Philipp seems happy and open-minded. It’s hard to imagine that the 13-year-old dropped out of sixth grade months ago because school was becoming torture. “I’ve been bullied to the point where I couldn’t walk since the third grade, I had constant stomach pains.” In March, a classmate threatened to beat him up. That was the end. “I was completely depressed and often had to cry on the school bus,” says the Bochum native. Theresa barely went to school for almost a year. “I had panic attacks in the mornings. I rarely made it to school,” says the reserved 15-year-old in a very quiet voice.

School absenteeism affects quite a few adolescents in Germany and can have dramatic effects, emphasizes expert Heinrich Ricking from the University of Leipzig. In addition to Philipp and Theresa, eight other young people come to the Unicus day group in Bochum. For all of them, everyday school life had become an insurmountable hurdle. She has been released from her home school for a year with the aim of being able to attend classes again after she has stabilized at Unicus, explains social worker Eva-Maria Hagenguth. Some had been at school for months, some hardly or not at all for years. The youth welfare office examines the need for integration assistance.

What leads to school absenteeism?

“We are dealing with highly sensitive young people who are very susceptible to disruption and who cannot deal with stress factors and the resulting stress,” says Hagenguth. “Young people come to us who are chronically unable to attend school due to mental illnesses, anxiety disorders, fear of school, social phobias or even severe strokes of fate.” Neglect and problems with aggression can also be reasons. “They often lack the necessary support overall.” Many are high-performing, have talents, but “have no idea of ​​their possibilities, see no prospects and cannot contain their emotions.”

It’s not about skipping a beat here and there. Those affected are completely out of school and out of the social group, says Hagenguth. There are extreme cases: “We’ve had young people who haven’t left their room for up to two years.” Scientist Ricking explains: “The students drift out of the school system over months, sometimes years, and become decoupled.” In addition to mental illnesses, the following often plays a role: “They are on the margins and are less socially integrated.” And some people are characterized by experiences of failure and defeat. It is not uncommon for them to need help from child and adolescent psychiatry.

School absenteeism is not uncommon

There are no statistics, but according to Ricking, studies suggest that around three to five percent of the student body in secondary education is dealing with habitual and chronic absenteeism. Threatening consequences: loss of performance, no school leaving certificate, poor career prospects, social and psychological problems. “So it’s not just a school problem, but it can become a life problem.” Although attention to the topic has increased, at the same time it is often trivialized.

In full classes, warning signs such as staying away after break or frequently being late are often overlooked. More expertise and early intervention are needed. “The problem is that we are often late.” Prevention is very important – such as working on the school climate and violence prevention, keyword bullying. According to the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry of Education, the “phenomenon and extent” are not easy to determine. The terms school absenteeism, school abstinence and school refusal are not used consistently.

A look at the day group in Bochum

The comprehensive concept includes many educational interventions to achieve emotional and social stabilization, promote learning motivation and accompany participants in their reintegration into school. An excerpt: One morning, the young people should express their moods or reflect on the desired character traits. Right now there is a circle of chairs, with animal figures in the middle to choose from. Philipp reaches for the orca: “He can be nice, but if you attack him, he hits back.” There is also a team challenge. A marble must be moved quickly across the common room without falling to the floor. Every hand is needed. Some are lively, others are more inhibited – but everyone takes part.

A weekly plan includes group and individual work. A team of social educators and educators looks after the young people. “We want to stabilize them, give them security, help them feel capable of acting again. Self-esteem is a big issue,” emphasizes Hagenguth. Creating the lesson material is less challenging, it’s about social skills. So speaking in front of others, appearing in front of others – anything but trivial. A presentation, for example as a “Powerpoint karaoke”, can help. We also practice using theater roles. Mountain biking or boxing together, playing music, shopping and cooking are also included.

The Unicus project is working

“I was never able to give presentations at school. I don’t like being the center of attention,” says Theresa. During her first weeks at Unicus, she always wanted to be alone in the morning. “I first had to come down to a separate room; I almost never talked. Now I feel very relaxed here.” Unicus participants also need patience and a firm will. “I definitely want to go back to school and get my high school diploma,” says Theresa. “Everything here is good for me. The small group is more relaxed for now and I meet people who have been through something similar.” She hopes: “That the transition won’t be too stressful.” Philipp feels motivated to start again at another school in the summer. “I’m finally happy. Now it’s like a new life.”