Monday, October 16, 2023

About Chronic School Absenteeism

By Sam Piha 
(Note: Our series of blog posts on chronic school absenteeism
are excerpts from a larger briefing paper entitled, Chronic School Absenteeism and the Role of Afterschool.)

We know that school attendance is key to student success. “Students who attend school regularly are more likely to master academic content, get good grades, feel connected to their community, develop healthy habits, and ultimately graduate from high school.” [i]

Before the pandemic, about 8 million U.S. students were considered chronically absent, according to the research group Attendance Works. By spring 2022, that number had almost doubled to around 14.7 million. (You can read or listen to this NPR piece on absenteeism post-COVID, 3 Years Since the Pandemic Wrecked Attendance Kids Still Aren’t Showing Up to School.)

Afterschool programs are particularly well positioned to reduce chronic absenteeism by focusing efforts on ensuring the quality of their programs and partnering with the school, families, and the community. 

“Leveraging the power of afterschool programs to reduce chronic absence is especially important now given the economic challenges facing communities and schools and the growing number of students at risk of academic failure and dropping out. By having an impact on attendance, afterschool programs can clearly demonstrate how they benefit students and schools and better justify their own funding.” [ii]

Terms And Definitions

The definitions provided here are to assist in understanding some frequently used terms. 

Chronic absenteeism- “Chronic absence is a measure of the total instructional time missed by a student and is defined as individual students missing at least 10 percent of school for any reason. If students miss one day every other week, that’s 18 absences annually, or 10 percent of the year.” [iii]


School refusal- “This is a term used to describe the signs of anxiety a school-aged child has and his or her refusal to go to school. It is also called school avoidance or school phobia. It can be seen in different types of situations, including: Young children going to school for the first time.” [iv]

Exclusionary discipline practices- “Exclusionary discipline, which involves removing students from the classroom through punishments such as suspensions and expulsions, deprives students of the opportunity to learn.” [v]

Punitive policies- “Imposed punitive consequences have the effect of shaming and stigmatizing students who have caused harm. Restorative processes offer an opportunity for students who have caused harm to understand the source of their behavior, take responsibility for their choices, and to learn and grow from the experience.” [vi]

Bullying- “The repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or online.” [vii]

More About Chronic Absenteeism

The Sweetwater Union High School District writes, 

“Chronic Absenteeism:

  • Is a primary cause of lower academic achievement, even when the absences are “excused” or understandable.
  • Is a powerful predictor of those students who may eventually drop out of school. This affects an estimated five to seven and a half million students each year.
  • Can even affect students in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade, who are then much less likely to read at grade level by the end of third grade.
  • Is caused by a variety of issues, including chronic health conditions, housing instability, involvement with the juvenile justice system, and unsafe conditions in school, among many others.
  • Is particularly prevalent among students who are low-income, students of color, students with disabilities, students who are highly mobile, and/or juvenile justice-involved youth—in other words, those who already tend to face significant challenges and for whom school is particularly beneficial.
  • Is particularly prevalent among those students who are homeless or reside in public housing.
  • May lead to substance abuse. When students are skipping school, many of them become engaged in risky behavior such as substance abuse and delinquency.
  • Affects other students, too. Not only are frequent absences harmful to the absentee, but they also have a negative effect on the achievement of other students in the classroom.
  • Can negatively influence future adult health outcomes. Indeed, the mortality rate of high school dropouts is over two times greater than that for adults with some college education.
  • Can increase likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system.
  • Is not measured by most states or school districts in this country, which leaves many educators and communities without information they need to identify students who could use additional support to maintain regular attendance.” [viii]

End Notes:

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