Absent for a Reason? Addressing School Attendance Problems

Some students couldn’t wait to get back to school this fall to learn new things, participate in activities, or see friends.  Others returned anxious about their new teachers, their new classes, or acceptance by their peers.  And still others came back grudgingly or haltingly, either finding school aversive or facing health challenges.  Some of these children have attendance problems, and some of these problems are so severe that they contribute to dropping out.

Teenage boy with backpackSchools can provide a refuge, a source of identity, engagement, and connection, and a place to develop and demonstrate competencies. Good schools do this for all students, as indicated by both attendance and student reports of conditions for learning (and school climate measures).  But schools can also create stress, negative identities, disconnection, stereotype threat, and learned helplessness—for some and perhaps even all students. Struggling schools with poor conditions for learning create risks and, despite staff’s good intentions, may undermine attendance, engagement, and learning.

Although schools often drive or exacerbate disengagement and attendance problems, school policies typically punish students and families for poor attendance. In many cases, we criminalize attendance problems as truancy, and hold parents accountable by issuing a summons or fines for their children’s behaviors. This approach, often grounded in policy, is in many cases unfair and probably unproductive. Sanctioning attendance problems this way punishes children and parents unfairly for what they often cannot control— for example, the impacts of mental and physical health factors or a lack of appropriate academic and social support in school.

Sanctioning is unproductive for two basic reasons. First, it doesn’t engage and motivate the students and parents whose buy-in and insight are critical to implementing interventions successfully. Second, it doesn’t address the school-related factors that contribute to truancy.

There is an alternative—creating engaging and supportive school environments that meet student needs and address the unique cluster of factors that contribute to each student’s attendance problems. Some of the research that my colleagues and I have done, including a study of Alaskan native and non-Native students, suggests that students with attendance problems often want the same things that other students want—safety, support, connection, engagement, and the chance to develop needed competencies—they just want or need more of these important factors. Similarly, our studies of family driven interventions suggest, when given non-judgmental support, parents who are often written off can positively contribute to their children’s education.

David Osher is an AIR vice president and Institute Fellow.