Across the country, states are holding schools accountable for student absenteeism rates. This puts pressure on teachers to make sure students are showing up for class every day.
Some teachers argue there is little they can do to influence attendance, given the challenges students face beyond the classroom. And it’s true that some students are simply too sick, hungry, or depressed to come to school, while others are so disengaged that they skip class.
But it’s not true that teachers have no control over student absences. New research by Brown University researchers suggests that individual teachers can influence whether kids show up for class. The study found that students had about 44 percent fewer unexcused absences in math classes and 54 percent fewer in English with certain teachers.
A new playbook, released by FutureEd and Attendance Works, provides nearly two dozen proven strategies for reducing absences, excused, and unexcused. Teachers are central to many of the evidence-based solutions. The interventions fall into three baskets:
1. Engaging Students and Families
Teachers can deliver positive messages about attendance to students and create incentives, ranging from an attendance bulletin board for kindergartners featuring students with the best attendance to high school consistent attendance competitions across homerooms.
It’s also important to communicate with families. Students are considered chronically absent if they miss 10 percent of the school year in excused or unexcused absences. In most districts, that’s 18 days, or about two days a month. Some parents and caregivers don’t realize how quickly that adds up.
Many schools have begun sending letters and texts letting parents know how many days their children have missed so far. This is something teachers can also address in parent-teacher conferences or in regular communications.
Another proven approach is sending teachers to visit students and families at home. This gives teachers a stronger connection with parents and a sense of the challenges students face. The Parent-Teacher Home Visit model involves sending two teachers on every visit and compensating them for time spend beyond the school day.
2. Creating a Welcoming School Climate
The work that teachers do to make school a nurturing place for students can also improve attendance rates. Research shows a direct link between a poor school climate and absenteeism. The playbook includes several strategies for helping students feel that they belong at school.
These can start at the classroom door with greetings—a handshake or a hug. It can continue with practices that bring students together in a circle to talk through problems and conflicts. Youth engagement programs that focus on managing emotions or regulating behavior are connected to strong gains in attendance.
For students who are approaching or have already reached the chronic absenteeism threshold, mentoring is a particularly effective intervention. Schools are using community volunteers, staff members, and older students to build connections with at-risk students and helping them improve attendance. Students are more likely to care about school attendance when they feel cared about.
3. Overcoming Barriers to Attendance
Some of the factors influencing absenteeism—such as poor health, unreliable transportation and housing instability—are beyond a teacher’s control. But teachers have a key role in identifying the barriers that students face and helping them connect with the resources they need.
The work teachers do building relationships with students and families will give them insight into whether a child is struggling with uncontrolled asthma, sleeping on an aunt’s sofa across town, or afraid to walk to school through dangerous intersections. This information can help direct solutions: a visit to a school-based health clinic, a “Walking School Bus” to deliver kids to school, or a referral to a service provider.
Teachers play an essential role in turning around absenteeism. And they have a vested interest. After all, it’s hard to teach to an empty desk.