Attendance plays an important role in a student’s school experience and learning outcomes — they can’t learn if they’re not there. But throughout the pandemic and following, attendance concerns have skyrocketed. A report from 2021 found that the rates of chronically absent students was 22% — double the rate from before the pandemic. Recent findings also show an increase in school refusals among students struggling with their mental health.
Tracking and addressing attendance issues should be included as a part of a school’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). An effective MTSS practice involves understanding the holistic needs of students and developing targeted interventions and systemic approaches for addressing the needs of students. Educators require insight into attendance issues among their students as well as evidence-based interventions and strategies to help keep students in the classroom.
Below, we provide an overview of why attendance is so important, how it should be monitored, and how to effectively address issues with attendance at the school, classroom, and individual levels.
Why Is Attendance Important?
Research studies have found a consistent relationship between attendance and academic outcomes; the more days students miss, the lower their academic performance. This is not surprising, as students who are chronically absent will be missing out on critical learning opportunities, which ultimately contribute to their academic performance. The implications of poor attendance can also be seen across all ages. As early as kindergarten, students who are frequently absent are more at risk for academic problems down the road; the associations between attendance and grades and test performance only gets stronger as students get older.
Not only does attendance impact academic outcomes, but it also affects students’ social-emotional well-being and behavior. In older elementary and middle school students, greater absenteeism predicts the presence of conduct problems and depression. Interestingly, in high school, absenteeism itself predicts mental health issues. In other words, the more adolescents are absent over time, the more likely they are to experience internalizing symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, as well as other issues with substance and alcohol abuse.
Limitations of Average Daily Attendance (ADA) as an Indicator of Absenteeism
As outlined above, it is clear that student attendance should be closely monitored in order to effectively prevent absenteeism and intervene with students when necessary. Student attendance data should also be used within an MTSS framework to effectively problem-solve and make evidence-based decisions for students. Districts and schools commonly do this by tracking students' average daily attendance (ADA) to determine overall school absenteeism levels. However, this method can actually mask chronic absenteeism since it’s difficult to determine if the average reflects a large number of students missing a few days or a small number of students missing a lot of days (with the latter being problematic). Research shows that even schools with a 96% ADA could have a significant absenteeism problem.
The Value of Using a Percentage to Monitor Student Absences
Another commonly used metric is the number of days students are absent, weekly, monthly, or overall. This is a better indicator for individual student absenteeism; however, the number can be difficult to interpret depending on how far it is into a month or school year. For example, five days absent across the whole school year is typical, whereas five days in the first month is problematic. That is why experts recommend using a percentage to monitor student absences.
Identifying Chronic Absenteeism as an Early Warning Indicator (EWI)
Specifically, chronic absenteeism should be defined as missing 10 percent or more school days. So if a student has been enrolled for 40 days of school and has missed more than four days, they would be identified as having chronic absenteeism. This method of measuring absenteeism is an effective early warning indicator of academic risk and school dropout. At the school level, when over 20% of students are chronically absent, that means there is a significant attendance issue that needs to be addressed at the school level (see examples of strategies below).
The Need to Track Both Excused and Unexcused Absences
Another common attendance monitoring mistake is only tracking unexcused absences or “truancies.” When calculating the rate of absenteeism, teachers and staff should include excused and unexcused. Both chronic excused and unexcused absences are associated with poor outcomes for students. In addition, when younger students are absent, they are often home with the knowledge of a caregiver or adult who can call in to “excuse” the absence. Nevertheless, these students could still be at risk.
Prioritizing Absenteeism Over Tardiness in Attendance Monitoring
Finally, tracking absenteeism appears to be more important than tracking lateness or tardiness. Research shows that missing an entire day of school is associated with lower academic performance, compared to the number of tardies. This has implications for school policies on lateness which can sometimes unintentionally lead to more absences. Schools should ensure that students make it to school, even if they will be late, as opposed to not showing up at all, to avoid the consequences of lateness.
What Interventions and Strategies Can Be Used To Promote Attendance?
Foster a Welcoming and Inclusive School Climate
When attendance is a school-level issue (i.e., 20% of the school population is chronically absent), it’s critical to evaluate why this is a systemic issue and implement policies that will help promote attendance across all students. For some schools, focusing on school-wide SEL practices to improve the overall climate and students’ sense of belonging can make schools a more welcoming and inclusive environment. The ultimate goal is for schools to be a place where students want to be every day.
Utilize School-Wide Attendance Contests and Accountability
School-wide attendance contests among grade levels and classrooms can also help motivate students to attend school and hold their classmates accountable. It’s also worth evaluating any existing disciplinary attendance policies that may be counterproductive and lead to more time being spent out of school. This is often the case when suspensions and expulsions are used to punish students who are chronically absent.
Consider Community Factors Impacting Attendance
There may also be issues present in the larger community that have unintentional consequences on attendance. For example, unstable housing, issues with public transportation, and access to health care can affect whether or not caregivers can get their child to school every day. They can also impact adolescents’ ability to get to school on their own. Schools may need to involve stakeholders outside of the school, such as families, caregivers, community members, and local elected officials, to help address these issues that negatively impact student attendance.
Evidence-Based Strategies for Supporting Students with Attendance Concerns
When it comes to supporting individual students who have attendance concerns, there are several evidence-based strategies that can be used. For example, (1) Attendance Groups and (2) Attendance Buddies are positive behavioral approaches with peers or mentors holding students accountable for their attendance and providing positive reinforcement. Students are taught explicit strategies to improve their attendance and set goals for themselves which they monitor over time. These methods also aim to keep students engaged and connected with their school so that they are motivated to attend.
Another targeted attendance intervention is (3) Attendance Postcards, where school administrators or teachers send a postcard to the parents/guardians of students who are struggling with attendance. The postcard includes a note encouraging parents/guardians to improve their student’s attendance. This simple approach is based on the principles of “nudge” theory and can be used to increase parent/guardian awareness of student absenteeism and boost student attendance. One study found that sending a single postcard to guardians encouraging attendance reduced student absences by just over 2%. This increase was observed across an entire school district, from grades 1 to 12. Providing parents/guardians with the total number of times their child has been absent, across a month, semester, or year can also correct their inaccurate beliefs. Research has shown that this method also improves attendance among students with chronic absenteeism.
Learn more about Attendance Groups, Attendance Buddies, Attendance Postcards in this guide:
In summary, both tracking and interventions are important in supporting student attendance within an MTSS framework. Effectively monitoring student attendance at the student and school levels, as well as implementing evidence-based practices across these levels, provides a system for reducing absenteeism and becoming more aware of attendance-related issues. Together, all of these efforts will keep attendance rates high and promote student learning and development.
The Branching Minds platform supports student attendance in several ways:
The ability to tag students who have an attendance concern so they can easily be identified by teachers and other school staff.
Attendance-focused supports in our library of evidence-based interventions and strategies. These supports can be assigned directly to students, individually or within a group. Teachers can then track the implementation of these supports to see how students’ attendance and absenteeism are impacted.
Meetings and family communication documentation on students’ overview pages. This information is stored alongside other academic, behavioral, and social-emotional data.
An Early Warning Indicator Report that includes attendance information to help identify.
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.