Getting Kids Back to School: 5 Ways Districts Can Address Chronic Absenteeism

Author: Jillian Kelton, M.Ed

Nationwide, chronic absenteeism is at an all-time high amongst K-12 students nearly doubling from 15 percent in 2018 to 26 percent in 2023. Districts that already have trouble with student success, such as low-achieving schools, ones with high poverty rates and districts with a high minority population are disproportionately affected by this.

As the former Chief of Student Success at the Boston Public Schools and a school-based counselor, I encountered numerous cases where students struggled with consistent attendance, and addressing this issue effectively required a multifaceted approach that considered both qualitative and quantitative data.

Based on my experience, here are some key takeaways on how districts can work to bridge the gap and get kids back in school:

  1. Customized Support is Crucial: Each student has a unique story, and understanding their background is essential for tailoring appropriate support systems. Utilizing both qualitative data (such as interactions with students and caregivers) and quantitative data (like historical attendance records and assessments) helps in crafting personalized interventions. For example, I once had a student who consistently struggled with making it to his first period class. He was late almost every day. Once I got to know the student better, he felt comfortable sharing that he was late because it was his responsibility to get his younger siblings ready in the morning and off to their schools. Rather than continuing to penalize him, I took away his first period class and enrolled him in an online class that he could do at times that worked for him and his family.

  2. Addressing Mental Health Needs: While schools primarily focus on academic learning, it's vital to recognize and address the mental health needs of chronically absent students. Starting with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, ensuring basic needs are met is foundational to supporting students' overall well-being. And mental health falls into the category of a “basic need”. If a student is chronically absent, schools should consider providing access to school-based teletherapy programs like Daybreak. This allows students to work with a clinician virtually from home—at no cost to families—and start to address their mental health needs. The clinician can work with the student to build the skills they need to get them physically back to school.

  3. Importance of Engagement: Building meaningful relationships with students, families, and community stakeholders is paramount. Community engagement plays a pivotal role, especially for reaching out to families of chronically absent students. Collaborating with trusted community partners facilitates access and fosters a supportive environment. When we partner with other members of the community that don’t necessarily work for the school, but that we know have positive and meaningful relationships within the community, this helps us to grow another layer of trust and validity with the families. In Boston, we were able to partner with the Boston Center for Children and Families’ Streetworker Outreach program and use their staff, who we knew were deeply integrated into neighborhoods, to work with us when we did home visits. 

  4. Breaking Down Barriers: Overcoming the divide between schools and communities is essential, particularly in urban areas. By actively bridging this gap, schools can establish a network of support around students and families. This inclusivity promotes culturally relevant and accessible support systems. Beyond providing access to counseling, schools can also be creative in how they provide access to other resources. For example, while I was working at a high school in Boston, we used “Back to School Night” (often called Parent-Teacher Night) as an opportunity to bring in community-based resources and providers together so families could access multiple services at the same time. The local community health center was there to provide flu vaccines to families. The local bank was available for families to open checking and savings accounts. Local restaurants provided food. This allowed us to not only engage families more fully, but to also tie in community partners so that we were able to strengthen and grow relationships on all sides. Additionally, schools should think about how to structure out-of-school time, like school vacations and weekends, to partner with local organizations and resources to leverage vacant school facilities for recreation. Another example would be leveraging relationships with local city council members to get the word out in neighborhoods about the various initiatives happening within your schools.

  5. Assessing and Providing Necessary Support: Once engagement is established, it's crucial to evaluate if the support provided meets the students' needs adequately. Continuous assessment and flexibility are key in ensuring effective interventions.

Addressing chronic absenteeism in schools requires a holistic approach that encompasses mental health support, community engagement, and personalized interventions. By understanding each student's story, fostering meaningful connections, and breaking down barriers between schools and communities, educators can create a supportive environment where all students can reach their full potential.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

How schools are responding to the rising demand for student mental health services.