With a new school year starting, parents are scrambling to make sure their children have what they need to succeed, whether it’s getting the latest school supplies or a tutor to help with reading comprehension. In the push for student achievement, parents and schools often overlook a key factor: school attendance.
Showing up for school has a huge impact on a student’s academic success starting in kindergarten and continuing through high school. Good attendance is also important in college and in the workplace. Even as children grow older and more independent, families play a key role in making sure students get to school safely every day.
Starting as early as preschool, too many absences can undermine a child’s ability to read well, do math and develop the persistence needed to succeed in school. By middle school, absenteeism becomes a red flag indicating that a student will likely drop out of high school.
Yet, every year an estimated 5 to 7.5 million U.S. students miss nearly a month of school. We’re not just talking about high school students skipping school; the problem starts much earlier. In many school districts, kindergartners are absent nearly as much as high school students. Nationwide one in 10 kindergarten and first grade students misses 10 percent of the school year. Many of those absences are excused—for illness, extended vacation or other reasons.
Missing 10 percent of the school year for any reason is considered chronic absence, and it seems to be the point where research shows that absenteeism correlates with weaker performance at all ages. In most school districts, that’s 17 or 18 days— just two days a month. And that can add up before parents or teachers realize it.
These absences can slow down learning for the whole classroom as teachers spend time repeating material they’ve already taught. As a parent, you can do a lot to improve attendance, both for your own children and in your children’s school. You can:
1. Establish basic bedtime and morning routines: For younger children, lay out clothes and pack backpacks the night before. For older students, have a plan for finishing homework on time and getting to bed about the same time each night.
2. Teach children that attendance is important and show them you mean it: Try not to plan medical or dental appointments during the school day or take extended trips when school is in session. Don’t let children stay home unless they are truly sick. Keep in mind that complaints of a stomach ache or headache can sometimes be a sign that your child is anxious about something at school.
3. If children seem reluctant to go to school, find out why and work with teachers, counselors or afterschool providers to figure out how to turn this around.
4. Develop backup plans for getting to school. Identify who you can turn to—another family member, a neighbor or fellow parents—to help you get your children to school if something comes up.
5. Ask for help if you are experiencing tough times. Problems with transportation, housing, jobs or your health can make it hard to get your children to school. Remember that school officials, afterschool providers and community agencies can help.
6. Make sure your school is paying attention to all the right data. Most schools track average daily attendance--how many students show up every day--and who is missing school without an excuse. Ask your school and district to calculate chronic absence rates and share them with parents, teachers and principals. The school’s chronic absence data and your own experience with fellow parents can reveal what’s keeping kids from getting to school, whether it’s chronic asthma or a dangerous walk to school.
7. Educate parents at your child’s school: Help other parents in your school understand the importance of attendance and who to call for the health, transportation or social services resources they need. You may want to reach out to parents who are struggling with absenteeism by launching a “walking school bus” that gathers children in your community for a safe walk to school.
8. Celebrate Attendance Awareness Month in September. Attendance Works has free posters, banners, badges and tip sheets that you or parents in your community can download to help promote good attendance.
Chang is the director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit promoting better policy and practice on school attendance. Leong is the associate director.