It’s widely recognized that students are more likely to show up to school when they feel safe, connected and supported, but how can educators make those conditions a reality?
A variety of resources and strategies available to assist local educational agencies in their attempts to curb chronic absenteeism were discussed during the Aug. 9 webinar, “A Healthy Return to School: Ensuring Showing Up,” hosted by Attendance Works and the Institute for Educational Leadership.
Just ahead of Attendance Awareness Month in September, presenters detailed the attendance crisis plaguing K-12 classrooms across America. Prior to the pandemic, roughly one out of every six students was considered chronically absent — having missed 10 percent or more of school days regardless of whether the absence was excused, unexcused or due to a suspension. At the conclusion of the 2021–22 academic year, more than one in four students was affected in multiple states with low-income, Native American, Black and Pacific Islander students disproportionately impacted.
In California, the rate of chronic absence rose across grades between 2018–19 and 2021–22 with kindergarteners showing the largest increase — from 15.6 to 40.4 percent — followed by students in grades 1-3, who went from 9.5 percent to 31 percent. African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic/ Latino and Pacific Islander students were the most impacted racial and ethnic groups.
Ditching punitive approaches
Attendance Works Executive Director Hedy Chang said that a change in mindset is necessary to reduce chronic absenteeism. Instead of associating chronic absence with truancy — which considers only unexcused absences, emphasizes compliance with school rules and typically offers punitive solutions — LEAs should weigh the significance of all absences (excused, unexcused and suspensions), emphasize the impacts of missing days and highlight the benefits of being present, offer preventive, problem-solving and trauma-sensitive strategies and cultivate family and student engagement.
Education leaders should also consider how absences are labeled (excused versus unexcused) and the implications of denying students credit for homework, the ability to take makeup exams, denial of participation in extracurriculars and even legal action against families when absences are marked unexcused.
Chang explained that instead of taking a punitive approach, schools need to address the underlying issues causing missed class time and understand that high levels of chronic absence likely also reflect an absence of positive learning conditions. Relationships are essential to offering positive conditions for learning, Chang added. That goes hand in hand with creating an environment that addresses students’ physical and emotional health and safety needs; fosters belong, connection and support; is academically challenging and engaging; and incorporates adult and student well-being and emotional competence.
Utilizing a multi-tiered approach that works across silos can help with this.
Additionally, LEAs should tailor their approaches to addressing the underlying challenges’ root causes, including barriers like family responsibilities or transportation issues, aversions like anxiety, disengagement due to boredom, or lack of meaningful relationships and misconceptions like assuming a student should stay home for any symptom of an illness.
They can also tap into the expertise of students and families on school climate and absenteeism through qualitative data collection methods such as empathy interviews, focus groups and surveys.
LEAs can also convene a team to conduct this work; review data and identify priority groups; craft engagement strategies and develop a plan; and provide a period of reflection, learning and improvement.
During the event, Attendance Works Senior Fellow Dr. Elliott S. Attisha provided key tips for keeping students healthy and in school across the areas of nutrition, sleep and exercise; hygiene; safety; wellness; and engagement.
Practices like maintaining routines and exercise, washing hands and covering coughs and sneezes, promoting regular visits to providers to maintain physical and dental health (and connecting families with local resources if they do not have insurance) as well as taking actions to make sure children have all recommended immunizations and annual health forms are completed all help. Offering resources to students experiencing anxiety and keeping families informed about their child’s attendance and academic progress were among other recommendations.
“In summary, healthy students are more likely to attend school, they’re better able to stay focused and engaged, they’re more likely to be ready to learn. Healthy learners are healthy students,” Attisha said, noting that having consistent, coordinated, comprehensive and culturally effective messaging is important too.
The event was the third in the four-part 2023 Attendance Awareness Campaign series. The fourth installment, “Bright Spots: Sustain Engagement and Attendance,” is scheduled for Sept. 27. Registration information as well as recordings and slides from past sessions, which covered fostering belonging and engagement and building relationships year-round, are available here.
Other resources from Attendance Works include:
- Health handouts for families
- Handouts for families by grade level
- Attendance year-long planning tools
- Showing up matters communications toolkit
- Qualitative data tools
- Self-assessment tools
Read “Connecting to curb chronic absenteeism” from the fall edition of California Schools.