Why School Attendance Matters and Strategies to Improve It

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School attendance matters. It is arguably one of the most important indicators of school success. You cannot learn what you are not there to learn. Students who attend school regularly improve their chances of being academically successful. There are obvious exceptions to both sides of the rule. There are a few students deemed academically successful who also have attendance issues and a few students who struggle academically who are always present.

However, in most cases, strong attendance correlates with academic success, and poor attendance correlates with academic struggles.

To understand the importance of attendance and the influence the lack thereof has, we must first define what constitutes both satisfactory and poor attendance.  Attendance Works, a non-profit dedicated to improving school attendance, has categorized school attendance into three distinct categories. Students who have 9 or fewer absences are satisfactory. Those with 10-17 absences are exhibiting warning signs for potential attendance issues.  Students with 18 or more absences have a clear cut chronic attendance issue. These numbers are based on the traditional 180-day school calendar.

Teachers and administrators will agree that the students who need to be at school the most are the ones that are seemingly seldom there. Poor attendance creates significant learning gaps.

Even if students complete the make-up work, they most likely will not learn and retain the information as well as if they had been there.

Make-up work can pile up very quickly. When students return from an extended hiatus, they not only have to complete the make-up work, but they also have to contend with their regular classroom assignments.

Students often make the decision to rush through or completely ignore the make-up work so that they can keep pace with their regular class studies.  Doing this naturally creates a learning gap and causes the student’s grades to drop. Over time, this learning gap increases to the point where it becomes nearly impossible to close.

Chronic absenteeism will lead to frustration for the student. The more they miss, the more difficult it becomes to catch up. Eventually, the student gives up altogether putting them on a path towards being a high school dropout. Chronic absenteeism is a key indicator that a student will drop out. This makes it even more critical to find early intervention strategies to prevent attendance from ever becoming an issue.

The amount of schooling missed can quickly add up. Students who enter school at kindergarten and miss an average of 10 days per year until they graduate high school will miss 140 days. According to the definition above, this student would not have an attendance problem. However, all together that student would miss nearly an entire year of school when you add everything together. Now compare that student with another student who has a chronic attendance issue and misses an average of 25 days a year.

The student with a chronic attendance issue has 350 missed days or almost two entire years. It is no wonder that those who have attendance issues are almost always further behind academically than their peers who have satisfactory attendance.

Strategies to Improve School Attendance

Improving school attendance can prove to be a difficult endeavor.  Schools often have very little direct control in this area. Most of the responsibility falls on the student’s parents or guardians, especially the elementary aged ones.  Many parents simply do not understand how important attendance is. They do not realize how quickly missing even a day a week can add up. Furthermore, they do not understand the unspoken message that they are relaying to their children by allowing them to miss school regularly.  Finally, they do not understand that they are not only setting their children up to fail in school, but also in life.

For these reasons, it is essential that elementary schools in particular focus on educating parents on the value of attendance.  Unfortunately, most schools operate under the assumption that all parents already understand how important attendance is, but that those whose children have a chronic attendance issue are simply ignoring it or do not value education. The truth is that most parents want what is best for their children, but have not learned or been taught what that is. Schools must invest a significant amount of their resources to educate their local community adequately on the importance of attendance.

Regular attendance should play a part in the daily anthem of a school and a critical role in defining the culture of a school. The fact is that every school has an attendance policy. In most cases, that policy is only punitive in nature meaning that it simply provides parents with an ultimatum that essentially says “get your child to school or else.”  Those policies, while effective for a few, will not deter many for whom it has become easier to skip school than it is to attend. For those, you have to show them and prove to them that attending school on a regular basis will help lead to a brighter future.

Schools should be challenged to develop attendance policies and programs that are more preventive in nature than they are punitive. This begins with getting to the root of the attendance issues on an individualized level. School officials must be willing to sit down with parents and listen to their reasons for why their children are absent without being judgmental. This allows the school to form a partnership with the parent wherein they can develop an individualized plan for improving attendance, a support system for follow through, and a connection to outside resources if necessary.

This approach will not be easy. It will take a lot of time and resources. However, it is an investment that we should be willing to make based on how important we know attendance to be.

  Our goal should be to get every child to school so that the effective teachers we have in place can do their jobs. When that happens, the quality of our school systems will improve significantly.