Breaking Down Barriers to Student Attendance

Topics: Student Engagement

Student attendance is foundational to academic success and opportunity. Yet chronic absence—missing 10 percent or more of school days a year—remains a widespread issue that continues to rise since the COVID pandemic upended school communities in early 2020.

The Causes of Chronic Absence

Chronic absence stems from diverse root causes that must be understood in context. NAESP is a national partner of Attendance Works, which aims to shed light on chronic absenteeism and provide resources and support to school leaders to help boost attendance.

According to Attendance Works research, major drivers of chronic absenteeism include:

  • Barriers like illness, family or home challenges, trauma, lack of transportation, housing issues, inequitable access to services, and more. These obstacles physically prevent students from getting to school.
  • Aversion to school climate, academics, relationships, disciplinary practices, and other factors that psychologically discourage attendance.
  • Disengagement when instruction seems irrelevant, relationships are poor, or students lack enrichment opportunities at school.
  • Misconceptions about the impact of absence and when and why attendance matters.

Appreciating this nuance is key to addressing chronic absence effectively. One-size-fits-all solutions often fail because they don’t confront the true sources of the problem.

School Leader Insights on Absenteeism

We recently reached out to NAESP members—principals and assistant principals from across the country representing elementary and middle-level schools—to learn what they’re seeing in their schools related to attendance and how they’re working toward overcoming barriers.

  • The Data Lag: Student attendance data can often be delayed, taking up to weeks or months to reflect reality. This lag makes it hard for schools to address issues in a timely manner. To improve, schools need to implement processes to access and respond to attendance data faster.
  • Family Engagement: Many schools actively inform and educate parents on the harms of chronic absenteeism. This includes warning notices when absence thresholds are crossed and meetings with principals. Personal outreach stresses how missing school equates to missing foundational learning.
  • Truancy and Tardiness: Schools aim to change cultural mindsets that tolerate truancy and tardiness. For example, some states don’t penalize tardiness the same as absences. Schools try to uncover root causes through counseling rather than perfect attendance awards.
  • Teacher Absenteeism: Teacher absenteeism can normalize student absenteeism. Students question why attendance matters if teachers aren’t present. Addressing this “Do as I do, not as I say” issue is important.
  • Individualized Approaches: Schools implement personalized interventions like attendance buddies. The goal is to show students they are cared for and that their presence matters. Mental health days also provide needed flexibility.
  • Logistical Challenges: School start and end time differences pose logistical challenges for parents. This can unintentionally contribute to tardiness or absences. Schools should strive for consistency to support families.

Absence Compounds Inequity

The impacts of chronic absence are profound, especially for disadvantaged students. Absence in early grades hinders foundational skill development, setting students back academically. By high school, chronic absence is linked to lower grades, course failure, and higher dropout rates.

In effect, absence compounds inequity. Students who already face adversity or lack resources to enable them to make up for lost time suffer the most. The result is a widening of achievement gaps and diminished opportunity—a loss for both individuals and society.

Potential Solutions: A Proactive Approach

In addition to the insights mentioned above, Attendance Works offers proactive strategies schools can use to tackle chronic absenteeism through a supportive approach focused on student needs.

Key strategies include:

  • Engaging families and communities as partners in removing attendance barriers. This builds trust and surfaces creative solutions.
  • Using data proactively to identify absent students early and connect them to resources. Waiting for absence to become chronic is reactive and less effective.
  • Promoting a positive school climate and sense of belonging among students. Relationships and relevance are crucial for engagement.
  • Accommodating health and disability needs to ensure students receive equitable access to learning. Inflexible policies that simply punish absence are counterproductive.
  • Providing mental health support and services. Anxiety, depression, trauma, and other conditions often underlie attendance challenges.

While complex, addressing chronic absence in this manner can redirect students toward opportunity and success. But it requires education leaders to reflect deeply on how policies, systems, and school climate might be transformed to meet all students where they are. This moment calls for that courageous reflection. With diligence and creativity, schools can ensure students attend and receive the education they deserve.

Krysia Gabenski is editorial director at NAESP.