According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 6.5 million students nationwide—or 13 percent of all students—are chronically absent, defined as being absent 15 or more school days during the school year. This includes:

  • More than 3 million high school students, or 18 percent of all high school students 
  • 22 percent of black and 20 percent of Latino high school students 
  • 20 percent of all English learner high school students 
  • More than 3.5 million elementary school students, or 11 percent of all elementary school students (black elementary school students are 1.4 times more likely to be chronically absent than white elementary school students)

Such extensive absences lead not only to poor academic performance; they often lead to students dropping out of school. And the impact of dropping out of high school is profound. Over the course of a person’s life, a high school dropout is likely to earn about $385,000 less than a high school graduate and about $1.34 million less than a person with a four-year degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some of the top reasons kids don’t attend school include failing too many classes, boredom, becoming a caregiver, feeling school was irrelevant, entering the workforce early to support family, and “no one cared.”

Strategies for Success

Consider implementing these courses of action to improve attendance.

1. Create a culture in which all teachers and staff purposefully develop relationships with students. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.7 percent of dropouts stated, “No one cared if I attended,” which is an entirely preventable problem. When the current Secretary of Education, John King, was in fourth grade, his mother passed away. Yet, he insisted on going to school the next day because he said his teacher, Mr. Osterweil, had a comforting classroom and conveyed caring about every student. Dr. King said, “Lots of folks could’ve given up on me. They could’ve said, ‘Here’s an African-American, Latino male student … at a New York City public school with a family in crisis. What chances does he have?’ But they didn’t do that. They invested in me. They created this place that was compelling and interesting every day. Teachers gave me hope about my life, and that’s why I became a teacher.” 

Principals should reinforce that critical link between relationships and attendance, set expectations for developing relationships with students, and model those expectations. Teachers, coaches, advisers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, and others should also be expected to take on the role of building relationships with students.

2. Create a mentor program. Another powerful strategy to improve attendance can be setting up a mentor program. Mentors create an ongoing positive effect as students realize that at least one adult really cares about them. That could be enough to encourage kids to want to go to school.

3. Monitor attendance and follow up on students with weak attendance. When I was a principal, I looked at attendance data from the previous year to determine which students had the worst 25 percent attendance. I met with them and their parents before the school year began to encourage them to improve their attendance. I also asked if there was anything I could do to help. Consistent with the belief in the power of positive relationships, those meetings were not accusatory or threatening. Rather, I expressed genuine concern about the students’ success in school and in life, and I wanted them to see me as a resource. I did the same during the school year—monitored the attendance of all students each week, and followed up on students with weak attendance in face-to-face meetings with their parents. Consider making daily personal phone calls to parents. Be a “pleasant pest” who continually expresses concern for the student and emphasizes that good attendance is in the student’s best interest.

4. Minimize obstacles to attendance. Maybe kids are avoiding bullies, are embarrassed about their clothes, need access to a shower, need child care, or have an issue with drugs. Perhaps they are struggling in class or experiencing conflict with a teacher. You must know the source of problems before you can solve them, so delve into the reasons for absences. If you have developed a positive relationship with kids, they are likely to tell you the reasons for their absences and welcome your intervention to help them.

5. Create opportunities for meaningful involvement. Athletes, as well as students who perform in band, chorus, theater, or virtually any other extra­curricular activity, have a positive, meaningful connection to school. So, promote involvement in extracurricular activities. Not everyone can be an athlete, musician, or thespian. But a forward-thinking administrator might be able to help kids form a positive social circle and encourage them by finding them a role as a manager for a team, a stagehand, etc. 

6. Treat kids with dignity and respect—as if they were your own. Sometimes students behave badly and punishment is warranted. It takes very little skill, though, to merely administer the specified consequences. Doing so handles the immediate issue but does not build relationships or cause students to be self-directed in a positive way.Granted, it takes time to listen to what’s on the kids’ minds. It takes more time to ask them what they would like to do with their lives-in school and beyond. When you demonstrate genuine, proactive concern for students, however, it builds positive relationships. Take time to discuss practical strategies students can implement to behave positively instead of focusing on what they did to get in trouble.

7. Consider alternatives to suspension. Principals should carefully consider the impact of suspension on students’ grades. In-school suspensions should be accompanied by teachers providing the lessons and work that a student would have been taught in class. Similarly, if warranted and practical, suspensions out of school could be decreased in exchange for students attending counseling sessions, attending after-school extra-help sessions, voluntarily submitting urine samples to verify that they are drug-free, doing community service, etc., in lieu of longer out-of-school suspensions.

8. Teachers should model excellent attendance. The 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection compiled by the Department of Education demonstrates that the attendance of teachers has a strong relationship to the attendance of students. “The data also show that chronic student absenteeism exists where the majority of teachers are also frequently absent,” the report says. Principals should encourage teachers to model the attendance they want from students.

9. Tap community resources to help. Sometimes the efforts of school personnel aren’t enough. Enlist the help of community partners. Pastors can encourage excellent attendance. Food banks, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, local churches and shelters, or other community agencies can often provide help to people in need, therefore resulting in better attendance.

10. Use the juvenile justice system, if necessary. In most states, juveniles with chronic absenteeism can be referred to the state court system and have legal pressure applied to them. For example, the process of putting a juvenile under the supervision of the court in Virginia is called the CHINS program or “Child in Need of Supervision.” 

A “Child in Need of Supervision” means either: 

  • A child who … is habitually and without justification absent from school despite the school system’s reasonable efforts to effect the child’s regular attendance without success … or 
  • A child who, without reasonable cause and without the consent of his parent, or guardian, remains away from … or abandons his family/custodian on more than one occasion.

Improving student attendance is critically necessary for the good of the students and for the good of the country. By developing positive, meaningful relationships with students and creating conditions for them to be successful, teachers and administrators are much more likely to influence students to improve their attendance. All it takes is continual, focused efforts. 

John Gratto is an assistant professor in the department of educational leadership at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, VA.