School Mental Health Project

Reducing School Attendance Problems
Countering the Over-pathologizing of Students' Feelings & Behavior

Student absences jeopardize student and school success. Academic achievement scores are correlated with school attendance. Students who are not at school cannot receive instruction. Excessive school absence is a precursor of school dropout and is related to juvenile delinquency. And, because average daily attendance rates are a common determiner of school funding, absences mean that schools have less resources to do the job.

Given all this, it is not surprising that reducing school absences is a top priority for many schools.

Because the matter is so fundamental, the Center recently compiled a policy and practice analysis brief entitled: School Attendance Problems: Are Current Policies & Practices Going in the Right Direction? ( attendance problems.pdf ).

That brief provides a quick overview of issues related to school attendance problems and then frames directions for policy and practice. As with all Center briefs, it is meant to highlight the topic and provide a tool for discussion by school policy makers and practitioners. In particular, it explores matters such as: How important is attendance to school success? Why do students skip school? What do schools do when students have attendance problems? How effective are existing policies and practices? What seems to work?

The following excerpt from the brief is the section discussing practices for reducing school attendance problems.

Toward Better Policies and Practices:
The Key is Helping Students Feel Connected

Schools, districts, and states have developed policies regarding attendance and have delineated interventions.

In general, district policies and practices related to attendance problems focus mostly on truancy.

The tendency is toward increasingly harsh punishments for unexcused absences. And, this works against efforts to take into account the various underlying causes of attendance problems and the range of prevention, early intervention, and ongoing support that might more effectively address the problems.

What are the Numbers?

Data from the Condition of Education 2000-2006 indicate the following data for elementary and middle schools:

    "In 2005, 19 percent of 4th-graders and 20 percent of 8th-graders reported missing 3 or more days of school in the previous month. . . . In both grades, students were more likely to miss 3 or more days of school if a language other than English was spoken at home, if the student was an English language learner, or if the student was classified as having a disability. Additionally, in both grades, a lower percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students and a higher percentage of American Indian students reported missing 3 or more days of school than their peers in other racial and ethnic groups. Students who were eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch were more likely to be absent from school for 3 or more days than those who were not eligible. This pattern among students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch has remained stable for both 4th- and 8th-grade students from 1998 and 2005."

    The National Center for Education Statistics indicates the follow data for 10th graders during the first half of the 2002-2003 school year:

    • 14.3% of all students missed no days
    • 35.4% missed 1-2 days
    • 33.0% missed 3-6 days
    • 17.2% missed more than 6 days

Interventions usually are reactive but may include (1) incentives & disincentives, (2) efforts to provide supports to promote attendance, and (3) coordinated efforts involving school and community agencies, including juvenile justice. There is a clear need for greater attention to prevention and intervening as early as feasible after attendance problems are noted. There is a need for a comprehensive, multifaceted and integrated approach that weaves together the resources of school and community.

As the folks at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory have noted in discussing dropouts:

    "Children at-risk need to be identified at a young age (as early as preschool) so that early sustained intervention can be applied. Success in the elementary grades diminishes the possibility of later dropping out in high school. The key ... is helping youth to overcome their sense of disconnectedness. It is imperative not to isolate or alienate any students from the school. Not all factors related to dropout [and truancy] reduction are school controllable, and solutions to the complex problem[s] of dropouts [and truancy] cannot be achieved by the schools alone. ... It requires resources that go beyond the school, and solutions require a team approach the combined efforts of students, parents, teachers, administrators, community-based organizations, and business, as well as the federal, state, and local governments."

What the School Can Do

Addressing lack of connectedness with school and schooling is a growing problem and requires enhancing

  • supports for transitions
  • interventions to re-engage students in schooling
Supports for Transitions

Periods of transition can increase school attendance problems. Examples of such periods are:

  • entry into school at kindergarten
  • moving to a new home and into a new school
  • beginning a new year in a new class
  • articulation from elementary to middle or middle to high school
  • re-entry from suspensions, expulsions, juvenile detention
  • inclusion from special to regular education
Every school needs transition supports as part of efforts to address attendance problems. And, student support staff can play a major role in planning and developing such programs.

During transitions, potent interventions are needed to ensure students are welcomed and connected with ongoing social supports. Beyond that, individual assistance must be provided quickly to students having transition problems. Practices can be grouped into three categories:

  • Broad-band practices (often designated universal approaches) to ensure support is in place for each identified transition where intervention is indicated.

  • Enhanced personalization to accommodate minor differences (watching for individuals having minor adjustment problems and providing just a bit more personalized assistance, e.g., aid in overcoming minor barriers to successful adjustment, a few more options to enable effective functioning and make participation more attractive).

  • Special assistance (identifying as early as feasible those who have not made an effective adjustment or who remain uninvolved, those displaying an intense lack of interest or negative attitudes, and/or lack of capability). This facet of the work requires continued use of personalized approaches, as well as intensive outreach and special assistance.
A key facet of all this involves careful monitoring that (a) identifies students who are having difficulty making a transition and (b) ensures the problem is corrected.

Connecting with Students Who Are Becoming Disengaged

A second major arena in need of attention is that of designing classroom and school-wide programs to re-engage students who have become actively disengaged from schooling. This is one of the most neglected aspects in school improvement planning.

For motivated students, facilitating learning is a fairly straightforward matter and fits well with school improvements that primarily emphasize enhancing instructional practices. The focus is on helping establish ways for students who are motivationally ready and able to achieve and, in the process, maintains and hopefully enhances their motivation. The process involves knowing when, how, and what to teach and also knowing when and how to structure the situation so students can learn on their own.

Unfortunately, students who manifest learning, behavior, and/or emotional problems often have developed extremely negative perceptions of teachers, programs, and school in general. This can lead to active disengagement from classroom instruction and school. Where the problem is widespread, it needs to be acknowledged and established as a high priority for school improvement. School support staff and teachers can then collaborate in developing a major initiative for re-engaging those who have become disengaged and for reversing conditions that led to the problem. (See the following Exhibit for general strategies.)

Exhibit General Strategies for Working with Disengaged Students

Given appropriate commitment in policy and practice, there are four general strategies we recommend for those who are working with disengaged students. These are highlighted below; reference to resources for pursuing these matters are listed at the end of this article.

  • Clarifying student perceptions of the problem Talk openly with students about why they have become disengaged so that steps can be planned for how to alter the negative perceptions of disengaged students and prevent others from developing such perceptions.

  • Reframing school learning In the case of those who have become disengaged, it is unlikely that they will be open to schooling that looks like "the same old thing." Major changes in approach are required if they are even to perceive that anything has changed. Minimally, exceptional efforts must be made to have these students (a) view the teacher as supportive (rather than controlling and indifferent) and (b) perceive content, outcomes, and activity options as personally valuable and obtainable. It is important, for example, to eliminate threatening evaluative measures; reframe content and processes to clarify purpose in terms of real life needs and experiences and underscore how it all builds on previous learning; and clarify why procedures can be effective especially those designed to help correct specific problems.

  • Renegotiating involvement in school learning New and mutual agreements must be developed and evolved over time through conferences with the student and where appropriate including parents. The intent is to affect perceptions of choice, value, and probable outcome. The focus throughout is on clarifying awareness of valued options, enhancing expectations of positive outcomes, and engaging the student in meaningful, ongoing decision making. For the process to be most effective, students should be assisted in sampling new processes and content, options should include valued enrichment opportunities, and there must be provision for reevaluating and modifying decisions as perceptions shift. In all this, it is essential to remember that effective decision making is a basic skill (as fundamental as the three Rs). Thus, if a student does not do well initially, this is not a reason to move away from student involvement in decision making. Rather, it is an assessment of a need and a reason to use the process not only for motivational purposes but also to improve this basic skill.

  • Reestablishing and maintaining an appropriate working relationship (e.g., through creating a sense of trust, open communication, providing support and direction as needed) In applying the above strategies, maintaining reengagement and preventing disengagement requires a continuous focus on:

    • ensuring that the processes and content minimize threats to feelings of competence, selfdetermination, and relatedness to valued others, maximize such feelings, and highlight accomplishments (included here is an emphasis on a school enhancing public perception that it is a welcoming, caring, safe, and just institution)

    • guiding motivated practice (e.g., providing opportunities for meaningful applications and clarifying ways to organize practice)

    • providing continuous information on learning and performance

    • providing opportunities for continued application and generalization (e.g., ways in which students can pursue additional, self-directed learning or can arrange for additional support and direction)


It is often said that school attendance is both a right and a responsibility. Certainly, those of us who value education can readily agree with this. And, for students who are absent from school because of circumstances over which they have no control, society has to play a greater role in addressing barriers that are abridging their rights.

However, there are some students who experience school as not a good fit and, therefore, see compulsory education not as a right or a responsibility but as an infringement on their self-determination. From a psychological perspective, the problem becomes motivational (e.g., avoidance motivation, reactance). So, addressing the problem requires strategies that are more psychologically sophisticated than those used by most schools and the society in general. Focusing only on "What's wrong with that kid!" often is blaming the victim and leads to ineffective policies and practices.

Given the variety of factors that play a role in school attendance problems, it is essential to avoid lumping all youngsters together. This is particularly important when the problem is truancy. Some truancy is reactive and some is proactive, which means the underlying motivation differs considerably and so should the interventions.

It seems evident that school attendance problems provide another indication of the need and opportunity for moving forward in new directions for student support. The complexity of such problems demands comprehensive, multifaceted, and integrated approaches. Policy and practice must now evolve so schools, families, and communities are working together to develop what is needed.


Also see the Center Online Clearinghouse Quick Find on:

All the above and more are synthesized in two books prepared by the Center co-directors (Adelman & Taylor) and published in 2006 by Corwin Press:

  • The school leader's guide to student learning supports: New directions for addressing barriers to learning.
  • The implementation guide to student learning supports in the classroom and schoolwide: New directions for addressing barriers to learning.

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