Promoting school attendance can have positive effects on children’s health, according to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health.

School absence can affect not only children’s academic achievement but also their health, and the AAP advises health care providers to promote regular school attendance as preventive medicine, wrote Mandy Allison, MD, of the University of Colorado and Children’s Hospital Colorado, both in Aurora, and Elliott Attisha, DO, FAAP, of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

In the statement, published in Pediatrics, the authors detailed factors associated with chronic absenteeism and provided guidelines for how clinicians can help reduce and prevent the problem. “Regardless of whether absences are unexcused or excused, chronic absenteeism typically results in poor academic outcomes and is linked to poor health outcomes,” they noted.

Factors linked with chronic absenteeism, defined by the U.S. Department of Education as missing 15 or more days of school in a year, include socioeconomic factors such as poverty, domestic violence, and foster care, as well as poorly controlled health conditions, such as asthma and diabetes. Approximately 13% of all students meet criteria for chronic absenteeism, the researchers noted.

Chronic absenteeism has been linked to an increased risk of unhealthy behaviors, including mental health problems in teens and poor health in adulthood, and students who miss school often struggle academically and may be more likely to drop out, they noted.

The AAP statement emphasizes school strategies to improve attendance, including education on hand washing and other infection prevention measures, use of school-based flu vaccination programs, availability of school nurses and counselors, and other school-based health and nutrition services.

The policy statement encourages pediatricians and other health care providers to promote school attendance in the office setting and the community.

The AAP encourages pediatricians and their colleagues caring for children to promote school attendance. In the office setting, the AAP recommends the clinicians stress the importance of school attendance, ask whether children have been absent from school and how often, encourage families to share any health concerns with the school nurse, and provide firm and specific guidance on when children should go to school or stay home. The AAP also recommends encouraging well children to return to school after routine appointments rather than miss a whole day and documenting medical needs for an Individualized Education Program or 504 Plan to maximize learning and promote attendance.

For students who are chronically absent from school (missing 2-3 days/month), the AAP encourages clinicians to identify physical health issues and psychosocial factors that may be contributing to absenteeism and to communicate with school health providers. In rare cases, out-of-school educational services may be justified, but with an established time line for returning to school, according to the statement.

In addition, the AAP encourages clinicians to advocate in the community in support of school attendance by sharing relevant data on chronic absences, working with community leaders to send a consistent message about the value of school attendance, and serving as a school physician or on a school board or wellness committee to promote attendance.

The full statement is available online and includes links to parent handouts, a waiting room video, and a mobile-friendly website for preteens, teens, and parents.

The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.

SOURCE: Allison MA et al. Pediatrics. 2019. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-3648.