Attendance Awareness Month: 11 Quick Tips to Address Chronic Absence

Nov 17, 2023
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September is back-to-school time, and all educators are hard at work brainstorming ways to make this school year successful. But before any of that hard work in the classroom can pay off, there is one critically important prerequisite to consider—actually getting students to attend class (whether in person or online). That’s why September has been designated National Attendance Awareness Month: to get the word out and help educators and parents make school a place that students want to be.

As we enter a new academic year, the primary concern for many is simply normalizing the school year after pandemic disruptions. There is still tremendous upheaval due to COVID-19, and a plethora of reasons why a student might be absent from class as a result. In some cases, absences simply cannot be avoided, but by being aware of the importance of attendance and working to help student who do miss class catch up where possible, educators can help to minimize the impact of chronic absenteeism.

It’s not currently known how disruptions caused by the pandemic impacted chronic absenteeism rates among students, but some early data shows that chronic absence is likely to have dramatically increased, potentially doubling in size from one out of six to one out of three students. According to the national nonprofit initiative Attendance Works, half of the students who miss two to four days of school in September end up missing nearly a month (25 days) of school in total throughout the year. Those missed days quickly translate into missed academic opportunities. Here are some more data points about school absence that might surprise you:

  • “Chronic absence” is defined by Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) survey, which refers to chronic absence as missing 15 or more days each school year.
  • In the 2015–16 school year, more than 8 million students in the U.S. were chronically absent.
  • Early data shows that chronic absence is likely to have dramatically increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially doubling in size from one out of six to one out of three students.
  • Absenteeism has hit hardest among communities that have been especially affected by the pandemic, including Black, Latino, and Native American students; students living in poverty; students with disabilities; and English language learners.
  • One in ten kindergarten and 1st grade students meet the criteria for chronic absence.
  • Many school districts also experienced significant declines in enrollment, occurring across all grade levels, but drops were greatest among the youngest learners, with some families delaying participation in kindergarten or preschool given the challenges of the pandemic.
  • Absenteeism amongst young students is correlated with lower rates of reading proficiency by 3rd grade—one California study found that only 17 percent of students chronically absent in kindergarten and 1st grade were reading at grade level after 3rd grade.
  • Chronic absence is a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school—a study out of the University of Utah found that just one year of chronic absence between 8th and 12th grade increased the likelihood of dropout by 7.4 times.
  • Close to half (45 percent) of high schools have high or extreme levels of chronic absence.
  • Chronic absence disproportionately affects students and schools in high-poverty areas.
  • Chronic absence affects specific student populations more than others—especially Native American, Black, Hispanic, and English language learner students—but it occurs in all geographic locations and among all student demographic populations.

So, what can educators do to address absenteeism and help students start turning around any negative effects? Here are 11 quick tips:

  1. Educate parents and other caregivers about the impacts of chronic absence, starting with open house nights and other events at the beginning of the school year.
  2. Clearly communicate attendance expectations (and consequences for unexcused or excessive absences) to students and their families.
  3. Develop a system to accurately monitor student attendance and chronic absence. The National Center for Education Statistics’ The Forum Guide to Collecting and Using Attendance Data provides one such model. Attendance Works also has some helpful tools.
  4. Focus on building a welcoming, positive school climate, encouraging student input and ownership and emphasizing respectful interactions.
  5. Utilize a tiered approach to encourage strong attendance among all students, work with students when they first start to miss school days, and intervene intensely with students who are chronically absent.
  6. Reach out to chronically absent students and their families to understand what the barriers to attendance actually are, whether it’s transportation, hunger, homelessness, or other challenges.
  7. Be mindful of mental health and bullying struggles that may be contributing to student absences, and be aware of what resources are available in your school and community to refer students to when appropriate.
  8. Consider building a mentoring program to help connect students with positive adult role models who can act as an additional support system and encourage them to make constructive decisions—including attending school regularly.
  9. Encourage participation in after-school activities to help students develop meaningful connections to their school community; explore interests; make peer-to-peer connections; and build positive habits like healthy eating, regular exercise, and accountability.
  10. Celebrate good attendance habits, and recognize improved attendance with schoolwide incentive programs.
  11. Create an engagement strategy that works for your school community, and incorporate it into your larger COVID-19 recovery plan. Check out this Toolkit for Covid-19 Recovery Through Attendance from Attendance Works for resources, recommended steps, and strategies.

Looking for more ideas to improve student attendance this school year? Check out these Resources to Fight Chronic Absenteeism!

This post was originally published September 2019 by Sarah Cornelius and has been updated.

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