Chronic absenteeism—defined as students missing 10 percent or more of school days—is a target area for many school districts for improving student achievement. This makes sense: Students who are chronically absent are more likely to lack reading skills, have lower test scores, and receive exclusionary school discipline, and they are in higher jeopardy of not graduating. And it’s a big problem: Chronic absenteeism affects one in seven students nationwide.
Typically, schools try to identify who is chronically absent and determine if there are cohesive subgroups of children most affected (recent immigrants, households with single parents, or caregivers with economic or health challenges). Sometimes the conditions that lead to absenteeism have more to do with family circumstances than student motivation. This is valuable and important information for school staff to have when deciding necessary supports for an individual child.
But it’s not enough to simply get a student back on track with school attendance. Teachers, faculty, and staff need to continue their work in making all students feel welcomed at school. Finding ways to get students back into the building is step one, while continuously finding ways to let them know that they have genuinely been missed and are valuable to the community is the second-order change we need. Empty seats may have economic ramifications for a school, but continually filling the hearts and minds and raising the spirits of our students can have major social, emotional, and educational benefits.
What Are First Steps?
According to the National School Climate Center, creating a positive climate is the basis for academic success, social-emotional and character development, and the prevention of harassment, intimidation, bullying, and other problem behaviors. And studies show a relationship between school climate and attendance in general—though so far this knowledge has not been directly extended to discussions of chronic absenteeism. But when we think of chronic absenteeism, an essential part of the long-term solution most likely involves getting all students to feel engaged in school so that they will want to be present.
As schools attempt to identify and bring back individual students with frequent absences, it is essential that the affected students feel as if the school is their oasis, not their holding cell. Schools must have a culture and climate that embraces all students and families. Kids have exquisite fairness detectors and know when they have been treated more punitively than another child.
Creating a Welcoming and Positive School Climate
The Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for New Jersey has worked to identify and develop some of the key elements of a positive school climate.
- Inspiring: Schools should connect to students’ aspirations and actively encourage them to reach for the stars. Students should be asked to set specific goals for the school year and for each subject or class period. Goal-setting should be a school-wide practice.
- Supportive: Challenge must be accompanied by support; schools benefit from collective efficacy, where students are encouraged to help one another. In CASEL’s Social Decision Making/Problem Solving program, for example, elementary students are encouraged to set individual, ongoing character improvement and study skills goals and to buddy up with classmates to help in this process—improvement is not seen as an individual task, and setbacks are seen as a normal part of learning.
- Safe and Healthy: A supportive SEL culture needs to be developed throughout the school, and in every classroom. Ultimately, we are each others’ keepers, and so students must be upstanders for all classmates. They need support in learning how best to respect themselves by attending to their own good physical and social-emotional health, as well as others’.
- Respectful: Respect for others is an important expectation in a school building, and its modeling is essential—student to student, student to adult, and adult to adult—including parents and caregivers. Schools must be especially attuned to how intimidating and unfamiliar school can be for some family members, such as those who are recent immigrants or those families struggling economically.
- Engaging: Learning defined as “engaging” is active and problem-focused, and it leads learners to create meaningful products. Classroom communities should set and pursue goals for learning together, and so should adults in the building—this includes teacher groups, student support staff, security personnel and school resource officers, office staff, grounds and maintenance personnel, and school administrators. All school members should have ongoing goals for improving themselves and their contributions to their schools, and work together to overcome roadblocks they meet on the way.
Public education is about opening the doors to learning and citizenship for all. Meeting this sacred responsibility is possible when our schools work to have a positive school culture and climate. If we build this, kids will come. And when they can’t, once we help them with family and related hurdles and they do come, they are more likely to stay.