Absent Again

How can teachers help students struggling with chronic absenteeism?

One of my students suffered from chronic asthma, causing him to miss school on a weekly basis. Having read background information on this student before the start of the school year, I reached out immediately to the child’s parents to determine what his needs might be. Working together, we decided to send home an extra set of books. Each week, I posted his assignments and information covered in class on my school website, making it easy to see what was being covered in class. Every Monday, I sent home assignments and paper copies of materials the student might need if he had to stay home. The student returned the folder with any assignments from absent days every Friday or the next day he returned to school. This preplanning allowed the student and his family to feel more connected to his class, as well as prevented large gaps in his progress. 

One of my colleague’s students frequently missed a day or two of school each week. Eventually, it was discovered that he was living in a van with his mother and younger sibling, and getting adequate food was much more important to him than attending school. By the time his living situation was rectified, his motivation for school attendance was nonexistent; and, although my colleague and the school staff tried to help him catch up, the basic skills he needed to graduate from high school were missing. Sadly, he dropped out during his senior year.

On a personal level, my daughter suffered a head injury several years ago that caused a concussion. It was not diagnosed immediately, and the symptoms led to many missed school days due to recurring headaches and memory issues. Most of her high school teachers told her to make up all missed assignments as soon as possible. So, in addition to the stress her body was under as it healed, the pressure of making up all the school work she had missed caused her additional strain. Since she could not expose her eyes to light, she felt overwhelmed and was terrified of falling further behind in her studies. One teacher, however, stood out for his response. Mr. A. told my daughter that she should only worry about allowing her brain to heal. And, he was willing to count one of her papers twice so she could focus on getting well rather than writing another paper for his class.

These are all examples of chronic absenteeism—when a student misses at least two days of school per month or 10% or more of school, excused or unexcused. 

As educators, it’s important to remember that many students suffering from chronic absenteeism have circumstances that they cannot avoid, ranging from family situations to injuries to food and housing insecurity to long-term medical conditions. Regardless of the cause, the lost instructional time and academic consequences of chronic absenteeism can be devastating. Since every student’s situation is unique, it can be challenging for educators to know when and how to help. And the truth is, as much as we want to, we can’t control the outcomes. However, as classroom teachers, we can strive to implement the following strategies to support all of our students who struggle with chronic absenteeism: 

  1. Meet students where they are. Chronically absent students suffer many academic deficiencies. They have missed vital instruction time from their teachers. Knowing that piles of work await them, they return to the classroom with anxiety. They cannot effectively participate in class discussions over missed material, they lag behind their peers, and they may find prioritizing school difficult. Socially, they may feel disconnected from their teachers, peers, and school communities. Teachers have a unique opportunity to welcome each student back to the classroom and to make them feel capable of acclimating to the level of their classmates. Meeting these students where they are by giving them a safe and pressure-free environment can make all the difference to them.
  2. Consider missing assignments in light of learning goals. What does the student really need to know about the material he or she has missed? How can we modify the amount of work assigned that will demonstrate knowledge? For example, if students in school read and annotated three articles on a certain topic, could the returning student comprehend the same information with two? Can the math concept be comprehended in 20 problems instead of 40? Can we administer an oral exam vs. a written one in order for the student to demonstrate knowledge of the material?
  3. Allocate time during the school day for work completion. Building time into the school day for completing missing work allows students to ask questions and receive assistance from other students as well. While missing recess is not a good option (students who have missed school need that socialization), morning or afternoon reading time for the class could be modified for students who have been absent and who may not be able to complete work at home. An essential part of making students feel comfortable after extended absence involves getting them to feel engaged so that they want to be present. Setting aside a regular time for makeup work/homework may help narrow the gap between the returning students and their classmates.
  4. Offer ways for students to feel connected. We can pair chronically absent students with mentors such as high school seniors trained to support incoming freshmen. Students’ schedules could start with a homeroom so that they have time with familiar peers at the very beginning of each day. Schools can also create “lunch bunches” of students who eat together and are sometimes joined by a teacher or other adult in the school. Once students feel connected, it is easier for them to ask for help with missing work. 
Meeting these students where they are by giving them a safe and pressure-free environment can make all the difference to them.

Chronic absenteeism has many causes. And while teachers may not have the power to change those causes, we do have the power to make school a safe place, filled with understanding and compassion. We can make the most of our students’ presence in our classrooms by supporting them while they are away, welcoming them upon their return, and helping them feel connected when they are in our classrooms. 

Anne Davidson Kusmer is a former high school English teacher and guidance counselor who currently tutors for college entrance exams and coaches writing. Married to Jim for 30 years, she recently became an empty nester, spending much of her time with her Australian Shepherd, LouLou.


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