When you think of disruptive behavior in your classroom, you might not consider students who regularly miss class. But did you know that students who are chronically absent are more likely to earn failing grades, display delinquent behavior, and ultimately drop out of school later on?
Luckily, teachers have a role to play in preventing chronic absenteeism during the school year and throughout a child’s academic career. By reducing absences early in the year—and early in a student’s educational experience—students can develop healthy attendance habits and reach their academic potential.
September is National Attendance Month, which means that now is the perfect time to create a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism in your class. Read on to learn more about chronic absenteeism and which students may be under-resourced. Then, discover strategies for reducing absenteeism in your school.
The Connection Between Grades and Attendance
Why is attendance so important, anyway? Some students may excuse absenteeism by believing that independent study outside class will make up for it. Unfortunately for them, however, statistics show the exact opposite. Even in early grades, chronic absenteeism is a precursor to academic failure later.
Students who miss more than three days of school per month can fall behind, with a gap of 1 to 2 years’ worth of learning compared to heir peers. Additionally, only 17% of students who were chronically absent in kindergarten were reading proficiently in third grade (compared to 64% of their peers with average attendance).
These negative effects only increase as a child grows older. Academic performance continues to decrease for chronically absent students in comparison to their peers throughout middle and high school. This creates a sort of “achievement gap” between chronically absent students and those with good attendance. Worst of all, chronically absent students are much more likely to fail or drop out of later grades, effectively ending their academic career.
Additionally, chronic absenteeism can cause social-emotional or behavioral problems, just as it does academic issues. Students who are chronically absent are more likely to develop mental health issues later on and are more prone to delinquent behavior. For this reason, promoting healthy attendance levels is just as much a classroom behavior management tool as it as an academic one.
Is Chronic Absenteeism on the Rise?
Before determining whether truancy is a rising issue, it’s important to understand what the terms truancy and chronic absenteeism mean. Truancy is generally defined as any time a student is absent without an excuse from their parents or permission from a teacher. It can be a frequent or one-time occurrence. The definition of chronic absenteeism, however, is considered missing 10% or more of a school year for any reason, excused or otherwise. At this point, a student would be considered a habitual truant and at risk for academic failure.
According to school attendance statistics, chronic absenteeism is indeed on the rise. During the 2015-16 school year, 8 million students were marked as chronically absent, compared to 6.8 million in the 2013-14 school year. This means that about 14% of all students meet the requirements for chronic absenteeism. Unless schools take steps to reduce these numbers, chronic absenteeism is expected to rise—especially among students in vulnerable communities.
What are a few common causes of absenteeism among students? Educational researchers pinpointed poverty as one of the biggest factors. Students from low socioeconomic status (SES) homes, particularly temporary shelters, are most likely to be chronically absent. In Michigan, for example, economically disadvantaged and homeless children made up about three-quarters of all students marked chronically absent.
Other factors that increase the risk for high absenteeism rates include:
- Students with disabilities or chronic illnesses 
- Children with anxiety disorders or whose parents have diagnosed mental illnesses [7,8]
- Minority communities who are at risk for discrimination 
- Students with low self-esteem 
- Children who meet the requirements for two or more risk factors 
Chronic absenteeism generally peaks at the beginning and end of a child’s academic career. Often a student’s absenteeism rates decline during upper elementary and middle school, then rise again as a child enters high school. This means that among elementary school students, kindergarteners are most at risk for chronic absenteeism. Frequent absences can reduce academic achievement as early as kindergarten, which means elementary teachers should make reducing absenteeism a priority.
What You Can Do to Reduce School Truancy
The connection between grades and attendance is highest when students attend class every day both early in the year and consistently. This means that if you prioritize attendance during the back to school season, you’re more likely to nip absenteeism in your school in the bud. Use these classroom management ideas to help students and their families understand the importance of regular attendance.
One of the best ways to reduce chronic absenteeism is through parent and community involvement. Collaborate with other faculty members and parents to make reducing absenteeism a priority. You could, for example, start an attendance reduction program in your school or make reducing absenteeism the topic of your next parent-teacher association meeting. Pay special attention to resolving barriers that under-resourced and marginalized communities might face to attending school every day.
Students and parents are also more likely to understand the importance of attendance if its a part of your classroom policy. Approximately 25% of potential school dropouts remain in class when attendance is mandatory. In your class syllabus or rules, explain why attendance is essential for school success and encourage parents to recognize and avoid enabling behavior that can lead to chronically absent students.
Additionally, monitor students who miss class frequently at the beginning of the year and reach out before it becomes a problem. For disabled or marginalized students, one way to do so is through a mentor. Find someone who understands or shares their circumstances and can motivate them to attend school instead of missing or coming late to class.
5 Tips for Keeping School Attendance Rates High
The connection between student engagement and learning is crystal clear. September is Attendance Awareness Month, so the back to school season is the ideal time to focus on preventing (or reducing) chronic absenteeism.
Use these 5 strategies to keep student engagement high and prevent habitual truancy:
- Prioritize attendance early in the year. The earlier you work to stop chronic absenteeism in your class, the less likely it is to become a problem
- Provide a clear message to parents that absenteeism is detrimental to their child’s academic success. Consider, for example, sending out a class newsletter on absenteeism or incentivizing good attendance.
- Try to find the root cause of a child’s frequent absences to better understand their needs and find a solution.
- Reach out to the families of children who are chronically absent. With positive communication, you can create a plan together for increasing their child’s attendance.
- Address issues that are risk factors for absenteeism, like finding resources for low SES families, equity for marginalized children, and mental or physical health accommodations for those with disabilities.
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