What does it take to keep learners engaged in school despite challenging circumstances?

A teacher at Mafahleni High School in Impendle, Kwa-Zulu Natal. Even willing and caring teachers are not always able to adequately assist learners with academic or psychosocial support, especially during the school closures.

Dropout is rarely a single event; it’s a process of disengagement involving different push out and pull out factors in a young person’s home, school or community. We take a look at what our NPO implementing partners are doing to address disengagement and re-engage learners in the schools in which they operate.

Caring adult support, mentoring or role-modelling

For a variety of complex reasons, learners do not always have a parental figure who is able to provide the type of nurturing adult support needed to negotiate their young lives and school careers successfully. Many children are brought up by grandparents who have limited schooling experience or by young parents who may have left school before completing matric.

Teachers can sometimes provide caring adult support and role-modelling, but they are often too busy to focus on any one learner’s specific needs. The presence of a sympathetic and empathetic adult who mentors and supports a child through key transitions in their schooling can make a big difference.  

Check in with learners

Equally important is the monitoring role that teachers and other adults play in a child’s life. For example, if a parent or caregiver goes to work at 4 o’clock in the morning and expects a young child to wake up and arrive at school on time, it’s easy for the child not to adhere to this responsibility and skip classes.

Children are more likely to respond positively and make an effort to be at school when they have a caring adult checking on them. Similarly, if a child knows that an adult cares about them and is monitoring their progress, they are less likely to be sucked into unhealthy peer relationships, which could increase the likelihood of disengagement.

Building collaborative support systems

Building partnerships between caring adults in the school context (such as teachers, volunteers or care workers) and primary caregivers at home is also beneficial. Where the two sets of adults are not in partnership or not communicating effectively, the learner has more chance of disengaging from the school system. This partnership is important in terms of monitoring learners and providing them with a good continuum of care and mentoring between the school and home contexts.

Academic support and accelerated catch-up programmes

Due to large class sizes and the pressure of keeping up with the curriculum, teachers are not always able to support a learner who is falling behind. Tutors who can provide one-on-one encouragement and a range of learning and study skills to help the learner catch up are important.

Referrals to professional services

In complicated cases, school-based care workers have found it necessary to work with outside service providers who can offer support to a family or individual learner. These services include the Department of Social Development (or related department such as Health or Home Affairs) and NGOs offering drug and alcohol support and rehabilitation, specialist counselling (e.g. for suicide or abuse) or socio-economic support to families.