Addressing the root causes of chronic K-12 absenteeism

Key points:

More children than ever are skipping school. The latest data shows that the number of public school students who miss at least 10 percent of their school days–whether excused or unexcused–has nearly doubled.

The White House Council of Economic Advisors found that chronic absenteeism significantly contributed to drops in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, accounting for 16 to 27 percent of NAEP score declines in math and 36–45 percent in reading.  

Lower test scores only illuminate some of the problems caused by chronic absenteeism. Students who miss school also miss important social interaction with their peers, access to regular meals and special services such as speech therapy or counseling. These students are also more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to pursue postsecondary education, further impacting their future and societal growth as a whole. Below are the key elements that have to be addressed before we can reduce chronic absenteeism with our students.

Why are students skipping school?

Before anything else happens, we must recognize that our students miss school for a variety of reasons, ranging from bullying, to a lack of established relationships and engaging curriculum, to feeling unsafe physically or emotionally. Other barriers such as housing insecurity, unreliable transportation, and health concerns also factor into chronic absenteeism.

We know that it’s not enough to take attendance and focus on the students chalking up consecutive absences; district leaders must invest in robust data systems to truly understand absenteeism risks and patterns.

The Education Trust recommends that districts:

  • Determine whether many students are missing a few days or if a small segment is responsible for excessive absences.
  • Disaggregate data to determine if specific demographic groups are experiencing higher levels of chronic absenteeism (for example, by race, ethnicity, gender, disability status, or free- or reduced-price lunch status.)
  • Begin tracking chronic absence data early, no later than kindergarten.

Digging deeper into the data

We know that raw data from attendance monitoring systems only uncover part of the story, requiring schools and our teachers to proactively dig deeper. With limited time in the day and more priorities stacking up on educators’ plates, using universal screeners and other regular wellness assessments, can provide a bigger picture into the school climate and identify issues that trigger absences individually and schoolwide, then intervene before they occur.

According to the School Mental Health Collaborative, universal social, emotional and behavioral (SEB) screening tools are a foundational component of a comprehensive, multi-tiered system of school-based supports (MTSS). By using these tools, schools can uncover individual and system-wide reasons for chronic absenteeism by:

  • Engaging in Tier I universal prevention monitoring, such as school needs and readiness assessments, climate surveys, student assessments, and staff and caregiver training, all of which can help uncover reasons behind chronic absenteeism.
  • Investing in prevention activities and then using that data to direct resources toward targeted interventions that can reduce absenteeism.

Ensuring all students reach their full potential

Improving student attendance requires meeting the needs of the whole child. This includes supporting students’ social-emotional needs, mental health, and physical well-being–long before you see chronic absences. However, we must also create the policies and have tools available to support identified students and their challenges. This includes establishing a strong referral and intervention process for chronically absent students who will need Tier 2 services such as individual or group counseling, community-based referrals and progress monitoring.

Providing Tier 2 support when you’re already struggling with staffing shortages can feel daunting. By partnering with a full-service MTSS provider, educators can offer comprehensive solutions to chronically absent students. Providers that offer assessments, interventions and counseling across MTSS help you better identify and support at-risk students–ensuring they reach their full potential.

Chronic absenteeism will not dissolve over night; we must continue to support our students and educators with all of the tools and resources we have available to ensure they have the access, support and education every child deserves.

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