Home » Implementing Best Practices for Student Attendance

Student absenteeism is quickly becoming a major problem in America. More and more students are considered chronically absent today; in fact, the chronic absenteeism rate, undoubtedly spurred on by the pandemic, more than doubled between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years. What can be done to reverse this trend? We’ll take a deeper dive into student attendance and how Catapult Learning can help districts implement best practices designed to improve it.

Why school attendance is important?

Chronic school absenteeism is defined as students not being in school—whether excused or non-excused—at least 15 days (or 10% of school days) during the school year. Nearly 14.7 million students were considered chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year, up from 6.5 million chronically absent students during 2018-19, the last full school year before COVID-19. Even more alarming is that, during the 2021-22 school year, about two-thirds of all enrolled students (over 32 million) attended a school with high levels (20-29% of students chronically absent) or extreme levels (30% or above chronically absent) of chronic absence. This is a pattern that must be addressed.

Why? Because students who attend school regularly have been shown to achieve at higher levels than students who do not regularly attend school. A 2007 study of young children found that absenteeism in kindergarten was associated with negative first-grade outcomes such as greater absenteeism in subsequent years and lower achievement in reading, math, and general knowledge.1

Chronic absences also lead to ominous student outcomes down the road. High levels of absenteeism throughout childhood is a common trait among high school dropouts.2 Students who ultimately dropped out of high school missed significantly more days of school in first grade than their peers who graduated from high school. In fact, students who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by third grade—and that makes them four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers. By ninth grade, attendance was shown to be a key indicator significantly correlated with high school graduation.3

While graduation rates are obviously important, the effects of poor school attendance are more far-reaching. The penalties for absences—such as detention, suspension, and loss of course credits—as well as the absences themselves result in students missing out on the opportunity to receive an education. And that can result in serious consequences during adulthood, including poverty and even criminal behavior.

The Reasons for High Absenteeism Rates in School

Many factors play a role in school absenteeism:

  • Student health issues
  • Poverty
  • Family illnesses and death
  • Neighborhood violence
  • Mental and/or emotional health challenges
  • Bullying in school
  • Difficult family environments
  • Poor academic performance
  • Overall apathy toward school
  • Substance abuse
  • Criminal activity
  • Teenage pregnancy

If students are experiencing even one of these situations, the likelihood of them caring about or attending school decreases. If students are dealing with more than one of these scenarios, going to school is likely the last thing on their minds. Unfortunately, many of the students who do experience these issues fall into categories that further increase the likelihood of chronic absenteeism.

The Populations at Higher Risk for School Absenteeism

Chronic absenteeism and poor school attendance continue to be prevalent among Latino, Black, and low-income students. In Chicago, a city with a high population of minorities and low-income families, 45% of all Chicago Public Schools students were chronically absent in 2022. For populations already suffering from low school engagement, these statistics represent the difficult challenge ahead for educators trying to reduce absenteeism rates.

The Academic and Social Impacts of Poor School Attendance

As we mentioned, chronic absenteeism impacts students academically because they are not getting the education they need for future success. Aside from the negative impact on grades and test scores, we now know that absenteeism is often considered a precursor to dropping out of high school. But the consequences of poor school attendance go way beyond academics. It starts to impact lives in a far more devastating manner.

A 2016 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded that “people who are better educated are more likely to live longer, healthier lives.” Further, the study stated that college graduates are likely to live an average of approximately nine years longer than someone who dropped out of high school. The study also suggested that adults with less education are more prone to unhealthy habits (like smoking), obesity, and diabetes—all of which may contribute to premature deaths. Plus, people with more education are more likely to have jobs with better working conditions, better health insurance, and higher pay.

The students who are impacted most here are obviously the highest priority. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the impact that absenteeism has on school communities—and the greater community. PowerSchool correlated student enrollment with district funding. When students drop out, districts lose money, and that leads to a whole new set of problems: Fewer resources to support students, less money to hire and properly train school staff, and no budget for building repairs and updates. Eventually, this can lead to schools in a state of disrepair and, finally, school closures. And when neighborhood schools close…

Consider that in early 2022, nearly a dozen schools in Oakland, CA, closed or merged due to declining enrollment and lack of finances. This doesn’t just impact students who attended those schools. A study by Stanford University revealed that closing a school changes the entire landscape of a community, which ultimately plays a large role in the disintegration of Black neighborhoods across the country. In essence, the study found that school closures increase the likelihood of gentrification in primarily Black neighborhoods. So, chronic school absenteeism has consequential, far-reaching effects on both students and the surrounding school community.

What Can Teachers Do to Improve Attendance?

Teachers already face plenty of stress, so it’s unfair to place the burden of improving attendance on their shoulders. However, teachers can make a true impact—especially on young students—when it comes to setting the tone for attendance. Here are a few ways they can do so:

  • Establish an inclusive and welcoming school environment. It’s amazing how far a simple gesture goes with students. A brief greeting as they enter the classroom fosters a sense of togetherness and belonging, which is important when it comes to attendance. A handshake, a fist bump, a high-five, or a verbal greeting make students feel welcomed and can promote better classroom habits. During class, teachers can dedicate some time for class discussion so that everyone is involved and feels that their voice is heard. For students who are already considered chronically absent, efforts to mitigate the frequency of absences may include mentorship from older or former students at the school, staff, or even volunteers from the community.
  • Communicate regularly with students and their families. Parents don’t often keep track of how many school days their child has missed—and that number can grow quite fast. If parents are more aware of their child’s attendance record, they may be more compelled to step in and address it. Teachers can aid in this effort by communicating attendance numbers to parents during parent-teacher conferences, working with school administrators to have texts and letters sent to parents alerting them of absences, and—in some cases—even visiting a student and family at home for a more personal conversation about the child’s attendance.
  • Incentivize attendance within the classroom. Kids are often motivated by positive reinforcement and competition, so there’s nothing wrong with creating an incentive-based system to help improve attendance. What that looks like is up to the teacher, but offering small rewards for a certain number of consecutive days in school can motivate kids to show up, which is a critical first step.
  • Identify the barriers students are facing. Teachers are superheroes, but they can’t fix everything. Some situations are beyond a teacher’s reach to solve—but if they notice a barrier they are unable to address themselves, such as lack of transportation, difficulties at home, etc.—they can certainly bring light to the challenges and work to set them up with necessary resources to help improve the situation.

While administrators clearly play a major role in reducing school attendance issues, teachers can truly make a difference through classroom engagement.

Best Practices for Reducing School Absences

To complement the teachers’ classroom efforts toward engaging students and creating a warm, welcoming environment, districts can look to implement a variety of best practices to help reduce chronic absenteeism.

  1. Ensure that all students have safe and reliable transportation to school every day.
  2. Communicate accurate information to parents about their child’s absences in a timely manner.
  3. Commit to using curriculum and lessons that connect with students and their experiences.
  4. Emphasize the importance of physical and mental health and their connection to school attendance.
  5. Build strong relationships with families (through consistent emails, text messages, and/or phone calls, as well as an occasional home visit) to better understand the reason behind their child’s chronic absences.
  6. Implement a system that tracks student academic, attendance, and behavior data to identify at-risk students who require more support.
  7. Create a school-wide mentorship program.
  8. Substitute punishments such as expulsion or suspension with alternative measures such as counseling and coaching.

How Catapult Learning Can Help

Catapult Learning’s professional development offerings can help in every aspect and effort to improve student attendance. We offer informative courses and workshops that focus on promoting favorable learning environments, inclusive and equitable practices, and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)—all critical components of any plan to address chronic absenteeism. Our job-embedded coaching effectively complements these courses by reinforcing learning in real time.

Our Family Connections program helps bridge the gap between your schools, the community, and your students’ families. Through Family Connections, your educators can work to strengthen a family’s ability to support the academic and non-academic needs of children while learning ways to effectively engage with families. We also help students and their families through a variety of referral and support services, including:

  • Parent workshops and meetings
  • Help applying to food assistance programs
  • Referrals to drug and alcohol rehabilitation services
  • Referrals to legal assistance
  • Referrals to immigration and residency support

Learn more by visiting https://catapultlearning.com/programs/family-support-services/.