Over the past year, attendance has become a significant issue for many schools and districts. With students learning remotely, in-person, or through a combination of both, it has been difficult for educators to not only keep track of and assess student absenteeism, but also implement effective practices to support strong attendance rates. As more students begin returning to in-person learning, it is critical for schools and districts to revisit their attendance practices and policies and make sure they are using approaches aligned with research and best practices. It is also important to align student attendance with the goals and practices used within a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). 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 student 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;nd 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 overtime, the more likely they are to experience internalizing symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, as well as other issues with substance and alcohol abuse.
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 the average daily attendance (ADA) of students to determine overall levels of school absenteeism. However, this method can actually mask chronic absenteeism since it is 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.
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 percent to monitor student absences. 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 has been shown to be 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).
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.
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 are going to be late, as opposed to not showing up at all to avoid the consequences associated with lateness.
What interventions and strategies can be used to promote attendance?
When attendance is a school-level issue (i.e., 20% of the school population is chronically absent) it is 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 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 everyday. School-wide attendance contests among grade-levels and classrooms can also help motivate students to come to school and hold their classmates accountable. It is 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.
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 everyday. 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 are having a negative impact on student attendance.
When it comes to supporting individual students who have attendance concerns, there are several evidence-based strategies that can be used. For example, Attendance Groups and Attendance Buddies are both positive behavioral approaches that have peers or mentors hold students accountable for their attendance and provide 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 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.
Attendance Groups, Attendance Buddies, Attendance Postcards, and 100s more are available in our library. ➡️Learn about our library of evidence-based interventions: Thousands of Evidence-Based Interventions and Accommodations for Reading, Writing, Math, Behavior, SEL & More. Learn more.
In summary, both tracking and interventions play an important role in supporting student’s 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.
At Branching Minds, we provide districts and schools with the ability to flag students who have an attendance concern so they can easily be identified by teachers and other school staff. We also include 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 it is impacting students’ attendance and absenteeism. Finally, teachers can document any meetings or family communication related to attendance on students’ overview pages so that this information is stored alongside other academic, behavioral, and social-emotional data.
Interested in Learning How to Support the Whole Child with Branching Minds?
Branching Minds makes MTSS easy, efficient, and effective by bringing together all of the components of MTSS so teachers can collaboratively problem-solve and support all students’ holistic needs. Our system-level solution helps schools improve students’ outcomes across academics, behavior, and SEL equitably.
Our platform supports teachers with Behavior and SEL in the following ways:
✅Assessing SEL Needs with the DESSA ✅ Understand Students Perception of their Own SEL Competence with the SECA ✅ Leveraging SEL Screeners for Tiering ✅ More effective problem-solving ✅ Finding the Right Evidence-based Interventions & Accommodations for Each Learner ✅ Creating Intervention Plans and Monitoring Daily & Weekly Progress in Behavior/SEL ✅ Logging & Monitoring Behavior Incidents ✅ Pattern Matching Behavior Incidents Across Groups
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.