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How to Decrease Student Absenteeism

Lori McDonald

“Chronic student absenteeism” is most likely a term that teachers and parents alike are hearing more of these days. Students that miss 10% or more per school year are considered “Chronically absent.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if we want our students to get the maximum benefit out of their education, then they need to be present as much as possible. In years past, school administrators and teachers may have taken the stance, “We will teach them, but it is up to the parents to get them here.” That may be so. But schools are discovering there is more they can do to encourage student attendance than previously thought. Student absenteeism is a growing problem that must be addressed in order to increase student success.

Attendance Works

Each school year, over 8 million students miss nearly a month of school. Chronic student absenteeism is linked to whether or not a student will be a proficient reader by the end of 3rd grade. In most cases, being absent just two days a month can make a student qualify as “Chronically absent.” Research shows that missing two days a month, which is approximately 10% of the school year, will negatively affect student academic performance. These facts and many more can be found on Attendance Works is an action research project that is helping local agencies improve in the area of student absenteeism, while also helping to create national policies to encourage attendance. Through this organization, schools are encouraged to help improve student attendance in many ways, such as:

  • Monitoring attendance data.
  • Engaging students and parents.
  • Recognizing good attendance as well as improvements.
  • Providing personalized outreach.

The bottom line is actually something that teachers and administrators have known for a long time. Students coming to school consistently works. Attendance works!

Rewards for Attendance

Rewarding students for good or improving school attendance can be very simple or complex. For some students, all it takes is a positive remark from a teacher or administrator. I recently welcomed a new student in to my classroom that had attended another school in the same district the previous year. Along with her records came information about serious attendance issues that she had at that school. She had been chronically absent. Sure enough, her second day at school, she was absent. From that point on, I made a special effort to connect with her regarding her attendance. Every day I would greet her with, “I am so glad you are here today. I really need your help today.” Then I would have her serve as my “Teacher’s assistant” for that day. I would also take time to pull her aside and tell her how proud I was of her for her attendance. I’m glad to say that second day of school is the only day she has missed. Of course it won’t be this simple with all students, but with some, it only takes a little encouragement to provide the motivation to improve.

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There are many other incentives that can be provided to encourage attendance. At the classroom level, teachers can use a sticker chart for attendance. This gives students a visual record of how many days they have been in school. When certain milestones on the attendance chart are reached, students can be rewarded with:

  • Extra computer time
  • A prize from the treasure box
  • Free homework pass
  • Extra recess
  • Any other privileges that work for the teachers and students in any given grade level      

Some schools also provide incentives at the school level for attendance. Of course, students can be recognized for perfect attendance with recognition during announcements or with special certificates. This doesn’t have to be reserved for end-of-the-year awards. Students could be recognized each month or at the end of each grading period. Students could earn an afternoon movie with students from other grade levels for maintaining a certain percentage in attendance. Students could also win a party with other students with great attendance. There are so many ways to acknowledge and praise those that know the importance of school attendance. It is important to note that if something is important to the child, it is usually also important to the parent. So by motivating the students to have better attendance, the parents are also motivated.

Parent Contact

Another significant way to decrease student absenteeism is by maintaining close communication with the parent. Sometimes, parents simply do not realize how much school their child has missed. Therefore, it may be helpful to send home a note occasionally to let parents know how many days have been missed in the school year. If students are getting close to that 10% mark for absences, the school office can contact the parent to let them know that their child could be considered “Chronically absent” if more absences occur. In many cases, this is all the encouragement parents need. Of course, it is also effective to send home positive notes about attendance. A kind word of encouragement from a teacher or school can be very motivational.

Building Relationships

The biggest key to all of this and so much more is building genuine, meaningful relationships with students and their families. I once heard a fellow educator say, “Students and parents don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.” I have found this to be so true. Understanding the importance of building relationships can transform teachers, administrators, and school communities in profound ways. By building relationships with students and helping them understand the level of concern that exists for them and their progress, a bond is forged that is not easily broken. When this kind of bond exists, students don’t want to miss school because they know that their teacher will miss them, and will be genuinely disappointed to not see them there in their classroom. The same applies when developing relationships with parents. When a partnership between teacher, school administrators, and parents is established, all aspects of students’ education improve, including attendance.


Oct.7, 2019

Lori McDonald holds an Ed.D. in School Leadership/Administration; She is an Elementary school teacher in Tennessee.

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