Student Well-Being Opinion

Stop Saying ‘These Kids Don’t Care About School’

This damaging myth ignores the root causes of student disengagement
By Laurie Putnam — April 05, 2024 4 min read
Illustration of a group of young people with backpacks standing in row rear view, on an erased whiteboard surface.
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“A Crisis of School Absences,” said a recent New York Times headline. “White House Urges Schools to Address Absenteeism Amid Troubling Data” proclaimed a Washington Post headline. A quick Google search reveals scores of articles that detail the epidemic of chronic absenteeism from our schools.

These articles consider the causes and solutions to this troubling trend, suggesting we meet this challenge with remedies that range from the technical, such as incentivizing attendance, to the adaptive, building relationships and making learning more relevant.

Yet, when I’m in classrooms, hallways, or in community conversations, I often hear a pervasive and disturbing comment, mostly absent from the media coverage of absenteeism. Perhaps you, too, have heard it? It goes something like this: “These kids just don’t care.”

“Kids don’t care” is a sentiment shared by many educators, politicians, and onlookers. Sometimes, it’s expressed in an aggrieved aside, occasionally, in an exasperated exclamation.

It’s a narrative that underscores deeper issues within our educational system and society at large. At best, this short sentence buries the real challenges of daily survival that many of our students face. At worst, it glosses over systemic barriers by heaping the blame for chronic absenteeism on those least at fault and most in need of our compassion and faith.

The assumption that young people don’t care creates a barrier between educators and students and reflects our failure to address the root causes of student disengagement.

When we dismiss students with the blanket statement “these kids don’t care,” we overlook the complex interplay of factors shaping many of our students’ lives that can appear as apathy from the outside. Economic instability, mental health challenges, racism, and classism can all play a role in shaping a child’s educational journey, which begins at birth. By reducing these complexities to a single, dismissive statement, we perpetuate cycles of marginalization.

Moreover, the “kids don’t care” narrative undermines the potential of our youth. It disregards the countless students who overcome adversity, demonstrate resilience, and attain academic excellence despite facing immense challenges.

In the district I lead and across the country, many of our families lack access to resources and face generational systemic barriers. Too many of our students face violence in the streets and at home, and we’re concerned about their safety when they’re not in our schools.

Many students don’t have stable places to live, and their food security ends when the school doors close.

As leaders in learning communities, we must challenge this harmful myth and recognize the inherent worth and potential of every child. Instead of labeling students as apathetic, we must seek to understand the underlying factors influencing their critical unmet needs.

We then must provide the necessary support systems to help them thrive. This requires a concerted effort from educators, policymakers, families, and community members to address systemic inequalities and create environments where every child feels connected and valued.

Research in educational psychology sheds light on the drivers of student motivation, emphasizing the importance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When students feel a sense of control over their learning, believe in their ability to succeed, and have meaningful connections with teachers and peers, they are more likely to engage actively in their education. The “kids don’t care” narrative, which positions students as the problem, erodes students’ sense of agency and belonging and fractures the relationships necessary to the learning process.

In my district, initiatives aimed at fostering student engagement and empowerment have been crucial in addressing chronic absenteeism. Though we are a work in progress, we’ve seen pockets of success with an increase in student daily attendance this school year.

One example is at Lincoln Elementary School, an upper elementary where 97 percent of students live below the poverty line and 40 percent will transition in and out of school again over the course of a school year.

Faced with high rates of chronic absenteeism, the Lincoln principal and her team created a program for their elementary school students to get “job” experience during the school day, as a morning news anchor, barista, botanist, or computer technician, to name just a few experiences.

Crucially, each position is paired with a school staff mentor. Every staff member takes part, from the computer technician to the custodian to the principal. Students are taught how to complete applications and interview for their positions.

Once hired, they receive lanyards complete with name placards and job titles and they can even earn employee-of-the-week awards. Daily student attendance has increased dramatically since this program began, and students and staff alike find joy and meaning in showing up to school each day.

By investing in creative mentorship programs such as this, we can create opportunities for connection, autonomy, and mastery and begin to dismantle the barriers that hinder regular daily attendance.

Ultimately, the dangers of perpetuating the myth “these kids don’t care” extend far beyond the walls of the classroom. It’s a reflection of broader attitudes toward youth and education, poverty and self-sufficiency, race, and systemic disparities. It undermines our collective responsibility to nurture future generations.

Challenging this narrative takes courage and commitment. As educators, it is our responsibility to embrace the students we serve and demand the same from our colleagues and leaders. By instead embracing a mindset of empathy, empowerment, and high expectations, we create more inclusive schools, places where students want to be each day.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2024 edition of Education Week as Stop Saying ‘These Kids Don’t Care About School’


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