This Week in Research: Absent Students and Mixed-Up Emotions

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Recent research from Johns Hopkins shows that empty desks hurt all students — not just the absent ones.

In this series, we look at the newest findings coming out of our area’s top research universities. We’ve got some great minds in Baltimore — let’s learn what they’re learning!

It’s not shocking that chronically absent students are likely to fall behind their peers; what’s more surprising is that their absenteeism can hurt their classmates with perfect attendance records as well, according to new research out of the Johns Hopkins School of Education.
Robert Balfanz, a Hopkins professor and author of a new report on absenteeism in public schools, found that half-empty classrooms are bad for all students, not just the ones who are not in the classroom. Students with erratic attendance mean that teachers have a choice between re-teaching old material (if they want to cater to those chronically absent students) or moving ahead anyway, which often leads to behavioral problems in students who feel left behind. In either case, the pace of the class slows.

This pattern is especially damaging in middle school. “It’s during the middle grades that pathways to adult outcomes start taking shape,” Balfanz says. “Students can either be launched toward college success or dropping out. Our research finds, for example, that students who miss a month or more of school in the sixth grade—that’s just two days a month—are much more likely to drop out than graduate when they live in high-poverty environments.”

Although many school districts don’t track chronic absences, experts estimate that about 10 to 15 percent of public school students nationwide would qualify as chronically absent (meaning they miss at least 20 days of school per year). And that’s a problem for us all, Balfanz says:  “Chronic absenteeism is like bacteria in a hospital. It’s a largely unseen force, because we do not currently measure it. Yet it creates havoc with our efforts to successfully educate and prepare all students for college and career.”
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Depressed people feel sad, and that’s part of the problem. But an added difficulty comes when clinical depression causes a general blurring of negative emotions, according to recent research by psychologists at the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland, and a few other institutions.

Lead researcher Emre Demiralp suggests imagining a person’s emotional state as if it were a car’s dashboard. Without gauges indicating the relative levels of gas, oil, and other fluids, it’s difficult for the driver to know how to best maintain the vehicle. Similarly, people with clinical depression have a harder time distinguishing whether they’re sad, anxious, angry, guilty, or ashamed — they just feel bad. This blurring of emotional states can cause further trouble for depressed people, who might take actions that exacerbate their problems. “The more differentiated a person’s emotional reaction, the better able she is to calibrate her behavioral response to the demands of the specific situation,” Damiralp writes. “It is difficult to improve your life without knowing whether you are sad or angry about some aspect of it.”



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