Getting students back in the building is just step one—next comes fostering a positive school climate so that they want to stay.

By Maurice J. Elias

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.


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.

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