A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Attendance, engagement and the cognitive learning environment
What neuroscience says about why students don’t come to school
By Karon Schnitzer | November | December 2023
“My child can just make up the day’s work online. Everything is online anyways now. That’s what they did a few years ago, right?” This was a parent’s response when I met with them to see how I could support them in getting their children to school on time each day. This student had already missed three days of school in the first two months. Chronic absenteeism is widely defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year. Of course, we know the research: Student attendance has a significant impact on academic performance and future prospects. Excessive absenteeism increases the chances of a student eventually dropping out of school due to poor academic performance, which can lead to long-term consequences for these students, such as lower average incomes, higher incidences of unemployment, and a higher likelihood of incarceration. So basically, strong attendance correlates with academic success, and poor attendance correlates with academic struggles. As an administrator in San Diego County, we have seen a great decline in our attendance since COVID in 2020. This is a challenge that is faced across the country. Knowing what was at stake for our students, we partnered with the San Diego County Office of Education and the Improving Chronic Absence Network, also known as ICAN. Their goal is to move away from punitive responses like the SART and SARB process and move towards developing empathy, building relationships and discovering root causes for such absences.
But, just as chronic absenteeism has no single root cause, it has no simple solution either. Parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers can all play a role in addressing high absence rates and improving children’s chances of receiving a complete and effective education by working together to address chronic absenteeism. Such efforts begin with gaining a better understanding of the importance of attendance. Some things that we have done at our school are raise awareness, set clear expectations, schedule empathy interviews, recognize good attendance, and focus on student engagement and their cognitive environment.
We can raise awareness by using training programs like ICAN that can help educators and administrators understand the importance of attendance and the long-term effects of chronic absenteeism. This year we have made plans to report and study absenteeism data with a small group of our office staff. We are identifying students at high risk and provide emotional support and resources to students who may have anxiety about school or who feel disengaged. We set clear expectations with both students and their parents about attendance rules and the consequences for missing school. We do this when we schedule empathy interviews by reaching out to families personally and hearing their struggles and determining potential root causes. By sitting down with families, they feel heard and know they are part of the process.
By taking time as a school to recognize good attendance, it creates a positive environment that encourages students and engages them in the learning process. But one area that I wrestled with was the thought that many families do not see the importance of sending their child to school if their work can be completed online. Because I have the opportunity to observe the amazing learning and engagement that is taking place in our classrooms, I knew we needed to look closely at engagement and what neuroscience says about the cognitive classroom environment, and share that with our families so they would understand the difference in completing work online and being connected to one’s peers both socially and academically. After all, one of our greatest strategies that we have is focusing on the cognitive learning environment that we provide for our students when they are here on campus. Cognitive learning environments should be designed to emphasize learning about learning. Jensen (2005) states:

“Students who attend school from kindergarten to secondary school spend more than 13,000 hours of their developing brain’s time in the process of teachers. Their brains are highly susceptible to environmental influences: social, physical, cognitive, and emotional.” (p. 1) In questioning what prevents many students from attending and working hard in school, Dweck, Walton, and Cohen (2011) ask, “Is it something about the student or is it something about the school?” (p. 2). In social settings, we have an unconscious ability to determine if we are safe. This is called neuroception. This safety detection system works through these three branches to determine if an environment is socially, emotionally, and/or intellectually safe. If an environment is perceived to be hostile, our body reacts by sending that message to our reticular activating system (RAS) and amygdala. This distress signal produces stress hormones and our ability to learn new information will be shut down. Even if an environment is perceived as unwelcoming, our body will not produce sufficient oxytocin and the body will experience anxiety. A student’s sense of belonging in a school or classroom has a strong impact on academic performance and attendance.
Osterman (2000) concluded that: “… the experience of belongingness is associated with important psychological processes. Children who experience a sense of relatedness perceive themselves to be more competent and have higher levels of intrinsic motivation. They also have a more positive attitude toward school and invest themselves more in the learning process.” (p. 343)
I always find myself looking at what neuroscience tells us when trying to solve a wondering. If students are checking out and not engaged in the classroom, then they will not want to attend school. Neuroscience teaches us that we must ignite the learner’s attention before any learning can be processed. Educators must generate excitement through activating the RAS. This can be done by using novelty, curiosity and/or relevance. In order to increase attendance and engagement, our cognitive environments must also display a growth mindset culture. Teachers could benefit from setting time aside to learn about self and practice skills to support and encourage growth of self and others. Our school environments need to be places where the conversations consist of: “What went well today? What mistake did you make that taught you something? What did you try hard at today? If you talk about the skills you have today that you did not have yesterday, this proves to students and their families that they not only need to be in school to increase their intellectual capacity but they also have control over their brain development and neuroplasticity: the more effort they put in, the stronger the results. Learning is a consequence of thinking. It is important for educators to understand that effort is the work of the mind; it’s not simply more time spent on an activity or on studying. The key to deeper learning is for students to realize that learning only happens in their brains when they are engaged in thinking and thinking deeply does not typically happen when a student is completing routine work at home.
If students are checking out and not engaged in the classroom, then they will not want to attend school. Neuroscience teaches us that we must ignite the learner’s attention before any learning can be processed.
For our students who find it difficult to focus all day in the cognitive learning environment, it is imperative to discuss the importance of providing time in the classroom for “brain breaks.” This is where students can toggle between the focused and diffused mode. Teachers need to build some downtime in their day; during this time, students have the opportunity for learning to take place in the background. The “Pomodoro Technique” would be an effective strategy to allow this thinking time to occur. This technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo. This strategy uses a timer to help the learner see when they need to be in focus mode and then have a brain break (diffused mode.) A timer is set for 25 minutes and when the timer goes off, a 5-minute break occurs. This cycle repeats and after three or four intervals, longer breaks of 15 to 30 minutes can be taken to fully recharge. This technique allows time to toggle between the two modes; to focus and then reinforce relaxation. “Giving students the chance to actively process information is at the heart of teaching because all new content that makes it to our working memory must be mixed with our existing background knowledge.” (Hammond, 2015 p. 131) If children are not in school, then they also are not having the opportunity to develop their social learning. Social learning is a major force in a child’s development. A major part of the decision-making process involves social experiences, moral and ethical boundaries, and cultural history. We are social beings. The social exchanges of learning are paramount before the sharing of knowledge can take place. The polyvagal nervous system is known as “the social engagement system.” Its primary focus is keeping us connected with others. It releases oxytocin to encourage this social bonding. Oxytocin can be viewed as the brain’s “stand down” to the amygdala, so that the prefrontal cortex can focus on higher order thinking. Teachers need to know about how this part of the nervous system works because if an environment is viewed by the learner as hostile or inattentive, this information will be sent to the RAS and the amygdala. From there a distress signal goes to the body and this produces stress hormones, in which learning will be very difficult to accomplish in those conditions. Furthermore, even if an environment is perceived as unwelcoming, the body will not produce enough oxytocin resulting in the body feeling anxious. These perceptions can be real or just perceived from past experiences, but the effect is the same: Children do not want to go to school if they connect school with anxious thoughts. “Social and affective neuroscience, while it cannot directly show teachers how to interact with students, can inform educators’ knowledge of why and how students learn, especially in social context. Incorporating this new information into traditional models of teaching and learning may lead to innovative, effective methods for engaging students in meaningful learning experiences.” (Immordino-Yang, 2007) I believe this may also answer the question to, “Can’t my child just make up the day’s work online? Everything is online anyways now. That’s what they did a few years ago, right?” Let’s take time to truly evaluate our cognitive learning environments and ensure that our students are so engaged and welcomed that school is one of their favorite places to be. References Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256 –273. http:// dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033- 295X.95.2.256 Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Immordino-Yang, M. H. & Sylvan, L. (2010). Admiration for virtue: Neuroscientific perspectives on a motivating emotion. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 35(2), 110-115 Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2008, July 10). Emotions, Social Relationships, and the Brain: Implications for the Classroom. ASCD Express, 3(20). Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2010). Toward a microdevelopmental, interdisciplinary approach to social emotion. Emotion Review. 2(3), 217-220 Immordino-Yang, M.H, Chiao, J. Y. & Fiske, A. P. (2010). Neural re-use in the social and emotional brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 33(4), 275-276. Ritchart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Karon Schnitzer, Ed.D., is an associate principal in Chula Vista Elementary School District, a professor at San Diego State University’s College of Education, and president of Southwest Administrators Association Charter of ACSA (Region 18).