Addressing Chronic Absenteeism Requires An “All Hands On Deck” Approach
Positive, proactive communication with families can help educators address the root causes of chronic absenteeism.
By Erica Peterson, Director of Education and Engagement for School Innovations & Achievement, a division of SchoolStatus
Chronic absenteeism has been an ongoing issue for K-12 districts, and pandemic learning disruptions have only heightened the challenge. Educators are looking for ways to promote consistent attendance and meaningful engagement. Most schools reopened for the 2021-22 school year, but millions of students were still missing class. A recent California study of 320,000 students across 29 districts found that close to a third of public school students were chronically absent during the 2022/2023 school year. Collectively that equates to nearly 19 million hours of valuable learning time. This academic year, districts are taking an “all hands on deck” approach to improving attendance—and are making noteworthy strides. We consistently find that strategies focused on positive, proactive communication between school and home improve student outcomes.
The positive impacts of increasing learning time extend beyond school doors. Regular attendance is directly tied to students' long-term opportunities, likelihood of graduating, increased earning potential, and overall quality of life.
In addition to vital academic instruction, improved attendance creates more interactions with teachers and peers. Building friendships, collaborating on projects, and developing essential social skills improve students' self-esteem. Positive interactions and strong school communities help students stay on track academically and create a positive cycle of attendance, performance, and self-confidence.
The causes of student absenteeism can be complex. The reasons behind patterns of absenteeism can stem from a variety of factors, such as health issues, transportation constraints, and other family circumstances that students aren’t comfortable discussing. To truly combat absenteeism, schools need to acknowledge the unique circumstances of each student's life and create an environment of empathy, support, and personalized intervention.
Educators and school leaders have a lot on their plates and limited resources. Often, the main communication between schools and families happens when a student is already struggling. This reactive, often punitive approach is understandable but far from ideal. Shifting the focus to supportive and encouraging messages before disciplinary measures are needed consistently improves attendance by cultivating a culture of academic success.
Five Key Ways to Improve Attendance Habits This School Year
I’ve collaborated with hundreds of districts across the country to address this growing issue and have seen the following strategies make a significant difference in getting students back into classrooms.
Schools and districts see significant improvement when they foster a positive school culture, educate families about the importance of attendance, build strong relationships between school and home, use data to identify trends, and tailor interventions to the unique needs of each student.
Here are five key strategies that reliably improve attendance:
Focus on Prevention: Establishing good attendance habits starts as early as kindergarten when young students are learning critical foundational skills. In fact, students who are chronically absent in kindergarten are less likely to read by 3rd grade. That’s why consistent and proactive communication that educates families about the positive impact of regular attendance is a key step in establishing long-term attendance habits. Involving families in students' academic journeys early paves the way for educational success.
Build a Supportive Culture at School: One of the most important things that a school can do to help encourage student attendance is to create a supportive and inclusive environment that values each student's presence in the classroom. Communicating that every student matters and celebrating attendance milestones can transform a student's perspective on attendance from a chore to a personal achievement. Encouraging students to support one another in attending school can create a sense of responsibility within the student community. This further encourages attendance and helps students build strong habits that impact their long-term success.
Shift the Paradigm on Student Absenteeism from Punitive to Positive: When a student is chronically absent, school communications are often focused on punitive action or negative consequences for this behavior. This traditionally reactive messaging, which usually informs the family of the absences and resulting consequences, does not significantly change attendance behaviors. Sending supportive and educational communication before there is a problem is proven to be more effective. Being empathetic listeners is another important factor. When students feel heard, understood, and valued, they are more likely to be engaged in class and the broader school community, which encourages good attendance habits.
Use Two-Way School-Home Communication to Get to the Root Causes of Absences: A one-size-fits-all approach to improving attendance doesn’t work. There are many different factors that may impact a student’s attendance. We don’t know what is going on at home unless we ask. Reaching out directly to an absent student’s family opens the door to better understanding their needs and finding a collaborative approach to supporting their child. This outreach is most beneficial when it builds trust before absences become chronic and is easy for students and families to receive and understand. The most effective way to involve a family in their student’s academic journey is to communicate in the language they speak at home on a platform they can easily access, like email, text, or phone calls. When educators can get to the root cause of absences, they can work with families to find solutions, including sharing school or community resources that support their needs.
Leverage Data Insights to Spot Issues Early: Last but not least, managing student attendance in a centralized system that educators and administrators can easily access to identify irregular attendance habits before students become chronically absent is foundational. Attendance tracking systems that provide accurate, real-time analytics help identify trends and highlight potential red flags so educators know when to reach out. Automated attendance tracking and streamlined reporting eases the burden on administrators, so they can focus more on strategic decision-making and student support.
District Success Stories
While student absenteeism remains a complex issue, school districts implementing these strategies are demonstrating great progress in improving school attendance and engagement.
Sanger Unified School District, in Fresno County, California, recently took on the challenge of improving attendance for the 13,000 students in its district. In February 2022, the district experienced a 31% rate of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as a student missing 10% or more of the school year. Through implementing a multi-tiered program that included early identification and outreach and positive school communication with families, Sanger achieved a major improvement in absenteeism rates. The rate of chronic absenteeism districtwide decreased from 31% to 17% in the following school year.
Another recent success story is Prince William County in Virginia. In the second quarter of the 2022-2023 school year, the district reported that 29% of county students missed five or more days, and 23.5% of those students missed 10 or more days, making them “chronically absent.” This was a significant jump from the previous year. The district took action by implementing a new program in 54 of its nearly 100 schools, focusing on schools with the highest absences. The program introduced multimedia attendance communication campaigns and prioritized follow-up with families. As a result, attendance stabilized during the third quarter, increasing to 93% overall, with only 20% of students missing five or more days.
Implementing a positive communication approach to tackle K-12 student absenteeism can be a transformative step toward nurturing academic success. By fostering a culture of empathy, recognition, and proactive communication, educators can reshape the way students perceive the importance of school attendance. When educators empower students to take ownership of their learning, they can thrive in the classroom and beyond.
About the Author
Erica Peterson is the Director of Education and Engagement for SchoolStatus, a leading provider of K-12 solutions that support integrated communications, attendance management, and teacher effectiveness. Erica began working with California school districts through School Innovations & Achievement (SI&A), almost 20 years ago. Now that SI&A is part of SchoolStatus, she is able to partner with districts across the country to address absenteeism and improve attendance habits. In 2023, she co-authored, “Chronic Absence Patterns Across California Schools,” a report that examined attendance patterns for nearly 320,000 PK-12 students across California.