How to Improve your Chronically Absent Students’ Attendance… During the Summer Break

Why Now is the Best Time to Analyze, Understand, Plan, and Implement Strategic Interventions for your Most-Absent Students

Dear Colleagues,

Earlier this year, on March 20th, I asserted that (grade) Retention in NOT an Intervention.

In the context of that discussion, I talked about the importance of determining why students are not making academic progress, and stated that students who are absent due to- - for example- - medical issues should not automatically be retained if they can “catch up” with additional support.

Today, however, I want to directly discuss the issue of student absences- - especially as this topic was highlighted earlier this week in a recently-released U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report, A First Look: Key Highlights on Equity and Opportunity Gaps in Our Nation’s Public Schools.

This report, based on the 2013-2014 school-year survey results from virtually every school district in the country (involving over 50 million students), reported on a host of issues- - school discipline, restraints and

The Crisis of Chronically Absent Students

  • The First Look report defined a chronically absent student as one missing 15 or more school days during the school year. The Report cited the following national data from the 2013-2014 school year:
  • Nationwide, more than 6.5 million students – or 13% of all students – were chronically absent. 19% of all high school students, 12% of middle school students, and 10% of elementary school students were chronically absent.
  • In nearly 500 school districts, at least 30% of their students missed at least three weeks of school.
  • More than 3 million high school students – or 18% of all high school students – were chronically absent.
  • 20% or more of American Indian or Alaska Native (26%), Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (25%), black (22%), multiracial (21%), and Latino (20%) high school students were chronically absent.
  • High school students with disabilities served by IDEA were 1.3 times as likely to be chronically absent as high school students without disabilities.
  • 20% of all English learner high school students were chronically absent.
  • More than 3.5 million elementary school students – or 11% of all elementary school students – were chronically absent.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander elementary school students were twice as likely to be chronically absent as white elementary school students.
  • Black elementary school students were 1.4 times as likely to be chronically absent as white elementary school students.
  • Elementary school students with disabilities served by IDEA are 1.5 times as likely to be chronically absent as elementary school students without disabilities.
  • In addition, incident rates of chronic absence were higher for non-white students when more than 50% of their teachers were absent for more than 10 days.

Critically, among the most-concerning long-term effects of chronic student absences are (a) poor academic progress- - especially in reading, and (b) the high potential for dropping out of high school.

Thus, if we can determine and successfully change the underlying reasons why these students are absent, schools will need to find effective ways to help these students to academically “catch up” at the elementary school level, and to re-sequence their missed courses at the secondary level.

Analyzing and Addressing Chronically Absent Students

In order to address the problem of chronically absent students, districts and schools first need an early warning system to identify and track these students, and a Student Assistance Team (or the equivalent) to analyze the most-troublesome students involved to determine the underlying reasons for their behavior.

Relative to the former, most districts now have either a data management system (e.g., PowerSchool) or a School Data Dashboard that tracks student data in real time. Given this, decision rules should be programmed into the Dashboard so that school administrators receive a “red flag” every time a student “triggers” the system.

Students, for example, should trigger the system when they have

  • Been absent for 10% of the school days in any quarter (five days of school in a 45-day quarter);
  • Been absent or tardy to school for 3 days in a row; or
  • Skipped a specific class (at the secondary level) 3 times in a quarter.

Initially, the first two triggers should result in a call to the parents/guardians by a school official, with a corresponding e-mail or text. These triggers should occur whether an absence is excused or unexcused.

At first, the third trigger should be personally and directly addressed by the involved teacher(s) with the specific student (and his/her parents/guardians). If the problem persists, a school administrator should become involved.

When a student exhibits a persistent, resistant, or significant pattern of school absence, school administrators (or, for that matter, any educator) should refer the case to the Student Assistance Team. This multidisciplinary team should include the best academic and behavioral assessment and intervention professionals in or available to the school, and it should meet on a regular basis- - not just for students with school attendance problems, but for any student with a persistent or significant academic or social, emotional, or behavioral problem.

A primary responsibility of this Team is to determine why the student is chronically absent, why s/he has not responded to previous behavior change approaches (as above), and what additional services, supports, strategies, or interventions are needed.

This responsibility should be met by using a data-based problem-solving process. This process uses data to confirm any hypotheses posited to explain the student’s behavior, and it does not assume that the behavior is a “discipline or motivational problem”- - unless that also is confirmed.

Hypotheses for Chronic Absenteeism

The ultimate goal of the problem-solving process, here, is to facilitate a change in a student’s behavior such that he or she is regularly attending school, participating in classroom activities, and learning and mastering the academic material.

To accomplish this, one or more members of the Student Assistance Team (SAT)- -with the student’s current teacher(s) - -initially need to:

  • Review the student’s cumulative records and educational history
  • Determine the current functional academic and behavioral skill level of the student
  • Interview teachers and others who have worked with the student and/or attempted previous school attendance interventions
  • Interview the student, and his/her parents/guardians
  • Discount or consider any relevant health, mental health, or wellness factors
  • Observe the student when s/he is in school and in class

With this background information, hypotheses can be generated, confirmed (or rejected), and linked to strategic services, supports, strategies, or interventions.

Among some possible hypotheses to explain a student’s chronic absenteeism are the following:

  • The student does not have any positive relationships or connections with the school, his/her teachers, and/or his/her peers; or has experienced significant negative interactions in the past
  • The student is avoiding past or current teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, or physical threats (from peers or staff)- - and does not feel safe at school (this especially includes students who are disabled, English language learners, from “targeted” minority groups, gay, lesbian, questioning, and transgender)
  • The student believes s/he is (or actually is) so far behind academically that s/he does not feel s/he can successfully catch up
  • The student has a learning or behavioral disability that makes them (feel) so different from other students that it is easier to avoid school than attend it
  • The student depends on a parent/guardian to get him/her up in the morning, and does not have the organizational or independent self-management knowledge and skills to do this on his/her own
  • The student is up late at night texting/communicating with peers (or) on social media, and constantly oversleeps
  • The student sees no relevance to education. . . based on community, parental, peer, self, or situational (e.g., geographic, due to limited employment opportunities) values or attitudes
  • The student wants to be (or would be more successful) in a vocational/apprentice “track,” rather than a pure academic track (but these opportunities are not available)
  • The student has a specific medical (e.g., physical disabilities, chronic pain or headaches), health (e.g., obesity, asthma), drug/alcohol, or mental health (e.g., separation anxiety, school phobia, depression) problem or issue
  • The student is homeless, has parents in jail (thus, is living with another relative), is in foster care, is pregnant
  • The student is the family’s primary caregiver- - taking care of physically ill parents, babysitting younger siblings so parents can work, working multiple “after-school” jobs to financially support the family

As you can see, there are innumerable hypotheses/reasons to explain chronic absenteeism.

For some students, more than one of the reasons above apply.

For other students, their school absences are now part of a pattern or routine that has long transcended the original triggering or underlying event(s).

For still others, the absences are a symptom of a different or related underlying problem or issue.

Critically: None of this is to condone the students’ inappropriate behavior.

All of this is to understand the behavior so that the highest probability of successful interventions can be identified and implemented to change the behavior.

Hopefully, administrators understand that most chronically absent students are simply not “discipline problems” who need consequences or punishments. But for those that believe this, what do you do when the detentions, the suspensions, the court referrals, and the alternative school placements have not worked?

“Up the ante” with more punitive approaches?

And what if- - weeks or years down the road- - information emerges that the chronically absent student who was treated as a “discipline problem,” actually was a student who was his or her family’s primary caregiver, was incessantly bullied in a previous school, or has/had a physical or mental health issue?

I am not saying that these students don’t take a lot of time and administrative effort. I am saying that we need to understand these students in order to facilitate positive change. And this is best accomplished through a multi-disciplinary Student Assistance Team and data-based problem-solving process.

Why the Summer (NOW) is the Best Time to Act

To my administrative colleagues:

While I know that the “summer has come,” and most administrators are either on break or have many, many administrative tasks to complete, right now is the best time to take some definitive steps toward understanding and beginning to address your chronically absent students.

With all due respect, this is true because the summer brings less day-to-day pressure of having all of your students, staff, and parents attending or present in your schools.

This is true if you have related services or mental health staff (i.e., counselors, school psychologists, social workers) available- - because they also are on extended contracts.

And, this is true (from a prioritization perspective) if your school approaches the national rate for chronically absent students of 13%.

What You Can Do:

  • You now have every student’s attendance and tardy data for this entire just-completed 2015-2016 school year.

By looking at these data (along with, ideally, the same data on the same students for the previous two to three years), you can “red-flag” the chronically absent (and tardy) students from the past year, and make sure that your current tracking/early warning data management system has identified the same students.

  • You can evaluate (as above) your current tracking/early warning data management system (and make needed programming or other improvements), and evaluate (changing, if needed) the personnel who are responsible for monitoring and responding (early on) to “red-flagged” students.

  • You can evaluate your current “decision tree” process for differentiating between and addressing students who are tardy, truant, or chronically absent (and make needed improvements). This may include establishing a Student Attendance Subcommittee (within your School Discipline/Climate Committee), and/or a Student Assistance Team.

  • You can analyze and begin to triage your “red-flagged” (see above) chronically tardy and absent students- - reaching out by phone, mail, or e-mail to those students (as appropriate) and parents/guardians where a positive re-connection is needed to re-establish a positive, “working” relationship.

  • You can identify, through your triage, the students and parents where a summer (or just-before-school) conference with a counselor, a trusted teacher, and/or an administrator can go a long way toward making the “new” year a “better” year than the “old” year.

  • Through the triage, you can identify the students (and families) who need immediate community-based medical, social, or other support services to alleviate some of their situational pressures- - for example- - as primary caregivers.

  • You can identify the students who need immediate Student Assistance Team attention- - at the beginning of the new school year (or before, if available and possible), so that the underlying reasons for their chronic absences can be identified quickly and strategically addressed.


Over the years, I have learned that we are busy- - year-round- - doing the “work” of education. There simply is no break in the action, we never have enough time, and there is no “good” time to start a new initiative.

And so, we can only prioritize, work effectively and efficiently, maximize the available (and manufacture new) resources, and minimize the distractions that draw us off-track and off-task.

Students who are chronically absent require our attention because they may be struggling with issues that can be addressed, and they create new issues (e.g., academic underperformance, dropping out of school) that we eventually will need to address.

I understand that these students often take up a lot of time, but I also know that they are not a homogeneous group. And if we do not understand the underlying reasons why they are missing school, we cannot expect to change the behavioral patterns that will successfully get them (and keep them in) school.

I hope that today’s message “adds value” to the First Look report, and motivates you to take a look at your own school, district, or community.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments. Feel free to contact me at any time, and remember to look at my website for the many free resources that are available there.

Let me know how I can help you further. Feel free to forward this Blog link to your colleagues.