More time to prepare for a tough presentation? Escape from an early morning alarm? While most of us only dream of those opportunities, Oregon is making them a reality for all K-12 students. This month, the state passed a law allowing students to take excused school absences for mental health. Students can take a total of 5 excused absences per three-month period—or about 10-15 days per year.
“I took on this cause for a personal reason first off because so many of my close friends in high school struggled with depression, and there were times when I saw them at school when they really shouldn’t have been there, would have been much better for them to take a day off,” Hailey Hardcastle, a recent high school graduate who lobbied for the new law, told Today.
But while the law aims to address student health, it also poses potential challenges:
1. Less Learning Time.
Oregon’s new law doesn’t change the number of days students can take away from school, but it expands the reasons for which they can take days off. Previously, students could only take excused absences for parent-approved sick days, doctor’s appointments, emergencies, or by prior principal or teacher approval. With the new law, students can be excused for anything mental health related, including escaping a stressful exam or recovering from a late night. While more opportunities to take time off may sound appealing, its long-term effects could be troubling.
A University of Chicago study, for example, found that high school freshmen who miss more than two weeks of school flunk, on average, at least two classes. In addition, the study found that 37 percent of students who took 5-9 days off from school failed to graduate in four years. That number grew to 59 percent when students took 10-15 days off school.
Studies also show that students have a greater likelihood of dropping out of high school and lower chances of succeeding in college when they are chronically absent (miss 10 percent or more of their school year). Although Oregon’s excused absence law doesn’t amount to chronic absenteeism, it comes close. The state’s school year is only 165 days long on average, which means students who take 16.5 days off—only 1.5 days more than current policy allows—are chronically absent.
2. “Rest” Isn’t Always Best.
Advocates like Hailey Hardcastle suggest that Oregon’s new law will give stressed students much-needed rest. But some research suggests that these students may be better off in school.
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, for example, found that student mental health is closely related to social media consumption. She noted that eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent and teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.
But what do teens do in their days off from school? If their weekends are any indication, they’ll probably spend much of the day on media. The American Time Use Survey indicates that students spend much of their weekends watching TV, playing video and computer games, surfing the internet, texting friends, and on social media—the very screen-time related activities Twenge links to mental unhealth to begin with. In school, these activities would be kept to a minimum, with class-time and social interaction replacing lengthy media sessions.
3. Encourages Escape over Healthy Habit Building.
While an occasional day off from school offers students the chance to recover and prepare for the challenges they face, too much time off can become unhealthy.
“It’s important for kids to power through some discomfort (like going to school even when they’re afraid of giving a presentation or when they don’t have their math homework done),” writes psychotherapist and bestselling author Amy Morin, “There’s a lot of value in showing them they’re stronger than they think.”
Overcoming academic challenges also develops skills students don’t have the opportunity to build otherwise.
“More so than in past generations, many teens today have their basic needs met, and they haven’t had much practice making mistakes,” writes Leah Shafer for Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Therefore, Shafer writes, it’s especially important that students develop strategies to face their fears and thereby develop prioritization, focus, and mental flexibility skills students will use for the rest of their lives.
Before following Oregon’s example, other states should take a second look at the policy’s impact on student academic success, mental wellbeing, and skill development. And parents and schools should consider helping students to develop healthy habits to manage stress and anxiety in the long term. These could include limiting social media where possible, and encouraging exercise and sleep.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman