School exclusion and truancy linked to poor mental health among young people

Schoolboy sitting with head on lockers, looking sadEvidence from CNC is helping researchers to understand the connection between mental ill health and school exclusion and truancy.

Researchers from University College London found a “cycle of disadvantage”. Children who had struggled with their mental health were more vulnerable to exclusion and truancy. In turn, the experience of missing school increased the risk of future mental health difficulties.

What we asked you and your parents

At ages 7, 11, 14 and 17, your parents answered questions about your feelings and behaviour to understand more about your mental health and wellbeing. Although you also answered questions about your mental health at these ages, for this study, researchers just looked at your parents’ reports.

This information was then compared to data collected from your parents about whether you ever been excluded from school, either temporarily or permanently, and if you had missed school without their permission.

What the researchers found

The evidence you and your parents provided showed that children who had struggled with their mental health during primary school were more likely to be excluded or to be truant at secondary school.

The severity of emotional and behavioural difficulties was measured using a scale from 0-10, with higher values indicating more problems. For every one-point rise in emotional problems, including symptoms of depression and anxiety, between the ages of 7 and 11, a child’s chances of being excluded in their early adolescent years increased by 16.2%, and their chances of being truant by 17.4%.

Surprisingly, primary school children with worsening behavioural problems were no more likely to be truant than their peers when they reached secondary school. However, every one-point rise in conduct problems from age 7 to 11 increased their risk of subsequently being excluded by 22.1%.

A cycle of disadvantage

The study also found that the experience of missing school worsened future mental health problems, as students missed out on important interactions with peers and teachers.

“Young people need better access to mental health services and support to reduce their chances of missing out on compulsory schooling.”

Dr Aase Villadsen, lead author

Boys – but not girls – were more likely to experience higher levels of depression and anxiety after school exclusion. Both boys and girls also went on to have worse behavioural problems at age 14.

Why this research matters

Dr Aase Villadsen, the study’s lead author, said: “We found a cycle of disadvantage, where children who were struggling emotionally went on to be truant or be excluded, but at the same time truancy and being excluded further exacerbated their problems.

“Young people need better access to mental health services and support to reduce their chances of missing out on compulsory schooling.

“Programmes at school and sports clubs can help to tackle child mental health issues before they become a bigger problem. They can also transform the school environment to help create a sense of belonging in school and reduce the risk of truancy.”

Read the full research report

Longitudinal association of conduct and emotional problems with school exclusion and truancy by Aase Villadsen, Claire Cameron, John Evans et al. was published by The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health in November 2023.

You can also read more about this topic in this article in The Conversation.

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