Solutions to chronic school absenteeism

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Kevin Dwyer

Our best in-school mental health promotion and interventions programs will not work if the students are chronically absent from school. Many experts believe that absence rates of 15 or more school days a year severely handicaps a student’s success and some even say more than 10 can be damaging. Excused or un-excused, it is the accumulation that disrupts the student’s instruction and has lasting impact too frequently leading to not graduating on time or dropping out.

High quality school-based mental health services are also thwarted. When schools have partnered with agencies to provide in-school services, those services are also disrupted by the student’s absence. In some urban schools more than 40% of students accumulate 10 or more days absence a year and a large percentage of these chronically absent students do not graduate.

In recent years the problem of absenteeism has become a priority for school communities across the country and among a multitude of community providers and stakeholders, including those in business and public safety.

At the 18th annual conference of National Coordinating Committee on School Health and Safety (NCCSHS) its committee members and its federal partners highlighted this topic and shared best practice solutions. The topic, Reducing Chronic Absenteeism – Promoting School Attendance focused on the critical value of gathering accurate data, “unpacking your data,” and of “drilling down” to examine causes that can be remedied. For example, the cause can be severe anxiety, or a medical problem like asthma.  Sometimes we forget to focus on the physical and mental health problems behind absence. Improve the management of the asthma (training staff and family) has been shown to improve attendance. Treating the anxiety improves attendance. Good data analysis has been shown to help school teams. We also know that not addressing the problem early results in patterns of absenteeism from pre-kindergarten, to primary grades, leading to poor reading skills and eventual middle school behavior problems. Like all behavioral issues catching the problems early can have the greatest impact.  

Poverty a Barrier
Poverty has negative impacts on school attendance. According to Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works (, 90% of students with severe attendance problems are from “low-income” families. Findings show unstable housing, limited access to healthcare, poor transportation, unsafe paths to school, inadequate food and clothing and poor quality of schools are poverty related barriers to attendance. These findings should direct us, and policy makers toward remedies that address the real causes rather than faulting the parent or student for truancy.

When looking at preschool students Chang advises to target early interventions to those students who miss 2 days in the first 2 weeks of school or 2-3 days in the first month. Four days in 2 months would be a “red flag” for an effective intervention plan. It is this construct of not waiting for more disappointing results that is critical.

Incentives work!
Providing incentives to attend has also been shown to work, particularly those social incentives that are noted in resilience training. Showing caring and connectedness has also enabled some students to overcome barriers to attendance, particularly if they are supported in addressing those barriers (see: Resilient Classrooms: Creating Healthy Environments for Learning (2014. B. Doll

Other research shows that regular attendance is increased when students are taught social-emotional learning skills (see: When children are instructed to become more socially adept and responsible they are more likely to regularly attend school.

When looking at schools, according to Hedy Chang, we can see that children that are struggling with academics or lack engaging instruction can be causes of poor attendance.  Ineffective schools and those with a poor climate also show high absenteeism. Parents that have had poor school attendance also are more likely to have children with poor attendance. According to one survey by Todd Rogers, of Harvard, found that many parents of students with chronic absenteeism actually believe that most children have like patterns of poor attendance and that it was normal.

Engaging students and parents in generating solutions works as does recognizing and praising good attendance. An interesting finding is that schools tend to focus only on unexcused absence from school and in those cases, upon who is to blame for the problem. Like many problems absenteeism has complex causes, and is best addressed early. The three-tiered prevention/intervention framework works (#1 school wide prevention and promotion of attendance; #2 early intervention for those at risk of chronic absenteeism, and; #3 effective intensive, interagency interventions sustained as needed).

Critical to success is having school-wide plans that address both a caring school climate and strong academic supports for students falling behind. Addressing early the “warning signs” of poor attendance, including excused absences with early interventions that work including: attendance success plans; attendance support mentors; engaging after school programs; peer buddies and; peer families.

I have mentioned Cleveland public schools in previous posts. They are aggressively addressing attendance problems and have reported that schools that are using the combination of social skill training, problem solving teams, class meetings and other three tiered interventions have improved attendance or are reducing the progression of absenteeism. They are starting a project to focus on some schools using staff analysts. The Analyst are responsible for monitoring and coaching school teams as they use Principal's Tool Kits from

Everyone in school communities must be an advocate for improved school attendance. It is a no-brainer. If the students are not there regularly we cannot succeed in enriching their lives and giving them the tools they need to graduate. The National Coordinating Committee on School Health and Safety plans to continue to advocate for effective interventions and policies to improve school attendance.  

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dwyerKevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant.  He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and wellbeing for the education, and mental health of children.  He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers.  His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family-focused collaborative child service systems.  During his 30 years as a public school psychologist, he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment.  He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children.  In 2007, the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly.  He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award.  In 2000, he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.



  1. Jane Meyers's avatar
    Jane Meyers
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    Thank you! I am all for the three-tiered intervention program. Here in California,too often intervention systems are built, are effective, and then go away. Usually lack of ongoing funding is the problem. We would save so much money in education and in future well-being if we kept the intervention systems going.

    Just reading about ballerina Misty Copeland shows that it was her personal resilience and some caring adults that allowed her determination to continue in the dance world. The systems that we set in place need to continue so that the kids who are not Misty Copelands can also thrive.

    My frustration in education has centered around how to sustain what is wonderful.

    Enjoyed reading your article. You have influenced me for so many years!!
  2. Judith Nuss's avatar
    Judith Nuss
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    Great article! Good to see the attendance rates rising in the CASEL CDI districts like Austin and Cleveland where district-wide social and emotional learning work is having measurable impact. Thanks, Kevin, for the insight and reminders of effective intervention strategies to support school attendance and therefore, school performance!

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