Intervention spotlight: Attendance Counts

It goes without saying that children who aren’t at school can’t reap the full benefits of the classroom.  But improving attendance is a common concern, that often has no simple solutions. 

But the stats are staggering.

National organization, Attendance Works reports that over 7 million students miss at least a month of school each year. And since as little as two weeks of missed days can begin to decrease student performance there’s great reason to focus on improving attendance as an intervention for student success.

One of my job duties when I was an elementary school social worker was raising an 80% attendance rate to having 100% of our students missing less than 10 days each year.  The barriers were there. Being a charter school meant many of our students rode with parents or walked due to very limited bus service. 100% of our students qualified for free or reduced lunch so there were many reasons why parents would opt not to bring them on any particular day. From no gas to get to school all the way to parents who worked at night and fell asleep before drop off time. Bottom line, the cause of the attendance challenges were often out of my control, but influencing these behaviors was something I was had to do.

Like always, I believe that the most important factor in changing any behavior is establishing a relationship to determine the true cause of that behavior. So for me, that meant actually speaking to every parent of every student that was missing school. Yes, that’s right I called EVERY. PARENT. Absolutely time consuming, but it was undoubtedly the number one tool. Call parents personally when students are absent.  Not the robodial, but a personal phone call to each and every student who is absent.

Here’s my sample script:

“Good morning Mr/Ms.____.  This is __________ from _______school. I noticed that _______ isn’t in school today.  Is everything okay?”

After some time, I’ve realized why these calls were so effective. Saying that I noticed the absence lets them know that an actual person is monitoring the attendance and not just some random computer.  The extra call from a real person also helps because some families really do have a good reason for absences and if you start off attacking them for the absence you’re not likely to get any information that can help you help them. Then I get to the point.

“When I looked at the past ________(insert time frame) I’ve noticed ______absences.” 

I can’t tell you the number of times that parents were genuinely unaware of how many absences that their children had. Think about your own life, when you’re sick or your child is sick, you don’t necessarily keep a running total of how many days they had missed.  Many families who have chronic attendance issues have a lot of other stresses that takes a priority in their lives so they may actually be underestimating how much time that they have missed. I also take this as an opportunity to let them know why attendance is so important.

“You know, I really want _____ to be successful and he/she is doing well, is there anything else I could do to help make sure he/she’s here every day?”

You’ll need to have some resources ready.  If bus transportation is an issue, you’ll need the number to the central office or possibly access to funds for bus passes.  If you’re not the school social worker, you’ll want to have their number ready as a resource for the family as well. I’ve had families tell me that they were homeless or that there has been a crisis in the family, this is a wonderful way to turn a potentially negative interaction into a relationship building moment.  

Monitoring their attendance is important so use all your technology resources to pull reports each week. I created a list of my students to watch would track them consistently. For some I created an attendance contract and held a meeting with administrators to help parents see the seriousness of the situation. For others where these simple measures had helped improve their attendance, I’d give them another personal touch and send a thank you note.

Remember that many of the families with chronic attendance issues may also have behavior challenges or other negative connections to school.  These parents may not be accustomed to receiving positive news from the school, take the time to call or send a note to let them know that you appreciate their efforts. When one of my lowest attending families had a month of perfect attendance I had the classroom teacher and all the administrators sign a thank you card and mailed it to the home.  Based on the reaction from the student after they returned to school after opening the card, I can only imagine how happy the family was receiving it.

Remember attendance is only one piece of the puzzle in closing the gap between your students and their success. Keep up the great work and if you’d like my help in your building let me know by sending me a note or completing my request for consultation here.