Keeping students present: 4 ways to address absenteeism

April 13, 2022
An illustration depicting the outline of a child sitting in an otherwise vacant school desk.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, district-to-district measures of absenteeism were already inconsistent — and that situation has not improved over the past two years. Virtual learning and mandatory quarantines have introduced complicated new layers into the quantification of being in school.

What we know for certain is this: Absenteeism is on the rise.

According to Penn GSE’s Michael Gottfried, an associate professor whose long-standing research agenda focuses on absenteeism, having a grasp on this issue is huge — because research, including some of his own, shows absenteeism affects achievement, socioemotional development, and feelings of alienation. Being absent more makes a student more likely to engage in illicit activities like drug or alcohol use. Moreover, it affects the achievement and absenteeism rates of the students around them.

Thankfully, everybody can do something to help.  Gottfried shared four ways in which parents, teachers, and schools can help improve absenteeism rates:

Create and Maintain Routines: Research shows mornings tend to be a huge barrier to getting kids into school. Schools can confront and overcome this by creating and supporting routines that move kids in the right direction. This might look like serving breakfast in school, ensuring the district doesn’t cut school buses from the budget, or providing parents with the resources they need to ease into morning routines. Studies across multiple fields have found when routines get cloudy, anxiety goes up. When routines around school get cloudy, school becomes a place of anxiety. Create routines and reduce the anxiety.

Provide a More Welcoming Environment: Improving engagement and minimizing absenteeism in the classroom can sometimes be as simple as having teachers stand in the doorway as students enter and addressing them by name. Diversity in the teacher workforce is another important factor, as data shows how important it is for students when they share the same race as their teacher in the first school period of the day. These straightforward efforts can go a long way in improving engagement and absenteeism without revamping the curriculum.

Providing Academic Supports: When students miss school, they miss content. What’s important is to stay on top of academically remediating these students — even if they’ve only missed a day. While this unfortunately does require more time and resources of the teacher and school, it’s critical to ensuring a student does not fall behind. After-school education or teaching assistants could be deeply valuable to helping these students keep pace with the rest of their class.

Keep an Honest Emotional Dialogue: Students who miss or become disengaged with a significant amount of schooling can start to feel alienated and frustrated, and it can potentially lead to more conflict. Consider approaching these situations with the aid of emotional resources such as counselors — people who can provide behavioral support to these students before they begin to get caught in the spiral of feeling left out, missing school because of feeling left out, then feeling even more left out because they’ve missed more school.

In partnership with co-authors from Brown University, Gottfried has compiled an evidence brief providing strategies for combatting growing absenteeism numbers.
Read more about it here.

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