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Effective Strategies for Working with Truant Youth

Updated on Jul 16, 2010

Many judges are frustrated by a lack of choices and lack of evidence about what works in dealing with chronic truants. Often, when other efforts fail, juvenile detention is assigned as a last resort. This document provides ideas for interventions other than detention - interventions that hopefully will minimize, or even preclude, the need for such an extreme measure. It recommends a dual approach - the combination of sticks and carrots, sanctions and rewards. Ideally, rewards should be meaningful to the child, and sanctions should be geared toward a positive goal such as career planning or academic catch-up and should be determined according to the needs of the particular child.

The general approach advocated here is based on our experience evaluating truancy reduction programs across the country and on what many program managers and social workers have learned from years of working with truants. Many of the specific, creative ideas included here originate from those programs and from what judges recently reported in a national survey of truancy sentencing practices (Heilbrunn 2006). Additional information about many truancy reduction programs may be found in our Truancy Program Database which is available for browsing on the National Center for School Engagement website, www.schoolengagement.org.

Why not use detention?

There are two main drawbacks to the use of juvenile detention for truants: the potential for doing more harm than good and cost. Negative outcomes can sometimes result from grouping delinquents together and from exposing non-delinquent to delinquent youth. Such grouping provides a ready means for young people to share bad habits. Just as parents seek to isolate their children from delinquents in the neighborhood or school, so should society seek to isolate truants from the delinquent youth in detention.

Many judges assert that the threat of detention is a powerful deterrent to potential truants. Although no research that we know of has attempted to measure that deterrent effect, it seems likely that some, and perhaps many, youth would indeed be frightened enough by the possibility to maintain fairly good attendance. Children whose truancy is mostly mischievous in nature, who are not too far behind academically, and whose school attendance is within their control may fall into this category. However, neither detention nor the threat thereof can solve the problems of students who face serious impediments to school attendance, such as unmet mental or physical health care needs or fear of violence on campus. Nor can either one make a child appreciate the value of education. Furthermore, there is a risk associated with a first detention stay. Once juvenile detention has lost its fear factor, it will cease to deter not only truancy, but delinquency as well. The deterrent argument leads to two inherent conclusions. One, the sooner truancy is addressed the better, because attendance will be more within the realm of the student and parents' control, and two, the less detention is actually used, the greater its deterrent effect is likely to be.

A second drawback to detention is its cost; the average price of one day in detention was $135.4 in 2001 (American Correctional Association 2002). If a few days in detention are not adequate to scare a student into attending school, many days are not likely to achieve the purpose either. Yet some detention stays for status offenses including truancy run into the hundreds (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999).

The reason for such long detention stays is unclear, but may be related to the fact that judges report using detention for reasons other than punishment of an offense (Heilbrunn 2004; Heilbrunn 2006). It is often used as a means of accessing mental health services, providing shelter, protecting the child from himself or others, and as a means of detoxification, all because more appropriate residential settings are full. It is a sad reflection on our values that we are more willing to fund jails to house our children than services to heal their emotional injuries. Setting up more appropriate channels would be less expensive and more efficient in addition to being more humane.

There is a third and equally important reason for using approaches other than detention for truants. It is not enough merely to get a child back into a seat in school. The child must become engaged in school, feel like a part of the school, understand its importance, and be motivated to do the schoolwork, otherwise he or she is not likely to learn much from the classes. Many truants have significant problems in their home lives that do not necessarily become apparent in a courtroom. Such difficulties include poverty, mental health issues or parents with mental health issues, parents who work such long hours that they can provide little guidance, younger siblings or children of their own to care for, or the death, illness or incarceration of a family member. It is no surprise that children who face such challenges are not focused on school. Punishment may make a child less willing to skip school, but will not address any of the underlying troubles that impede school attendance and adopting school success as a personal value. The approaches advocated here are geared toward promoting school engagement, rather than simple punishment of an offense.

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