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How to Address Chronic Absenteeism in K12 Schools
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How to Address Chronic Absenteeism in K12 Schools

One of the biggest challenges educators are facing today is absenteeism. While children are in the classroom, even the most mischievous are learning something. They are also benefiting from social exposure, exercise, and potentially school meals. For children who are in abusive households, school time is the time that they are spending in a safe environment with exposure to adults who have their well-being in mind.

The Impact of Absenteeism on Learning

According to the Department of Education, children who are chronically absent, which is defined as missing 15 or more days in a single school year, are at great risk of falling behind at school. More than 7 million students were classed as chronically absent in the 2015 – 16 school year. That equates to 16% of the student population. Some organizations define chronic absenteeism as missing more than 10 percent of the school year, rather than 15 days per year. Whichever criteria is used, it is generally agreed that absentee students perform more poorly at school and that absenteeism can be a predictor of greater health risks as an adult.

Reducing Absenteeism in K-12 Classrooms

A study conducted by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium found that students who miss more than five days of school in the first month are more likely to go on to be chronically absent than those who have good attendance during the first part of the year. Given this, it is clear that early intervention is key to promoting consistent attendance among K-12 students. Research-based interventions and a consistent and open dialog between educators, children, and their parents can help to reduce absenteeism. Interventions could include:

1) Use Mentors to Promote Good Attendance

Mentoring is something that can be used to good effect, especially if the relationship between the mentor and mentee is one that is forged early. New York City placed ‘Success Mentors’ in 100 schools with the goal of connecting with families that had children who already were, or were at risk of, being chronic absentees. The mentors took a light-touch approach, greeting children when they arrived at school, getting in touch with families if children were off sick, and signposting families that were experiencing difficulties to support that would help to overcome barriers to attendance. The program was a success, with students who had been assigned mentors gaining an average of nine school days attendance per year compared to absentee children who had not been assigned a mentor.

2) Promote an Attendance Culture When Connecting With Guardians

In many cases, especially with younger children, issues surrounding attendance do not start with the child, but rather the parents/legal guardians. Younger children cannot travel to school themselves and may face other barriers to attendance such as lack of clothing or equipment. Children who are victims of abuse, or who are at risk of abuse, might be kept from school through no fault of their own. Connecting with the child’s guardians and emphasizing the importance of schooling may help to reduce absenteeism among well-meaning but struggling family members, and could help children who are at-risk by providing more contact-points for safeguarding.

3) Manage Behavior Effectively

Creating a positive classroom environment is important in order to make children feel safe and comfortable at school. Chronic absenteeism can often be a symptom of bullying, especially in the case of younger children who may suddenly suffer from “a tummy ache” when it is time for school. In the last few years, the rise of cyberbullying has turned schools into a never-ending battlefield even for older children, who cannot leave playground disagreements behind, since the arguments can now follow them home via Snapchat, Instagram, or other social media platforms. Researchers at the University of San Francisco investigated the link between cyberbullying and absenteeism.

Managing student behavior effectively and discouraging bullying in all forms may help to reduce absenteeism. This is an area where school counselors, psychologists, and education directors can come together to create behavior management plans and to improve the classroom culture. Webinars and resources published by Insights to Behavior can arm the school staff with useful tools to improve the way that they manage students.

4) Address the Underlying Factors, When Possible

Absenteeism is a complex issue. In 2018, the Economic Policy Institute published a detailed report into student absenteeism, which examined the issue of which demographics were missing school, and how often. The report looked into absenteeism by age group, gender, ethnicity, bullying, and a number of other factors and showed some clear trends in terms of which students were most likely to be at risk of missing school. Educators should use these reports carefully. The data should not be used to stereotype students, but rather to identify those who may be in need of additional support and early intervention in order to help them achieve a consistent attendance record.

Note that many families may be reluctant to discuss the reason behind poor attendance. Educators should be mindful of this and approach families in a sensitive and compassionate manner, without judgment.

5) Use a Multi-Tiered System of Supports

There’s an old saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”, and that saying remains true even today. In many parts of the country, today children are more isolated than their grandparents may have been. They spend more time with their parents and siblings and see less of their extended families. Those who grow up in apartment blocks may find that they spend less time playing with other children and that they do not interact with their neighbors much. The nature of the “village” has changed and the mentors and role models that children have are either celebrities or teachers.

To break the pattern of absenteeism, psychologists, special education directors, counselors, individual teachers, teaching assistants, and behavior interventionists all need to get involved. The school must support the children directly and work with the guardians too. That may include sending work home for children who have extended health-related absences from school, making sure that families in financial difficulty get support with uniform requirements or school meals, and offering additional aid in the classroom for children who have been off school and have fallen behind. If a child feels that they are unable to keep up in the classroom, then they may come to dread school and not want to go. This could increase the risk of absenteeism, leaving the child even more behind. Especially in the earlier years, absences can add up to huge disparities in terms of reading scores. A multi-tiered system of education, recognition of positive behavior, early intervention, and ongoing monitoring is crucial for improving attendance.

6) Reward Positive Behavior

Even as recently as a few decades ago, educators would focus on punishing bad behavior, but would treat a formerly misbehaving child who is no longer misbehaving as if they were simply doing the bare minimum. In the worst cases, good behavior may be met with sarcastic comments. Take the example of a child who was considering not attending classes that day, but who decided to show up, and was late. A teacher might say “So good of you to join us today” in a sarcastic tone, in front of other children. Or, a child who shows up on time but struggles with the material may be met with comments about how simply showing up is “not enough”.

This kind of behavior from teachers was considered fairly normal a few decades ago as “tough love”, but it is not something that all children respond to. Lori Kay Baranek of Grand Valley State University published a study on The Effect of Rewards and Motivation on Student Achievement which showed that positive reinforcement combined with effective teaching techniques that put the emphasis on intrinsic motivation can help to promote lasting changes in behavior. Praising children for trying their best is an important motivational tool for all aspects of education, including attendance.

7) Use Real-Time Attendance Tracking

Taking early action is essential in order to turn around the attendance patterns. Making use of electronic registers, regular reporting, and communication between individual teachers, as well as between the school and the student’s families can help reduce the risk of an individual student falling into the pattern of absenteeism. Tools such as light-touch mentoring are a good starting point and one that would cost the school less, in the long term, than having to work intensively with a child that has fallen behind.

Documenting Your Intervention Plans

Whatever steps you choose to take, documenting your intervention plan is important so that you can show that your team made a good-faith effort to work with the student and their guardians, in order to manage the issues at hand.

If you are a special education director, a school psychologist, or a teacher and you are looking for support in developing an intervention plan for one of your students, take a look at the Insights to Behavior software for educational institutions. This software helps education specialists create legally defensible behavioral intervention plans quickly and easily and can be used to create plans for students who are struggling with in-classroom behavior, truancy, and other issues. Documenting your plans allows you to demonstrate that you took steps to protect your students, and intervention software reduces the workload for educators and behavior specialists alike.

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