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Absent-minded - 5 Ways Experts Say Schools Can Improve Attendance

New thinking about ways to control chronic absenteeism.

There is a fundamental problem in schools that has plagued them since the days of the one-room school house – and there are signs that it hasn’t improved much: chronic absenteeism.

But despite recent research from the federal government suggesting that it is a ongoing problem, educators have been persistent in trying to tackle the issue, and there is some new thinking about ways to improve the chances students attend regularly.

“District administrators and staff now are taking action to minimize absenteeism through stronger teacher-student relations and measuring student’s perceptions of safety, engagement, and social-emotional skills in addition to monitoring for early warning indicators,” says Sam Moulton, research director at Panorama Education, a firm that works with school districts to tackle the problem

He says data shows that 98 million school days are lost each year in the United States to chronic absenteeism and 6.5 million students – one out of every seven – is chronically absent from school or missing 10 percent or more of the year. It affects their achievement in school and their emotional and financial health for years, experts say.

Moulton says approaches such as enforcement techniques, communications home and reward systems may work, but his research shows that often there three things are critical: tracking absenteeism with good data, making social emotional learning a priority and attending to school climate.

Here are five ways that he and other experts say schools can improve attendance.

Early warning

Systems should be in place to catch issues early – a sudden downturn in attendance compared to the past, a series of unexcused absences or a pattern where a student is missing specific days or specific classes. Moulton, whose company offers and early warning system as one of its products, says if schools are serious about taking on attendance issues, they have to spot them early and take action.

Data driven.

There are three keys to making data work when it comes to attendance, Moulton and other experts suggest. It is important to collect good accurate data and distribute it to key parties – teachers, counselors, administrators, parents and others who might be working with a student. It is important to act on the information and have established levels when certain responses are used– a note home, a meeting with counselor, a parent conference or other response. And, finally, it is important to follow up to see if measures that were taken improve the data, or if others should be tried and whether the data should be refined.

Consider the cause.

While sometimes students miss school repeatedly just because they are lazy or are involved in other less valuable activity, often there is a reason for chronic absenteeism, and it won’t get better without addressing the reason. It can be a health issue, social concern, family problem, fear of failure or a problem with one teacher, one other student or a particular environment.

While counselors are often overwhelmed with too many responsibilities, they might be the best person on the staff to investigate causes. And, if not, someone should have that specific responsibility and report on it clearly to administrators or counselors

Broaden the scope.

Look at the school culture, using feedback from students (especially those who are dissatisfied). Make improving attendance a school-wide goal so that it is a priority and students know you take it seriously. Gather information from students about what works and doesn’t work in the school to make them want to attend.

Have a good system for gathering data from everyone who might be concerned – whether it is a support staff member who knows the personal reasons a student is missing school or a class or a student who has an idea about a simple step that might make the school more inviting. (One school extended a first-period home room by 10 minutes and just gave students a chance to do for the most part whatever they wanted – socialize, get on their phone, or just rest. Healthy snacks were available too.)

Involve everyone in a campaign to improve attendance, including the entire staff, parents, other connected schools and community groups and the community generally.

The parent trap.

It is a difficult determine when it is best to hold parents responsible. Responses range from stories about schools threatening arrest to schools that hardly ever even make a connection home about a truant student. Some experts say it is most important to be consistent with messages that are triggered under certain circumstances (letters or calls with various levels of severity depending upon the number and longevity of the absenteeism

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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