David Hardy is chief executive officer for the Lorain City School District in Ohio. He is the former deputy superintendent of academics for St. Louis Public Schools.
While it may seem like common sense that students have to be in school to learn, chronic absenteeism persists in K-12 schools, impacting as many as 7.5 million children a year.
Students who are chronically absent — meaning they miss 10 percent or more of the school year — are at serious risk of falling behind in school. While chronic absenteeism rates are highest in high school, the problem occurs at every grade level. In the early grades, poor attendance can delay social and emotional learning. It can also prevent children from reaching key milestones such as reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade, which is a powerful predictor for future academic success. In fact, chronic absenteeism is a primary cause of low academic achievement at every grade level, and it a strong indicator of which students are at a higher risk for dropping out.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, research suggests the reasons for chronic absenteeism are as varied as the challenges students and families face. Although K-12 districts and schools may not be able to address every factor that impacts student attendance, we can strategically support students who are at risk of missing too much school.
Here are a few ways educators can help prevent or reduce absences, while making school a place that students want to be.
Communicate attendance expectations
The first step to boosting attendance is to clearly communicate school attendance expectations to students and their families, e.g. in the student handbook, school website, and in face-to-face meetings. Be sure to explain the importance of attendance and why being on time and in school matters. If attendance is a school- or district-wide issue, set a measurable attendance goal in the school improvement plan and regularly monitor progress toward that goal.
Form an attendance team
An attendance team is the first line of defense against chronic absenteeism. The team monitors attendance daily, tracks progress toward attendance goals, and communicates with parents and students about issues as they arise. Parents should be notified of an absence as early in the day as possible. This can be done by a team member or by an automated system. However, with a personal phone call, the team member has the added benefit of making notes about whom they spoke with and the details of the call, which can be helpful if the issue continues.
To prevent small problems from becoming large problems, it is also helpful to create and set “triggers” to instantly alert the attendance team and school leaders to absences. For example, if a student is absent two days in a row or absent more than a certain number of days in a specific period of time, the student’s name is flagged. This signals the team that additional intervention may be required, such as a parent meeting or home visit. During the meeting or visit, develop an attendance action plan, focusing on accountability but with a positive mindset. Again, emphasize why it is in the child’s best interest to attend school.
Track the positivity ratio
Many schools have systems for inputting discipline infractions, which usually means that the only behaviors being tracked are negative behaviors. Negative reinforcement, e.g. a verbal reprimand for a problem behavior, tends to stick longer with students, and it takes a lot of positive reinforcement to get a child back on track. Using a 3:1 positivity ratio can help ensure that teachers are giving students enough positive reinforcement throughout the school day. For example, establish a school-wide expectation that teachers will acknowledge or recognize at least three positive student behaviors before they can record a negative behavior. This helps teachers make sure their focus is on the positive, and it helps them build stronger relationships with their students.
Create a more positive school culture
One of the best ways to get in front of chronic absenteeism is to ensure that school is a place where students are excited to be. When students feel happy and safe, physically and emotionally, they engage in school. This not only leads to higher attendance but higher academic achievement as well. Build an engaging calendar of events that motivates students to come to school and participate in fun and educational experiences. Establish consistent school- and district-wide behavior expectations to help teachers keep students on task and acting positively. Implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, social and emotional learning, and other culture-oriented programs. Create goal-based incentives that motivate attendance and positive student behavior. All of this will help students achieve positive social and emotional character development, and build an environment that helps them feel connected to the people they learn with.
Make it easy to track and act on real-time data
To make the most of teachers’ and school leaders’ time, provide one system for tracking daily attendance, tardies, behavior, and school culture data. Having a mobile app or web platform, as opposed to a paper-based system or disjoined systems, can save teachers countless hours of time. For example, using a school culture system called Kickboard, teachers can easily take attendance, and they can record and reinforce the behaviors that make up the school’s ideal culture with just a tap. Having that information in one place also makes it easier to analyze and act on the data, from the individual to the school or district level. With real-time data, educational leaders can also conduct real-time behavior and culture reviews that can reveal the underlying causes of chronic absenteeism.
Throughout the year, be sure to communicate the school’s progress toward attendance goals to staff, students and families. Create rituals and ceremonies to celebrate individual, class, and school-wide successes to keep the momentum going.
Provide additional support systems
Some students, of course, may need additional support. Designate one person or a team to greet children as they arrive at school to make it easy for them to ask someone for help if their day is starting off rough. Have the response-to-intervention team recommend targeted interventions for students who are chronically absent or who have lost instructional time due to in-school or out-of-school suspensions. Have extra uniforms or school supplies available for students who might otherwise miss school without them. Refer the students’ family for additional support services or resources as needed.
By being proactive, schools can identify student needs and address them early to prevent chronic absenteeism. When children improve their attendance, they have more time for learning and they improve their chances for graduation and success in college and careers. It all happens one day at a time.