or carry sheets for their teachers to sign to
demonstrate their attendance, which seemed to improve attendance over and above a meeting
alone. In 17 cases, youths mentioned being connected to resources such as counseling, anger
management, or academic make-up and development programs. Youths’ experiences with
these programs varied. One 12th grade girl who reported being in several fights at school, was
asked if anyone at school had done anything to address the fights she was getting into:
I was supposed to take anger management classes, but I didn’t…my counselor,
he told me that it was better if I was to go to those. And I had told him, like, he
had signed me up and make the meeting for me. But I never showed up and I
told my parents that I didn’t want to go because I didn’t need to and told my
parents that I wasn’t gonna go if I didn’t want to go. So I didn’t go. (#20)
This quote helps to illustrate the fact that the school can only do so much in connecting students
to external resources, suggesting that helping address student behavior problems and truancy
issues will take involvement from both schools and parents.
Nineteen youths reported receiving detentions or suspensions for missing school or
other problem behaviors (e.g., fighting). Many youths seemed to place little importance on
these types of punishments. Phrases such as “I just got suspended” were common. For some
youths, suspensions issued for truancy or other behavior problems were perceived as being
counterproductive. Suspensions contributed to youths feeling unmotivated to go to school and
also contributed to a continued cycle of academic disengagement because of the work that they
Ten youths were presented with legal consequences – the threat of either themselves or
their parents having to go to jail – if they did not reduce their truancy. For most, this resulted
in behavior change because they were afraid. For example, when asked if she was planning to
continue to skip or ditch, a 12th grade female responded:
R: No, because um the lawyers meeting was like 2 months ago so I can’t
anymore, like I can’t miss even if I’m sick.
I: Can you tell us a little more about what happened at the lawyers meeting?
R: Well it was my mom and, well it was just the parents and the lawyer because
it was school time. And they told them like if we would miss anymore, they
would give a citation or arrested and, like to clear our absences or stuff.
I: And how do you think that meeting went?
R: Well it kinda scared us more than like kinda motivated us. It motivated us
by scaring us…. It’s like showing that they [school] are, like proactive about
what they’re actually talking about instead of just, sending letters home. (#13)
As illustrated in this quote, youths described being motivated by fear to change their
behavior. Similar types of fears and behavior change were echoed by youths who had been
placed on probation. Of the five youths who had been on probation, three found it “helpful”
in changing behavior because the consequences of violating the terms of probation were seen
as serious. For example, after one 10th grade girl was put on probation and her officer was
monitoring her school attendance, she began attending class in order to avoid getting into
further legal trouble (#37). In these cases, behavior change usually occurred while youths
were being actively monitored; once youths completed their probation and no one was
“paying attention,” skipping and ditching often started again.
Cognitive and Emotional Responses to School Factors
Youths described three emotional reactions to school characteristics and responses to
truancy: academic engagement, perception that the school cared, and perceived severity (Table
First, school factors influenced youths’ level of academic engagement. As previously
described, characteristics such as teaching style and school curriculum influenced youths’ level
of motivation and desire to learn. These factors appeared to be very important in initial
decisions to begin skipping class. As youths began to miss class, almost all described decreases
in their grades. As grades begun to fall, youths felt even less engaged in school – it became a
vicious cycle. Exclusionary school discipline measures (e.g., suspension) helped reinforce this
cycle of disengagement, causing youths to fall even more behind academically.
Second, school factors influenced youths’ perceptions about whether anyone at the
school cared about them. When youths described negative aspects of the school environment
(e.g., teachers did not provide one-on-one academic attention, the school staff did not attempt
to contact parents when students ditched) it was frequently accompanied by a statement about
these individuals not caring. When asked to describe the difference between his current school
and his previous school, one 10th grade male stated:
I think that here [current school] the teachers are more determined to help you
out. Cause [at] the traditional school, they [teachers] would only care about the
people that do well in school and if they see that you’re slacking off or not doing
work, you just fall behind. It just seems like they push you to the side and not
pay that much attention to you. But here, if you’re falling behind or anything
they try to have talks with you and like help you out, try to get you to that
diploma…If they [teachers] actually pay more attention to the students that
aren’t doing good it would help them out cause a lot of them don’t get the
attention they need and they just feel like “oh they don’t care about me” and
“my education ain’t important to them” so that’s probably the reason why they
slack off. (#36)
As this youth describes, teachers not addressing students’ problem behaviors and needs was
associated with feeling that teachers do not care. Youths felt that if the school cared, then
school staff would do something in response to their behavior. As also illustrated in this quote,
dialogues of the school not caring were accompanied by youths’ descriptions of feeling
“pushed to the side” or being “written off” because of their previous actions. The ultimate
expression of this rejection by school appeared in youths’ accounts of expulsion and forced
Finally, the schools’ response to truancy influenced youths’ attitudes about the severity
of skipping or ditching, which contributed (alongside peer influences) to social norms related
to truancy. As previously described, many youths did not perceive routine school punishments
(e.g., calls and letters home, detention, suspension) as being severe. For many youths, their
behavior did not change until the punishment from the school was seen as meaningful and
serious (e.g., threat of fine or jail).
Youths’ Recommendations to Reduce Truancy
Youths’ suggestions for reducing truancy aligned with the school factors previously
described and fell into three categories: the need for modifications to the school environment,
the need for an improved school response to truancy, and the need for further parental
engagement (Table 3). In addition to these recommendations, youths mentioned the need for
young people to take ownership of their actions to change their behavior.
Modifications to the school environment. As previously discussed, youths described
many school-related factors as influencing their decision to skip or ditch. It is not surprising,
therefore, that the most frequently cited recommendations for reducing truancy focused on
improving school curriculum and instructional style, the number and quality of the teachers
and counselors, and school structures and climate.
A more engaging instructional style was mentioned by 16 youths as a strategy for
reducing truancy. Interesting classes and instructional style were cited by youths as helping to
keep students academically engaged. When asked to reflect on what would have helped
increase her school attendance, one 12th grade female described the importance of an engaging
Maybe getting teachers, probably like fun, not fun teachers because it’s not
being fun, but being challenged. If I felt like I was a little more challenged, you
know with the curriculum they provide you, if there was more to it than, you
know, doing worksheets. It’s like why am I doing work sheets, you’re a teacher,
teach me something, stop taking credit for worksheets you downloaded off the
internet, you know, you’re getting paid for a reason. (#3)
As illustrated by this quote, youths want to feel like they are learning something in class and
engaged with the material. This includes stimulating class activities as well as one-on-one
attention and instruction.
Seventeen youths expressed the desire for more individual academic help from their
teachers, while 10 expressed the need for more attention from their counselors. The quotation
below, from an 11th grade female, illustrates her desire for academic counselors to connect
more with students about their personal struggles and challenges:
R: If they [counselor] see a kid ditching they should like offer him a program.
Probably like hey don’t ditch, you need school, or try and figure out the reason
for them ditching or for them just being tardy cause most of the time some kids
are tardy cause they have, they have problems at their, at home. Like
sometimes, like, you know like I know a student that would be late to school a
lot he’ll be truant a lot because his mom was like in the hospital. And nobody
cared to like ask him like hey, why haven’t you been coming? And when they
do ask you, they ask you in, IF they do ask you, they ask you all mean like why
haven’t you been coming?! What’s been going on?! They ask you like, you’re
like doing bad.
I: Did they ever talk to you about, like that?
R: Never, the counselors, like I remember one time I went to my counselor and I’ll be
like, oh can I talk to you? Like this is what, I’ve been having problems. He’s like no,
no, no. He’s like I don’t deal with problems. He’s like, I don’t deal with problems, I
deal with classes. He’s like I give you your classes but I don’t deal with problems. I
was like OK, and that’s it. That was the last, that was the first and last time I ever talked
to a counselor. (#10)
As illustrated in this quote, the youth perceived the counselor’s reaction as not interested in her
problems. This interaction closed the girl off from being able to open up with other counselors,
and potentially receiving the services she needed, contributing to a continued cycle of school
Finally, youths described changes to improve school climate, including addressing
issues related to chaotic classrooms and school campuses. This included smaller classes and
more enhanced efforts to reduce bullying and violence on campus.
Improved school response to truancy. Youths provided suggestions for how the
school could improve its response to truancy. First, 17 youths commented on the need for more
consistent and appropriate consequences and boundaries that were enforced. Wanting the
school to “stay on me,” “push me to succeed,” or “teach me a lesson” were common phrases.
The need for the school to more effectively respond is illustrated in the following quote from a
female in 7th grade:
They need like new people that work here because they don’t even know how
to run their own classrooms. They don’t know how to run their own schools.
They don’t be knowing what to do. Like if you be late they used to do stuff
about it but now they don’t do nothing. So I think that they want us to fail
because they don’t do nothing about it. (#31)
The youth goes on to describe the importance of clear consequences for students being late in
order to influence her and other students’ behavior. Youths also expressed the need for teachers
and administrators to follow-through on punishments or threats. One 12th grade female
described the importance of following through on consequences in helping to address truancy:
But if they [teachers] threaten to call your parents and they don’t, then the kid
is going to already be like “oh yeah,” when she says she’s gonna call them and
then she doesn’t call them, then the kids is going to be like “I can just walk out
of class and she not going to tell nobody.” ‘Cause I had a teacher like that in
9th grade, she’s be threatening all the kids, “if you don’t do that I’m gonna call
your-,” she never did, so a lot of the kids were like “you talk a lot, but you don’t
do”…. That’s another reason I ditched 9th grade a lot, because my teacher
would be like “if you don’t stay in class I’m gonna call your parent,” but I would
walk out of class and my mom never heard about it. So, if there are some
teachers like that, then kids are never gonna learn. (#24)
Here, the youth seems to be asking for stricter boundaries. While youths expressed a desire for
more boundaries and consequences, they also reported a desire for the school to understand
their personal struggles. Fifteen youths reported dealing with complex personal and family
situations that influenced truancy (e.g., parental relationship turmoil, death in the family,
deportation, unstable living situation, parental mental illness) and 18 youths reported mental
health (e.g., anger issues, excessive stress, lack of motivation, sadness) or substance abuse
issues. Youths expressed a greater desire for school administrators and teachers to understand
their struggles and help them address the root causes of school truancy behavior. One 12th
grade male articulated the need for greater understanding and involvement from the school to
help address personal issues:
Every school should have more counselors in schools. It’s so low. There’s only,
like I said before, only like four counselors in every high school, and every high
school like, there’s like thousands of students, you know so those students need
help. Even though you don’t see it they need help. They might have some
personal, personal problems. You know things that people don’t know cause
people just criticize. Like oh, like oh, look at that kid you know, he looks like
a gang banger you know oh don’t talk to him like he’s not going to be no one in
life… You can’t be criticizing, you gotta talk to that person, and then if he’s like
that, THEN you can say that but if he’s not like that you don’t know how he is,
you don’t know what people are going through. Cause people having different
problems like in their lives. And people don’t see that. They just criticize. (#8)
As previously discussed, youths sometimes reported being offered services through
schools. While some youths accepted these services, others were hesitant to participate in
mental health treatment. Four of the nine youths who were offered mental health services
through school described reluctance to participate, leading some to either not enroll or
Family support and engagement. Youths reported a range of parental involvement
in monitoring or encouraging their school attendance. As previously described, many youths
reported that their parents were not notified about their truancy, especially when they first
started skipping or ditching. When youths described their families as being highly involved in
monitoring their behavior, it tended to have a big impact on truancy. Thirteen youths expressed
desire for increased involvement and monitoring from their parents. Youths reported wanting
parents to be more proactive (e.g., attend school meetings) and provide support. However,
youths reported that their parents sometimes lacked the resources or capacity to help them, for
example, because of their own low level of educational attainment, immigrant status, limited
English proficiency, or lack of knowledge of available resources. When asked what her parents
could have done differently, one 11th grade female spoke to the need for schools to connect
more with parents in order to build their capacity to understand the education system and
engage with their children:
Be more involved, like the school to involve more parents. You know how like
now at like normal, like traditional schools, like they have like all these parent
centers and all this stuff…make them like have like this programs where the
parents work with their kids in school…Like help me out, like tell me what to
do… I think they [parents] need help, not just us, but also parents controlling us
and like leading us in the way. And also cause, my mom, she’s not from here.
She’s from a different country. She doesn’t really know the law like that. And
I think I took advantage of that cause I’d be like mom they don’t care, it’s okay,
like they don’t do anything. (#7)
The youth speaks both to the need for more guidance from her parents and for her parents to
receive more guidance and resources from the school. In addition, she acknowledges her role
in deceiving her parents about the consequences of truancy.
Role of students in determining behavior. Overall, when asked how things could
have been different, youths cited many ways in which their schools or families could have been
changed to help support them; however, many youths also recognized that they had played a
strong role in their current situation. Despite some very negative school experiences, 16 youths
concluded that the school “did the best they could” or explicitly mentioned their role or choices
in skipping and ditching, describing the negative consequences associated with school truancy
as being “my fault.” Some even commented on the two-way nature of the relationship between
school factors and students. When invited to expand on what his previous teachers could have
done differently, a 10th grade male described the relationships between students and teachers
I mean, it’s just like a feed on sort of thing, like if this kid don’t come to school,
they’re just like “don’t come to school,” you know, like “I’m not gonna waste
my time telling him to come to school” and him not coming. It’s hard for a
teacher too, they want to teach so bad, but if you’re not coming to school, you’re
not on their list. You have to be on their list, you know, you have to be coming
to school, every day, in order for them to give you some feedback, like “this
kids really good, I’m gonna’ try all my will to make sure he’s successful.” (#6)
Youths’ experiences help illustrate the complex array of factors that contribute to school
truancy and the central role that school instructional style, student/staff relationships, student
services, and school climate have in influencing school attendance. Youths’ reflections on their
decision-making processes, emotional responses, and leverage points for change can help to
inform what an ideal system to prevent and respond to truancy might look like (Figure 1). As
envisioned by youths, within a fully functional system, the school’s curriculum, staff, and
climate contribute to students feeling safe, cared for, and academically engaged, thereby
preventing truancy before it starts. The school’s structures and response to truancy set clear
expectations about school attendance that contributes to a culture where truancy is not
acceptable. Students perceive clear and meaningful consequences for truancy and are
supported by a school system that addresses their emotional and mental health needs and
engages their families as part of the solution.
Culture that discourages
ditching and skipping
perceived as severe
and emotional health
and responsive to
Clear and empathetic school response to truancy
Academic engagement and
structures & climate
with teachers &
Results suggest that schools have an opportunity to prevent truancy by promoting
school engagement. Disengagement with specific classes because of subject or teacher-related
factors was found to be a common starting place for a trajectory of skipping or ditching,
academic failure, and subsequent delinquency among youths in our study. Indeed, the
association between school engagement and school attendance has been demonstrated in
(Maynard et al., 2012)
. When asked to reflect on what could have been changed
to modify their skipping and ditching trajectory, the majority of youths pointed to the
importance of policies and structures that kept them engaged. In our study, many youths felt
that the required subjects were not relevant to their lives, and these perceptions were critical to
the process of disengagement, suggesting that among this population (e.g., minority youth from
low-income or immigrant communities), there may be a particular need to provide curriculum
that is culturally relevant and tailored to youths’ interests and experiences. While these findings
align with truancy-reduction models that call for universal, school-wide prevention measures
(Bye et al, 2010)
, they suggest that these efforts should target school climate broadly, beyond
modifications directly related to attendance.
Additional efforts are also needed to more effectively respond to truancy. As seen in
our study, truancy often begins early in a student’s life and can lead to a cycle of school
disengagement if left unaddressed. While a paucity of past studies with rigorous designs have
focused on truancy in younger age groups
(Maynard et al., 2013; McCluskey et al., 2004)
emerging evidence suggests that a significant number of students are habitually truant
beginning in elementary school (Harris, 2013). Our data reinforce these findings, indicating
that students may benefit from interventions that establish clear boundaries and consequences
for truancy early on in students’ lives. Furthermore, while previous studies have criticized
interventions with a punitive component (Mueller & Stoddard, 2009), our work suggests that
youths may be looking for boundaries and consequences, as long as they are implemented
within the context of a solution-oriented approach.
Youths in our study emphasized the importance of an approach that brings students “in”
to identify the root causes of problem behavior such as family turmoil and mental health issues.
Previous research suggests that many youths go without the mental health services they need
and that schools can provide a crucial point for identification and linkages to needed services
; however, we found that some youths were uncomfortable sharing personal
struggles or receiving services in this context, indicating that without strong relationships with
school administrators or teachers, students may be unwilling to access services. Proactively
identifying needs may be particularly helpful, instead of waiting until youths enter into an acute
situation (e.g., being put on probation). In helping to address youths’ needs, it is important to
also consider the need for sustained involvement, as youths’ challenges are often complex and
chronic in nature, and are, therefore, unlikely to disappear completely with a short-term
intervention. In a climate of sustained budget shortfalls, maintaining low staff-to-student ratios
and retaining staff that are trained to address the needs of at-risk youth should remain a priority.
Finally, results suggest the importance of engaging parents as key partners in addressing
truancy. Parent involvement is crucial in encouraging dialogue with youths about the
importance of education, helping to monitor attendance, and ensuring follow-through on
delivery of services. Studies support the benefit of parental involvement and parental
engagement strategies, including increased attendance-focused communication
Sheldon, 2002; Hill & Tyson, 2009)
. Unfortunately, our data mirror previous research
indicating that many parents are themselves experiencing turmoil, and are in need of additional
support or education to navigate school systems (Diggs Reynolds, 2011; Rodriguez, 1992).
These factors present significant barriers to involvement and, in our sample, school efforts to
engage parents that did not also address these realities were often ineffective. Innovative
models of parent engagement, such as the Alhambra Unified School District’s Gateway to
Success Program, which helps educate parents and link them to resources, may be a promising
Our study has a number of limitations. First, like most qualitative research, results are
not intended to be generalized. Our sample represents a subset of youths who has been able to
overcome school attendance struggles and is on a path towards graduating from high school.
While the youths in our sample may have different experiences than youths who are completely
disconnected (e.g., high school dropouts), their reflections on the ways in which they have been
able to overcome their struggles provide insight into how youths can be re-engaged with school.
Second, the youth research assistants led many of our interviews. While this helped build
rapport and a sense of peer-to-peer communication, the youth interviewers did not have
professional training or extensive experience in interviewing, thus, creating potential gaps in
data collection for some participants. Finally, it was not feasible to fully analyze transcripts
concurrently with data collection.
Overall, our study highlights the complex array of factors that influence school truancy.
As policy and decision-makers examine ways to reduce truancy and improve associated
outcomes, the youths’ experiences and recommendations described in our study point to the
importance of modifying the school environment to increase student engagement,
implementing effective school responses to address truancy, and engaging parents to help
support school-based efforts. While this work provides insights into strategies for system
improvement, additional research is needed to continue to identify effective practices. By
incorporating youths’ perspectives into intervention design and development, researchers and
practitioners might be able to better meet youths’ needs and implement mutually reinforcing
strategies that address the complex, inter-related factors that impact school attendance.
Grounding future research and policy work in youths’ experiences can hopefully contribute to
changing a challenging, yet crucial, area that fosters youth success.
Lauren Gase, MPH, is the Chief of Health and Policy Assessment in the Division of
Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention at the Los Angeles County Department of Public
Health. In this role, she leads a number of assessment and evaluation projects to examine the
reach, impact and effectiveness of policy and programmatic strategies to improve health
behaviors and reduce chronic disease. She also leads the Division’s work on the social
determinants of health, including identifying ways to improve health through education and
juvenile justice system interventions. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed
directly to: Lauren Nichol Gase at, .
Amelia Defosset, MPH, is a research analyst in the Division for Chronic Disease and
Injury Prevention at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Her research
interests include health disparities, the intersectionality of social systems policy and health, and
environmental change obesity-prevention strategies. Correspondence regarding this article can
also be addressed directly to: Amelia DeFosset at, .
Raymond Perry, MD, MSHS, is the Medical Director of the Los Angeles County
Juvenile Court Health Services. Both as a researcher and a clinician, he has worked extensively
with high-risk adolescents. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly
to: Raymond Perry at, .
Tony Kuo, MD, MSHS, is Director of the Office of Senior Health in the County of Los
Angeles and Deputy Director for the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention in the
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. He is also Assistant Professor of Family
Medicine in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Dr. Kuo's academic interests and
work have included federally funded research/evaluation studies, peer-reviewed publications,
and other efforts in chronic disease prevention and control; patient-centered care; nutrition and
physical activity promotion; tobacco control policy; and senior health. Correspondence
regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: Tony Kuo at, .
The authors thank Juan Pena, Mario Rodriguez, and Nafeesa Toney from the Youth
Justice Coalition for serving as youth research assistants. The research described was supported
in part by the National Institutes of Health/National Center for Advancing Translational
Science UCLA CTSI [grant numbers: UL1TR000124 and TL1TR000121]. The findings and
conclusions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views
or the official position of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the University
of California, Los Angeles, or the funding agencies.
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