Skipping School: Fighting Chronic Absenteeism

During the school year, nearly 1 in every 8 students in the U.S. was chronically absent. According to recently released statistics from the Department of Education, about 13 percent of U.S. school children – nearly 6 million students – missed at least 15 days of class in the 2013-2014 academic year.

Seen across racial, linguistic, and geographical boundaries, frequent and consistent absenteeism affects students in elementary, middle, and high school. Missing so much school isn’t simply a problem for the students who are out of class; it can also cause difficulties for their peers and teachers.

With such a high rate of chronic absenteeism in U.S. schools, it’s important to learn more about the causes and what parents and teachers can do to reduce the negative impacts of this trend.

What is Chronic Absenteeism?

Chronically absent students miss at least 10 percent of their school days or an entire month of school within a given year, which can range from 15 to 20 days depending on the community. Whether the absences are excused or not, this threshold of 10 percent or one month is one of the best indicators of whether a student will eventually drop out of school, according to the White House. Chronic absenteeism is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for student struggle or success; it is often the first sign that a student is falling significantly behind.

The impacts of missing so much school and class are obvious and significant. Chronically absent students are more likely to fall behind in class; have difficulty catching back up; and either fail, repeat a grade, or drop out. The Department of Education explains that chronic absenteeism has even been tied to poverty, poor health, and criminal records later in life.

There are less obvious impacts as well, Kickboard for Schools explains. Missing school so frequently can also hamper social and emotional learning. In addition to math and English, school teaches students conflict resolution, problem solving, and teamwork skills which are critical for college and career later on.

According to the new Department of Education report, in the 2013-2014 school year, chronic absenteeism is 22 percent more likely for non-English speaking learners; 34 percent more common for students with disabilities; and most prevalent among American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and black students.

Poor health, lack of transportation to school, and dangerous circumstances are the leading factors to chronic absences in students, according to the Department of Education, many of which are often tied to poverty. Avoiding bullying, negative classroom experiences, and school violence are other reasons students may skip class.

What Can Teachers Do?

For educators, chronically absent students create a number of issues. Students who frequently or consistently miss class can create more work for educators who try to help the students catch up. Several absent students may even negatively impact the whole class’ ability to learn on pace and stay current with curricula.

Chronically absent students also can score lower on tests and perform worse in future grades, researchers found in a case study with elementary school students in Wisconsin. Having a chronically absent student, or having a student who previously has been, can present serious difficulties to teacher trying to educate students, particularly with mathematics.

There are some techniques that teachers can use, however, to discourage absenteeism or deal with frequently absent students.

Kickboard pointed to vigilance and monitoring as a critical step. Noticing when students start missing significant or unusual amounts of school are a red flag. Educators should be sure to include attendance as a key indicator of student success. This allows teachers to catch a problem early on and work with administrators and parents to avoid the pitfalls of chronic absenteeism.

There are a number of ways to deal with students who are already chronically absent, Kickboard noted. Sometimes it’s as simple as explaining to parents why attendance is important to their student. Other times, it’s about creating a more positive school environment, adding attendance as a benchmark in a school improvement plan, or working with school administrators to address the root causes of the absenteeism in the first place.

What Can Administrators Do?

In some school systems, chronic absenteeism or tardiness can lead to punishments such as detentions or suspensions. However, if the teachers or administrators report the case to social services, it can also bring in law enforcement. This typically leads to punishments for parents, probation-like programs, or even the involvement of foster care. However, a study from New York’s Office of Children and Family Services explains that this is not the best way to combat the problem of absenteeism, according to the Associated Press.

Focusing on the parents is the wrong approach, the report concluded, because abuse and parental neglect are rarely the causes of chronic absenteeism, which is more often tied to negatives at school itself. Instead, creating a dialogue with parents, re-engaging students with school, and making the experience in the classroom more appealing are more effective techniques. The AP noted that programs which provide students with backpacks or coats are effective as well.

The organization Attendance Works advocates for avoiding punishment as well, instead advocating for fixing the causes of absenteeism. For example, in Rhode Island, where illness caused by asthma and lead poisoning from poor housing was a main reason for chronic absenteeism, the schools were able to work with groups to find new housing or get rid of these dangerous substances. General wellness and health activities for low income students have also been successful at keeping students in school.

What Can Parents Do?

Education and communication are critical for parents to combat chronic absenteeism. The first step is for parents to learn why missing 10 percent or more of the school year is so detrimental to a child’s academic success in both the long and short term. Simple education against the dangers may help reduce parental reasons for excessive absences.

Communication between parents and the school or teachers can also help avoid absences that are unknown to the parents. This will allow parents to better keep track of students’ attendance and act when needed. Online resources like the California Truancy Toolkit can help parents keep track of their children, understand the risks of school absences and how to talk to children.

The federal government is also doing its part with legislation and special initiatives aimed to reduce the amount and impact of chronic absenteeism on students. For example, the Every Student, Every Day initiative tells communities about the risks and results of chronic absenteeism while providing a toolkit and online conferences to discuss techniques for reduction. It could be a powerful resource for parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders.


  1. Mike Schmieding

    August 3, 2016 at 4:42 am

    What about the schools involvement? When our schools are turned into nothing but purely academic institutions, many students are driven away. The mentality exists that Home Ec and the dreaded Shop Classes do not prepare students for college or anything useful. Education–at what cost?

  2. online

    August 6, 2016 at 5:50 am

    Another awesome article!

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