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Using Social Networks to Reduce Teen Absences

December 13, 2018

Most teens love to hang out with their friends. New research in a draft working paper found that a texting intervention designed to improve one student’s attendance actually boosted the attendance of friends in the teen’s social network.

What’s more, the research also found that by leveraging a student’s social network, the cost of the intervention dropped by as much as 19 percent.

The study by Peter Bergman and Magdalena Bennett of Columbia University found that students do coordinate when they miss a class, and that students are absent 4.7 times more often to miss a class period with their the closest peer than with others in the social network. The research is in a draft working paper, Better Together? Social Networks in Truancy and the Targeting of Treatment.

The intervention the researchers used – parent alerts sent by text message to a student’s family – began with an earlier study done by Bergman and Eric Chan of Columbia University. In this research, published in 2017, Bergman and Chan wanted to see whether text alerts sent to parents in a large school district in West Virginia changed the behavior of middle and high school students.

The researchers relied on school-level administrative data already available: missed assignments, failing grades and class-level attendance for every student in the school each day. They sent parent alerts via text message during the 2014-2015 school year. The alerts significantly increased class-level attendance by 17 percent and reduced class failures by 40 percent. The researchers only looked at class-level absences rather than at students who missed a full day of school.

Bergman says the texting strategy should be one piece of a larger program to reduce chronic absence in a school or district. There are students who have faced trauma outside of school, who are homeless or have other reasons for missing school who need personalized interventions. “The parent alert intervention can complement a broader effort to improve student attendance,” he said.

Missing class more often with friends?

In the most recent study, Bergman and Bennett wanted to test the hypothesis that missing class has a social component, and that the behavior is learned from friends. Using the data on class level data on every student in a district in West Virginia the researchers developed a social network analysis to figure out how many times one kid missed class with another student in the school. If two students missed the same class at the same time frequently, the two had a strong social connection. In fact they found that students are absent 4.7 times more often with their the closest peer relative to the average absences across their other peers.

Taking it a step further, the team wanted to see if there was a spillover effect from the text alerts, or whether texting one family influences the behavior of kids in the same social network. The spillover effect was clear: The closest friend of a student whose parents received the text alerts also missed fewer class periods, resulting in a spillover effect of 24 more classes attended per student.

Using a student’s social network to leverage an attendance strategy can work for any number of interventions, whether they be text messages, parent home visits or other outreach, Bergman says. “If you target a student who is missing class a lot with someone else, you will get more bang for the buck from the intervention if you target that first student,” he said.

Bergman and his team are interested in working with districts that want to develop a social network analysis. “The beauty of this approach is that we aren’t asking schools to collect anything new. The social network analysis uses data the schools already have in their systems,” he says. Bergman and his team can be reached at:

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