Chronic Absence: Busting Myths and Helping Educators Develop More Effective Responses

Mara Schanfield
Hedy Chang, Attendance Works

Image of man and school-aged boy on a bench

It’s not surprising that students who miss school tend to have poorer academic outcomes than students with better attendance.

Chronic absence, an early warning sign of disengagement, can put students at academic risk. The simple act of not attending school consistently increases the likelihood that children will be unable to read well by grade 3, fail classes in middle school, and drop out of high school. Chronic absence in high school correlates with a lower likelihood of on-time graduation and a higher likelihood of students repeating grade 9, a critical year for student success in secondary education. Student achievement suffers, too: For every day missed of school, there’s a virtually one-point decline on standardized test scores.

3 Myths of Chronic Absence—And How Educators Can Counteract Them

What is Chronic Absence?

Chronic absence is a measure of the total instructional time missed by a student and is defined as individual students missing at least 10 percent of school for any reason. If students miss one day every other week, that’s 18 absences annually, or 10 percent of the year.

According to the non-profit Attendance Works, 15 percent of U.S. students are chronically absent. This problem is both widespread and highly concentrated: at one of every four schools, more than 20 percent of students were chronically absent in the 2015-2016 school year.

Standing in the way of truly addressing chronic absence are three harmful myths. These myths can be counteracted by using evidence-based approaches grounded in the seminal body of knowledge known as the conditions for learning. A safe, supportive and engaging environment for learning buffers against widespread chronic absence, and educators must examine these conditions to appropriately address this issue.

Myth 1: Invoking legal consequences is an effective response to poor attendance.

Counter Action: Refrain from relying on punitive policies that create additional obstacles to attendance.

To address absences, educators typically take a series of actions dictated by the school district—for example, a call home, then a letter sent to the student’s home, and then a court filing for truancy if the student is under a certain age (varies by state). While it is important for schools to follow district policy, many such policies fall short of addressing the underlying causes of chronic absence. What’s worse is that some policies create additional barriers to attendance. For example, a school policy that results in suspension after a certain number of tardies ultimately punishes students who are already missing instruction by denying them access to school.

Attendance Works urges educators to see chronic absence as “a problem to be solved, not a behavior to be punished.” Educators can get a better sense of how conditions for learning in their environments affect chronic absence and what opportunities they have to address the issue by collecting data using a school climate survey. Strengthening the conditions for learning ultimately narrows just how many students will face the challenges associated with chronic absence.

Myth 2: Attendance is simply a reflection of how much students and families value education.

Counter Action: Get to know your students and their families better.

A number of factors affect attendance, regardless of students’ desire to be in school. For instance, a student may be unable to attend school due to chronic health issues, limited access to transportation, or neighborhood factors that could pose dangers to students traveling to school.

Rather than blaming a student or his or her family for poor attendance, educators can work to understand their students and families better. Instead of asking students, "What's wrong with you?" educators could ask, “What is happening [in and out of school] that affects your attendance?” Doing this every time a student misses school can help educators better understand what factors contribute to chronic absence—while also showing students that educators care about them.

A study by the Ad Council found 72 percent of parents reported they trust teachers most to talk with them about their child’s attendance. However, only 42 percent of parents reported someone from their child’s school had contacted them personally about attendance in the past six months. The study also found that the most effective messaging to parents highlights the consequences of absences, such as negative effects on achievement.

In cases where families hold misconceptions about the importance of attendance, educators can best address this by establishing strong relationship with students and their families, starting with a phone call or other personal interaction.

Infographic: Four Factors in a School's Environment that Affect Students

Myth 3: Improving student attendance is beyond educators’ sphere of influence.

Counter Action: Provide support when possible and counterbalance external factors by creating a supportive school environment.

Conditions for Learning

Extensive research by AIR’s David Osher and Kim Kendziora explored how the school environment affects students’ engagement, motivation, and success.

According to this body of work, four conditions in a school’s environment affect students: a safe and respectful climate, connectedness and support, challenge and engagement, and peer and adult social emotional competency.

The conditions for learning have helped researchers and educators measure, monitor, and intervene to improve concrete aspects of school culture and climate with lasting effects.

Educators do not have control over a number of external factors that affect student attendance. Some remedies to chronic absence may require a web of human resources, including pediatricians, mental health providers, schools, and public health partners. However, educators can still work to remove obstacles to attendance, such as helping a student who has moved obtain a bus pass, adjusting a course schedule for a student who works an early morning shift, or activating social services to provide temporary relief for homelessness. A cautionary note: While it might be tempting to address individual barriers for each and every student, this approach can quickly overwhelm a school’s human and material resources, so it is wise to intervene strategically (i.e., for groups of students) and early (i.e., at the first sign of disengagement or a few absences).

Ultimately, educators must recognize that external factors are not the only deterrents to attendance. Educators’ role is to address what sits squarely in their control: the conditions for learning. A supportive, culturally responsive school environment is one that fosters strong relationships and draws students into school. Strong conditions for learning can buffer against external factors that affect chronic absence, while weak conditions can heighten chronic absence. All four conditions are critical to improving student outcomes, especially for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

An Investment in Conditions for Learning Can Help Reduce Chronic Absence

High rates of chronic absence signal a need for educators to invest in strengthening the conditions for learning. Research shows that there is less widespread chronic absence at schools where educators create and maintain a safe, supportive, culturally responsive, and engaging environment for learning, as well as connect students and families to needed resources. The challenge for educators is to better understand the factors that lead to chronic absence and take steps to address what is within their control. That said, educators’ sphere of influence is larger than they might believe, and in fact, they can make a positive difference—starting by creating positive conditions for learning.

About AIR and Attendance Works

AIR and Attendance Works have collaborated on projects connecting chronic absence and the conditions for learning, such as virtual sessions for teams in Ohio implementing Early Warning Systems, and for state agency and district staff in Minnesota working with the School Safety Technical Assistance Center. Attendance Works’ Director Hedy Chang and AIR experts David Osher and Mara Schanfield co-authored a chapter in the Handbook of Student Engagement Interventions called, “Chronic absence: A sign to invest in conditions for learning.”

Each year, Attendance Works conducts an attendance awareness campaign and releases a brief on the state of issue. For the 2019 edition, AIR collaborated with Attendance Works on the brief, which focuses on conditions for learning to be released in September: “Using Chronic Absence Data to Improve Conditions for Learning.”

Related Resources


Three Ways Education Leaders Can Address Chronic Absence

1. Understand conditions for learning in your school and district by collecting data. The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, operated by AIR, offers a compendium of surveys to choose from. You can find detailed information about community and school factors, including the chronic absence rate for every school in the U.S. through an interactive tool from the Hamilton Project and Attendance Works.

2. Each time a student is absent, ask him or her what happened (and so do privately), instead of making assumptions. By building a bridge instead of placing blame, educators can get a better sense of internal and external factors driving absences—and send students the message that they matter.

3. Help teachers address chronic absence directly by building their capacity to take on such roles as making home visits or phone calls to check on absent students. Start by reviewing materials from the Teaching Conditions module from the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders.

For more information about the causes of and remedies for chronic absence, visit the resources on the Attendance Works website (such as the new Attendance Playbook or Teaching Attendance Modules) or get in touch with AIR's SEL Solutions Team.