Common sense tells us that students can’t learn if they are not at school. Research confirms that school attendance affects student achievement, especially absences not due to illness.
Sadly, too many students skip classes, especially in secondary school.
Why Some Students Miss Too Much School
There are many things that affect school attendance.
Students are far more likely to have poor attendance rate if they:
- Are anxious when at school
- Have social issues
- Are performing poorly
- Lack the drive to do well at school
Another key factor that affects school attendance is parents who don’t value education in general, and school attendance in particular. Other factors include socio-economic status, school climate and staff morale.
A final, and critical factor, is the relationships that exist between teachers and their students. In fact, chronically absent students view their relationships with their teachers (or lack thereof) as the most important factor of all.
What You Can Do To Increase School Attendance
What can you do to increase school attendance?
This question was asked of me by one of our respected community members and I have systematically reviewed the research to find the answer.
The good news is that the research showed it is possible to dramatically improve school attendance – especially if students existing attendance is higher than 40%.
Of course, some of the factors associated with chronic absence are beyond the school’s control.
In this article, I focus on:
- things that you can control (or at least influence)
- those strategies that have a proven and positive impact on school attendance
That said, teachers and other school staff should be able to point certain students towards external help. For example, the attendance rate of students with anxiety issues rises dramatically when they receive a combination of antidepressants and cognitive behaviour therapy.
Strategy 1: Be Passionate About Teaching & Learning
You need to show your students that you are passionate about the subjects you teach. Even more importantly, you must show your students that you are just as passionate about helping them to do well in those areas.
When you make this explicit, through both actions and words, students see the other strategies you will use in a far more positive light. They understand that you are in there with them, trying to help them succeed.
Strategy 2: Show Students They Are Important To You
Students who know that you care about them are far more likely to come to school. While strategy one shows this at the group level, it is also critical to forge productive relationships with students individually.
Students don’t always remember what you do, but they do remember how you made them feel. Make them feel important, accepted and cared for. Take the time to talk with them outside of the classroom, show an interest in their lives and genuine empathy for the things they are going through. However, don’t let this understanding lead you to excuse poor behaviour.
Strategy 3: Pressing Students To Excel
Some students are more likely to have absence issues than others. This includes indigenous students, poor students and students who don’t like to work hard at school.
Yet, if you adopt a ‘that’s just the way these students are’ attitude you only make the problem worse. Sadly, this is what some schools do through formal tracking programs and through shunting struggling students into less pressing subjects too early. It is also something individual teachers do with ‘certain classes’.
Every child is capable of academic learning and succeeding at school. You need to communicate this belief and then press students to do well. Raise the standard of what you expect from your students – including their effort, their thinking and their results. Then reward students for striving hard.
Strategy 4: Encourage Extracurricular Participation
Students are more likely to attend classes when they feel connected to your school. Schools with high rates of participation in school-based extracurricular activities have significantly lower rates of student absenteeism than other schools.
Effective extracurricular activities include sport and community service. Such activities nurture school pride. Furthermore, they provide an opportunity for teachers to forge stronger relationships with their students outside of the classroom.
Strategy 5: Adopt Social-Emotional Learning Programs
Many of the students with chronic absence issues suffer from personal and interpersonal issues. Some don’t believe in themselves, some give up whenever things get hard and some find it difficult to work with their peers.
Research shows that schools who implement social-emotional training programs have a significant increase in school attendance rates. Curriculum Press, the Australian Council of Educational Research and You Can Do It Education, all sell programs to Australian schools. For a more extensive description and review of programs check out Safe and Sound: An Educational Leader’s Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs.
Strategy 6: Implement Behaviour Support Programs
Behaviour support programs are based on behavioural psychology pioneered by people such as B. F. Skinner. Despite being old fashioned, research shows that they are one of the most effective ways to increase school attendance.
Behaviour programs start by setting an explicit attendance goal and explaining why that goal is important. Teachers (and other staff) offer support by prompting students (e.g. telling them you expect to see them tomorrow at the end of a lesson or as they leave school for the day). Teachers then reinforce students as they show improved attendance, and sanction them when they are absent without cause.
Strategy 7: Utilise Adventure Programs
Adventure programs place students in an unfamiliar environment for an extended period, and involve experiential challenges such as rock climbing, rafting and team building games.
Quality programs include specific goals and structured preparation (emotional, social and skill-based) to achieve those goals. Program facilitators give students individual feedback that helps them rise above their personal challenges and achieve their goal. Finally, the facilitators explicitly help students to crystalize their learning and transfer it back to their success at school.
One such program with a proven impact is the Australian version of Outward Bound. If you want to improve school attendance, you should send targeted year levels (e.g. Yr. 9 & 10) on such a program.
Strategy 8: Refine Your Classroom Management
If you combine strategies 1-3 with fair and consistent discipline, you will increase student attendance and student achievement. If I assume you have the basics in-hand (e.g. explicit expectations, rules, routines etc.), what specific aspects of classroom management will help you improve school attendance?
The first thing to do is to recognise and praise industrious behaviour – things like genuinely wanting to do well at something, working hard to achieve it, and persisting even when things go wrong. The second is to nip small or potential issues in the bud, using techniques such as positive correction, redirection and warnings.
However, the key strategy is what Robert Marzano calls ‘with-it-ness’ – a routine state of awareness about what is going on in the classroom. It is this with-it-ness that enables you to catch kids doing things right and to address minor misbehaviour without having to resort to punitive measures.
Strategy 9: Improve Your Teaching
Students are more likely to come to school if they are succeeding, and they are more likely to succeed if you teach them well. Sadly, some people misconstrue this concept by trying to entertain students, by giving them easy activities or by praising work that doesn’t deserve it.
Real teaching involves helping students to genuinely master the material they are meant to learn. To do so you can draw on evidence based teaching strategies and ensure that everything you do is underpinned by evidence based principles.
However, there is one strategy in particular that is associated with higher rates of student engagement, which in turn is linked to school attendance. That strategy is adjunct questioning. In a nutshell, adjunct questioning involves asking students to show their understanding of something before moving onto the next part of the lesson.
For adjunct questioning to be effective, you must give all students time to think of answer and come up with a way to prevent some students from loafing while other students offer the answers. For more information on adjunct questioning see our upcoming article Questioning Strategies for Teachers.
Strategy 10: Ask Just One Thing Of Parents
People have been talking about the importance of parent involvement for decades, yet research shows that there is one thing that parents can do that will have far more impact than anything else.
Students, whose parents value education, and more specifically attendance, are far less likely to have high levels of avoidable absence.
Therefore, you should spend time explaining the value of education to parents. There is a clear is link between education and students’ subsequent health, wealth and happiness. You need to get this general message to parents and ask them to reinforce it with their children.
You also need to couple this general message with a specific one about the link between school attendance and how well students subsequently do at school.
Repeat this message at every opportunity, including parent information nights, newsletters and parent-teacher interviews.
Here is a video you can show talking about the importance of school attendance.
You can view additional videos here.
Here is a quick list of 10 evidence based teaching strategies.
More Detail On How To Implement Behaviour Support Programs
The systematic monitoring of school attendance is critical to the success of behaviour support programs. So too is the timely feeding back of this data to teachers and students on a daily, weekly and periodic basis. When data is fed back to students, it serves as either natural reinforcement or aversive.
Each day, teachers, school leaders and support staff go out of their way to prompt targeted students to attend the day. This can be done in their home room, at the end of lessons and in the school yard as students leave for the day.
Recognise and reward good (or improved) attendance. Potent ways to recognise a student’s improved attendance range from simple praise (especially from a teacher or adult who has a good relationship with that teacher), to phoning parents when a student receives a certain attendance milestones, and even formal recognition such as awards handed out at assembly and letters from the principal. Rewards can include end of term celebrations and tickets in a draw for vouchers/prizes. Rewards work for individuals, for whole classes and for the entire school. The key is to create an explicit link between achieving a concrete attendance goal and the reward.
You also need to sanction students when they are absent without cause. Again, this could be as simple as an SMS to parents on the first day, a phone call to parents on the second day and a home visit for prolonged absences. This can be further reinforced by the student being called aside and spoken to by a member of the leadership upon their return, and by other significant adults indicating their disappointment as incidental opportunities arise.