Chronic absenteeism: What you need to know

At a glance

  • Missing two days of school a month may not seem like much, but it can add up to a child being considered chronically absent.

  • School attendance policies often count excused absences just the same as unexcused absences (truancy).

  • Frequent absences can have an impact on your child’s success in school.

Many parents may not realize how often their child is absent from school. A missed day here and there may not seem like a big deal compared to missing several days in a row. But missing just two days a month can add up to a child being considered chronically absent.

Chronic absences keep kids from getting the consistent instruction they need to build on basic skills. For kids with learning and thinking differences, there’s something else to consider: Frequent absences not only mean less instruction, but also missed opportunities for intervention, reteaching, and enrichment.

Learn more about the problem of chronic absenteeism.

What is chronic absenteeism?

Some states define chronic absenteeism as missing more than 10 percent of the school year. In some states, missing 18 or more days means a child is chronically absent. In other states, it’s 15 or more days.

Chronic absenteeism includes excused absences (like for being sick). It also includes unexcused absences and disciplinary actions, like getting suspended.

Missing a certain number of days — for any reason — triggers schools to start a truancy process. This involves documenting attendance and filing a report with a state agency, local school district, and law enforcement.

How many kids frequently miss school — and why

More than 15 percent of all students in the United States are chronically absent. Among students in , that number is significantly higher. A nationwide study found that kids with issues like , , or are twice as likely to be chronically absent compared to kids who don’t have these issues. (Open a PDF of the study.)

Social anxiety is one of the biggest reasons kids don’t come to school. Academic struggles and being bullied are also common reasons kids avoid school. If kids feel like they’re not wanted at school, if they’re constantly failing, or if they’re fearful of their peers, they may try to get out of going to school.

Likewise, if kids don’t feel understood, or if they’re bored by classes, or constantly being disciplined, they may start to resist going to school. Low-income students often miss school for other reasons, too. These include issues with health care, housing, and transportation.

The impact of missing school

Missing school in the early grades can have a snowball effect. It sets kids up to fall behind in the fundamental reading skills they need in order to move on to more complicated work.

Research shows how big the impact can be. A study in California looked at kids who were chronically absent in both kindergarten and first grade. By the end of third grade, only one in six of them were proficient readers. But of the kids who missed less than 5 percent of school, two-thirds were proficient. (See a PDF of the study.)

For some kids, frequent absences can become a long-term habit. Research shows that kids who are allowed to miss school when they’re young are more likely to skip school when they’re older. And that can lead to other consequences.

Being chronically absent affects high school graduation rates and the chances for success in college. In a Rhode Island study (PDF here), only 11 percent of high school students with chronic absences made it to their second year of college. That’s compared to 51 percent of students who didn’t miss that much school.

How absences affect kids with learning and thinking differences

Struggling students may want to stay home because of the stress they’re feeling at school. But chronic absences may have an even bigger impact on kids with learning and thinking differences. It can be hard enough to master the lessons in school with the support of the teacher or aide. Trying to do it at home can make the work even harder.

Plus, each day of learning builds on the previous day. When kids miss a few days in a row, it can be hard to follow subsequent lessons. And when kids aren’t in school, they’re missing opportunities to be identified for intervention and extra supports.

Efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism

Chronic absenteeism used to be a hidden problem. But the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is starting to shine a light on how many students frequently miss school. The law requires all state, district, and school report cards to start including this data.

Dozens of states also chose to focus on this issue in their state ESSA plans. These new efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism mean parents are more likely to get a phone call from the school when their child misses school for any reason.

What you can do

It’s important to keep track of how many days your child is actually missing. There are also things you can do to help your child want to go to school, or at least not try to avoid it:

If social anxiety seems to be a big issue, you may want to start keeping an anxiety log to help look for patterns in your child’s behavior and calming strategies that can help. You may also want to learn more about the problem of bullying and how to protect your child from bullying.

Key takeaways

  • Chronic absenteeism used to be a hidden problem, but many states are starting to focus on it.

  • When kids with learning and thinking differences are absent from school, they miss basic instruction as well as opportunities to receive extra help.

  • Talk with your child to find out the reason for missing school and brainstorm solutions together.


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