how to improve school attendance
Sep 14 2023

How to Improve School Attendance Using 7 Simple Strategies

Positive Action Staff
The average school career is peppered with absences—sometimes for excusable reasons like illness, caring for a family member with special healthcare needs, or facing emotional or mental health challenges.

However, when the school attendance problem approaches chronic absenteeism, it takes a toll on the student’s academic career and poses a greater dropout risk.

At elementary school, a student who is absent two days of class per month will miss about 10% of the entire school year. Each absence puts them behind their peers, especially when it comes to literacy.

In middle school, chronic absence will make a student struggle more when they move on to high school. Once these students enter high school and continues to rack up absences, they’ll fall even further behind their peers and be more likely to drop out.

These dropouts face a lifetime of poor employment opportunities as well as a greater risk of incarceration. This begs the question:

What’s the most creative and understanding approach to improve school attendance?

#1. Create a Welcoming and Engaging School Environment

Making school a nurturing place for students can improve attendance. Creating an engaging environment at school is critical since 16% of school populations struggle with chronic absenteeism.

However, it shouldn’t be a difficult task.

Establishing the right school climate can start at the class door with greetings, and extend to bringing students together in a circle to talk through problems and conflict.

For high school environments, you can tap into youth engagement programs that focus on managing emotions or regulating behavior to address students’ underlying challenges.

For students who already have chronic absenteeism, mentoring can be an effective intervention. Your school can use community volunteers, staff members, or older students to build connections with at-risk students and help them improve attendance.

Your school might be facing problems that threaten attendance like:

  • Bullying
  • Gangs
  • Violence
  • Drug abuse

In such cases, a school should involve parents, school staff, stakeholders, and the surrounding community to build a positive school culture that will improve attendance. It’s a tall order that calls for a whole-school-reform model.

#2. Develop Student Attendance Policy

As much as you’d like to understand the excusable absences of your students, you have a responsibility to develop policies that reduce chronic absenteeism.

Such policies should stipulate:

  • Maximum possible excused absence the school allows
  • How to handle unexcused absences
  • Steps to correct a chronically absent student
  • Action to take when a student violates the school attendance policy
  • Reward points for students who don’t miss school

Example of a School Attendance Policy

  • Maximum possible excused absence -> Three in a school year
  • An unexcused absence -> A phone call to the parent
  • Over three unexcused absences -> A face-to-face meeting with parent and student
  • 100% perfect attendance for the entire school year -> Award a badge

Such a policy is useful when chronic absence is a school-wide problem because it’ll monitor school attendance, establish the root cause of chronic absence, and address it.

However, it’s important to engage students in developing these policies because people are most excited to participate in programs they’re involved in creating.

#3. Connect with At-Risk Students

As a teacher, you might identify chronically absent students and build a relationship to understand the underlying problem. These students might be undergoing life experiences that require a solid student-teacher connection to solve.

Your first step to connecting deeper is to categorize the student’s root problem. It might be:

  • School-related: Is there a hostile school climate, an ineffective discipline system, or a lack of relevant curriculum? Might the problem be stemming from a disregard for student learning styles or passive instructional strategies?

  • Student-related: Does the student have behavioral problems, low ability levels, or poor peer relationships? Is there drug or alcohol abuse, disability, illness, or non-participation in class?

  • Family-related: How does the socioeconomic status of the student’s family affect their school day? Is low parental involvement or high expectations the problem? Might there be dysfunction at home, abuse, or instability?

  • Community-related: Does the community surrounding the student have a high incidence of criminal activity or gang problems?

Getting answers to the above questions will allow you to interact with an at-risk student without preconceived notions. It prevents you from forming ideas about how the student is going to react.

After getting answers, allow the student to be open. Then, incorporate a democratic model to teach at-risk students that their opinions matter and their voices are worth hearing.

When you understand them, you can handle their problems more effectively.

#4. Involve Parents when Addressing Poor Attendance

Managing absenteeism can be a challenging task, especially when stress factors are within the family. Family problems like divorce, financial instability, and sibling bullying may put stress on a student’s emotions and cause them to lose focus or act out at school.

A good parent-teacher relationship is a great starting point for handling family-related chronic absences.

Your first step to involving parents in their children’s learning is proper communication. For instance:

  • The school can provide regular reminders to parents of school procedures and update them on their children’s attendance.
  • The school can have a dedicated “attendance” telephone line specifically for parents to inform them of student absences.
  • Parent meetings can be arranged to discuss strategies to use in school and at home for encouraging regular attendance.

#5. Award Points for Attendance Achievements

According to a UK-based study, rewards are far more effective than punishment in motivating students.

When it comes to attendance, rewards can be used in multiple ways to counter chronic absenteeism, including:

  • Creating healthy competition among classrooms or grades for the highest or most improved attendance.
  • Coming up with a reward system for students with the highest or most improved attendance.
  • Using bulletin boards to list or show pictures of students with improved and good attendance.

Whichever method you choose, ensure it includes praise and recognizes or congratulates students who do have good attendance.

#6. Focus on Attendance Schoolwide

Ensure the school culture emphasizes building relationships with families and school social workers. You can then use these relationships to stress the importance of school attendance.

Principals can model an approach that engages staff and every school social worker—school counselor, school nurse, and school psychologist—to communicate the importance of school attendance to parents and students.

Students and parents might not understand that even accumulated excused attendance can be a problem as early as kindergarten and preschool. If attendance rates are low to the extreme in your school, you should first conduct a school self-assessment. That includes:

  • Monitoring and understanding attendance trends: Is chronic absence a problem? Is it getting worse or better? Is absenteeism concentrated among students with certain problems? Is it higher or lower among particular grades? Are specific subgroups of students affected?

  • Organize a school-wide attendance strategy: Engage students and families when drafting your strategy, then address attendance barriers. You can then formulate attendance goals and plans.

  • Implement a tiered support system: While solid school-wide attendance is an integral ingredient in academic success, it might not be sufficient. A particular subset of students might require a higher level of intervention.

#7. Positively Reintegrate Absentees

When a student has had chronic absences, it’s crucial to positively welcome them into the class upon their return. This can help them catch up and minimize their problems once they’ve returned.

Put yourself in the shoes of a chronically absent student and consider this scenario:

You’ve missed several days in your school year—and have missed out on both the academic instruction and social dynamic that has taken place in your absence.

Your teacher or administration has been in touch with your parents, who are pretty upset with you. You feel (rationally or irrationally) that you’ve been mistreated.

You’re anxious, but still, you have to return to school and face your peers, teachers, and administrators once more.

It isn’t the best set-up for a fresh start, and yet a fresh start is what you’re hoping your student will experience.

You can change this by creating a re-entry procedure to help ease the transition back to the classroom after an absence.

It can be as simple as offering a warm welcome. You can have a brief individual conversation with the student letting them know you’re glad to have their back in class. You can then remind them of the benefits of attending school and related rules.

Even small actions like this can help reassure a student that they’re welcome and wanted in the classroom.

Making School Attendance a Priority

The root causes of absenteeism are school climate, discipline, and personal problems.

Whatever the case, your school should be able to address the root cause. When chronic absenteeism is a schoolwide menace, opting for a whole-school reform model will be helpful.

You’ll need a system that’s proven to handle absenteeism and its root causes. A system that improves attendance by:

Any of the above measures can radically improve attendance. But a whole-school reform model will rewrite the entire school ecosystem—school, family, and the community—to tackle the core of absenteeism.

The US Department of Education has listed Positive Action on What Works Clearinghouse as a top-rated program in the nation for improving behavior.


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