Addressing absenteeism requires a comprehensive approach that gets to the root cause of student absences

4 tips for addressing absenteeism in K-12 schools

Addressing absenteeism requires a comprehensive approach that gets to the root cause of student absences

Key points:

  • Absenteeism is a top predictor of academic success and can have serious consequences
  • Solutions to chronic absenteeism will require long-term, strategic investment of time and resources

Districts across the country are grappling with elevated levels of chronic absenteeism that have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. The Associated Press and Stanford University’s Big Local News Project found that there were approximately 230,000 students in 21 states whose absences could not be accounted for when looking at changes in enrollment between the 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years.

We also know a lot about the negative consequences of poor attendance: attendance is the number one predictor of academic achievement. Chronic absenteeism can have serious impacts on students, such as the inability to master basic grade-level skills, reduced access to food and counseling resources, and significantly higher rates of dropping out. Students who drop out of school have a far greater chance of entering the criminal justice system.

Addressing this issue will require a long-term, strategic investment of time and resources. It’s important for schools and districts to understand that much like the adage, “It takes 21 days to build a new habit and only seven days to break it,” a similar approach must be adopted to address absenteeism.

K-12 school administrators often need help as they track and improve student attendance. Based on experience working with districts, I would recommend these four tips for district leaders and educators who are working to address student absenteeism. 

  1. Use a systems approach to attendance management

Systemic problems require enterprise solutions and processes. Implement a continuous and consistent communication and intervention strategy that reinforces the importance of good attendance habits and changes behavior. Attendance management systems are designed to improve proficiency and productivity while providing school staff with a satisfying user experience. Proven attendance management systems provide automation to ensure parents are receiving interventions in a timely and consistent manner across all schools. This provides overburdened staff with the ability to spend valuable time with their students and families.  

  1. Inspect what you expect

If you can’t quantify it, you can’t do anything about it. Analyze attendance data regularly (we recommend quarterly) to recognize successes and make course corrections as necessary. Analysis should be comparative and include yearoveryear performance to goals looking at various student groups including gender, ethnicity, grade-level, English Language Learner status, and campus-to-campus analysis for starters. 

  1. Recognize that attendance is an equity lever

Improving attendance is a process, not an event. We cannot become equitable as long as interventions are limited to a reaction to an event. Many, if not most, districts allow schools to manage and define their attendance processes. As a result, they get inconsistent outcomes. Data from personnel-driven processes can be unreliable because everyone is doing something different. When systems are process driven instead of personnel dependent, the data is meaningful. Districts need systemic, bias-free processes in order to produce positive results.

  1. Focus on the positive

Many, if not most, school-to-home attendance communications are policy-driven, full of legalese and code citations, and punitive in tone. The purpose of communication should be to build trust and change behavior. Communications are an opportunity to inform and educate parents on the impact of not going to school. Students and parents alike respond to positive communication. Culturally responsive, positive messaging is a relationship builder and helps involve families in improving attendance.

Addressing absenteeism requires a comprehensive and proactive approach that supports educators’ ability to get to the root cause of student absences. By implementing a systems approach to attendance management, regularly analyzing attendance data, recognizing attendance as an equity lever, and focusing on positive communication, school districts can make significant strides in improving attendance rates and ultimately fostering academic success.

It is crucial for schools and districts to embrace these strategies and work collaboratively with all stakeholders to create an inclusive and supportive environment that values and prioritizes regular attendance. By doing so, we can ensure that every student has the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential.

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