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Evidence-Based Practices in School Refusal and Truancy — An Interview With the Author

By John Desrochers

In the following interview, Mary B. Wimmer, PhD, talks with Communiqué about the new second edition of her book, Evidence-Based Practices in School Refusal and Truancy (2nd Edition), published by the National Association of School Psychologists

Communiqué: What exactly does this book cover?

Dr. Wimmer: The book covers identification and interventions for all types of excessive absenteeism, including emotionally based absenteeism (e.g., anxiety, depression) and absenteeism of students who do not have emotional reasons for their absences (e.g., skipping school to hang out with friends, involvement in illegal activities). Medical reasons for excessive absenteeism are covered, such as asthma, the leading medical cause of student absenteeism. Also covered are contextual risk factors. These are factors increasing the likelihood that a student will be absent from school (e.g., school climate issues such as lack of engaging instruction and bullying). Other factors covered are issues related to poverty, such as insufficient health and mental health services and social supports in the community. Homelessness and issues related to this problem are covered, such as lack of transportation and frequent moves.

Communiqué: Why do we need a book on this topic?

Dr. Wimmer: An alarmingly high percentage of students are affected. The estimated combined rate for emotionally based absenteeism and truancy is as high as 28%, according to data compiled by Christopher Kearney, who has done extensive research on this topic. Also, there are serious consequences associated with school refusal and truancy. We know that excessive absenteeism can lead to school dropout. Graduation rates were at 78% in 2010, and one third of African American and 30% of Hispanic students are not graduating. We know that high school dropouts have reduced earning potential. Also, when at-risk students are not in school, the possibility of becoming involved in illegal activities increases. Other consequences of school refusal and truancy are high rates of stress and psychiatric problems. The good news is that there is a wealth of research out there about how to successfully intervene with school refusing and truant students.

Communiqué: Why do we need a second edition of this book? What's new?

Dr. Wimmer: What's new is that this book covers the topic from a multitier perspective, drawing from the research on strategies and interventions at all three levels. At the Tier 1 level, programs addressing contextual risk factors for excessive absenteeism are outlined. These include how to create positive school climates with evidence-based social–emotional learning curricula, culturally responsive practices, and positive behavioral interventions and supports. Characteristics of high-quality attendance monitoring and school-wide attendance initiatives are covered. Examples of evidence-based Tier 2 strategies covered in the book are group therapy for students with anxiety and depression and programs addressing asthma and physical complaints. A great deal of information is presented about the research behind Check & Connect, a Tier 2 mentor program. I visited three high schools in Minneapolis and provide information from the perspective of students and staff involved in Check & Connect. I updated the chapter on Tier 3, multicomponent cognitive–behavioral therapy and the use of a functional approach to intervention for all types of school refusal behavior. I added information on the research on intensive programs for youth in crisis such as wraparound and multisystemic therapy. Also new is a chapter covering the research on alternative and charter schools for this population as well as whole school reform models addressing students with excessive absenteeism.

Communiqué: Who is the target audience?

Dr. Wimmer: The target audience is anyone who works with school refusing and truant students, including school psychologists, social workers, school counselors, and administrators. The book also targets students who are training to be any of these professionals. Each chapter includes discussion questions that can be used by trainers in a graduate or undergraduate classroom setting.

Communiqué: Tell us a little bit about your background and how it contributed to writing this book.

Dr. Wimmer: Shortly after completing my doctoral dissertation at Marquette University on interventions for students with anxiety, I was reading Communiqué and saw a call for someone to update Leslie Paige's 1993 book published by NASP on the topic of school refusal. I wrote a proposal, and the book, School Refusal: Assessment and Intervention Within School Settings, was published in 2003. Then in 2010, the NASP publications board encouraged me to submit a proposal for an update of the 2003 book at the NASP convention in Chicago. As a school psychologist, I have worked with many students who refuse to come to school for emotional and other reasons. I have been the safe port for students with anxiety-based school refusal and have acted as attendance coordinator in an elementary school. In this role, I was involved in attendance monitoring, giving out rewards for good attendance at weekly recognition assemblies, making home visits, and providing counseling and other types of responsive services. Because of my work in schools, I know there is a great need for effective practices for this population of students, and I hope this book helps.

John E. Desrochers, PhD, ABPP, is a school psychologist in Connecticut and editor of Communiqué.