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Understanding Chronic Absenteeism In School: Statistics, Causes, and Interventions

Written by Bill Laurienti

Chronic school absenteeism has been a major issue of concern for over a decade as was highlighted when the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) published a 2016 study on what it called a “hidden educational crisis,” which was later updated in 2019.

Absenteeism was an issue even before the COVID-19 pandemic which had devastating consequences for the entire academic system. Even now, years after the pandemic lockdowns, many students continue to face tremendous adversity — ranging from home and food insecurity to severe health challenges, lack of resources and the threat of community violence — that either disengage them from their learning or simply make it impossible for them to attend school.

It’s an issue that has severe consequences for individual well-being, the state of the economy, and our society as a whole. This article takes a look at some important statistics and offers suggestions and potential interventions for addressing chronic absenteeism.

What is chronic absenteeism?

Where absenteeism is when a student misses classes without a justified reason, chronic absenteeism is considered to be at least 15 days of missed days of school in a year or around 10% or more of the academic year.

The danger of chronic absenteeism is that it may prevent children from reaching important learning milestones and puts them at a higher risk of poor life outcomes. According to the DoE study:

  • Children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by the third grade and are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.
  • Chronic absenteeism from eighth grade on is associated with a seven-fold increase in dropping out of school. Ultimately, students who drop out are more likely to suffer from poverty, have diminished health, and become involved with the criminal justice system.

Important statistics and trends in school absenteeism

Even before the pandemic, chronic absenteeism was a serious problem. Studies showed that between seven and eight million students were deemed chronically absent. That’s 16% of the student population — or about one in six students.

Of course, the 2020 quarantines and isolation led to alarming increases in chronic absences. During the 2020-21 school year when students mostly ‘attended’ from home, at least 10.1 million students missed 10% or more of school days — and that number may be a serious undercount as many districts ceased to take daily attendance after schools closed.

More recent data from states suggest that chronic absenteeism has at least doubled during the 2020-2021 school years to an estimated 16 million, or one out of three students nationwide. While chronic absences have slowly dropped since schools re-opened, the percentages exceed pre-COVID 19 levels.

Studies also show that students of different races and ethnicities can experience chronic absenteeism at even higher rates. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that the highest rates of chronic absenteeism were among Black, Native American, and Pacific Islander students, exceeding 40% in the 2021–22 school year. Latino students also had a two-fold increase in absenteeism rates around the same period, reaching approximately 35%.

This rise in absenteeism coincides with the largest decline in learners’ performance scores in decades: including reading, math, and civics.

What grades have the greatest number of absentees?

The PPIC found that, before the pandemic, chronic absenteeism rates were the highest in grades 9–12, at around 16% of learners. However, post pandemic, that has changed.

While absenteeism among high school students nearly doubled to 30% in 2021–22, this was surpassed by the 40% absentee rate for kindergarteners and the 31% rate for grades 1–3.

graph-showing-that-since-2018-2019, chronic absenteeism has increased across all grades K-12.

That massive increase in chronic absenteeism for lower grades is especially alarming, as those years are fundamental for establishing a foundation for learning. Chronic absenteeism for primary grades severely hinders their learning process and can lead to grade repetition, behavioral problems, and eventual dropout.

Examining the causes of school absenteeism

What is the leading cause of absenteeism in school?

The spike in chronic absenteeism does not appear to be a direct result of the pandemic lockdowns and a delay in students returning to in-person learning. A California district found that only about 40% of its absenteeism in 2021–2022 was due to quarantine and isolation, with the remaining 60% caused by other factors. The recent high levels of chronic absenteeism were actually found to be — on average — similar across states with different masking and quarantine rules.

younger-students-working-on-an-engineering-project-with-legos-at-a-table.

A review of the different studies on absenteeism suggests there is no single leading cause. The reasons why kids miss school are as varied as their own unique challenges, backgrounds, and communities. However, if there is a unifying theme across most districts it is economic hardship.

Economic challenges are a factor across the myriad causes of absenteeism, including lack of transportation, access to facilities, academic support, and issues related to physical and mental health, housing, and food insecurity — all of which are especially severe in disadvantaged communities.

Socio-economic factors that directly contribute to absenteeism

  • Economic hardship — For families struggling with food and/or housing insecurity, ensuring their children are attending school can be a difficult, if not impossible task. Families that lack access to affordable child care may have older children stay home to take care of the house and look after younger siblings while parents work.
  • Lack of transportation — Students who do not have easy access to public or personal transportation to school are more likely to be absent — especially if they’re in remote, rural areas. Students who live in urban areas subject to high poverty and crime may not feel safe walking to school.

Impact of school environment and policy

  • Bullying The Center for Disease Control reported on the connection between bullying and absenteeism. Among students who reported missing school due to safety concerns, 21.2% said it was due to experiencing both in-person and electronic bullying. As a result, those students were 5-6 times more likely to miss school than those students who had not been bullied.
  • Lack of equitable accessEquity and inclusion are essential for ensuring that all students have the opportunity to engage with their learning and to feel that their voice matters. Students with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to be chronically absent than students without disabilities. Students who feel their school and/or curriculum is not culturally inclusive are also more likely to disengage and miss school.

Complications of personal and family issues

  • Health issues — Learners who experience chronic health conditions or struggle with mental health are more likely to be absent. Those with compromised immune systems or grappling with stressful challenges, such as poor self-image or familial problems, are especially at risk of missing school.
  • Distractions and disengagement Student engagement has a well-recognized influence on attendance, with one Gallup study showing that schools with higher student engagement have significantly lower incidents of negative student behavior — including truancies and dropouts. The more that students can own their learning, the more they feel empowered and engaged. Unfortunately, in addition to structural issues such as lack of class resources and outdated instructional approaches, modern distractions such as smartphones and access to social media can increase disengagement by enhancing feelings of isolation, alienation, or a lack of interest in school.

Solutions and interventions

The solutions to chronic absenteeism are as varied as the causes. While the ability to address systemic issues of inequality or generational poverty is beyond the scope of any district, there are more direct actions that schools and districts can take.

Differences in educational programs, school policies and practices, the quality of teachers, and available resources are all important considerations. Here are possible strategies to mitigate absenteeism.

students-working-on-a-circuit-board-during-class/

Promote school and community-based programs

The most straightforward way to engage learners is to make school a place where they want to be. Schools can encourage attendance by:

  • Establishing a safe and welcoming environment. Schools need to be proactive in combating bullying or addressing learner’s concerns about safety. Instructors and support staff should establish an open, supportive rapport with learners to ensure they feel comfortable voicing concerns. Monitoring and recording shifts in behavior or academic performance can help identify underlying issues.
  • Offering extra-curricular activities. Activities outside of the classroom are essential for engaging learners. Finding ways to organize and support group activities, recreational sports, special interest clubs, and celebrations can help create a sense of community and provide variety to the regular class routine.
  • Finding different approaches to traditional teaching and learning. Avoid relying on classic pedagogy where the instructor is the disseminator of knowledge. Taking a constructivist approach to education offers a framework that enables students to own their learning. Personalized learning can help students feel seen while project-based learning helps increase engagement through open-ended, hands-on activities.
Case Study

With achievement taking a deep dive, this middle school turned things around

Learn how the team at Blount County Schools in Oneonta, Alabama found a learning solution that helped drive engagement.

Kids coming out of our SmartLab are thinkers. They don’t just do school, they’re engaged in school. They question things. They wonder about things. We find that… our kids are not absent on the days they know they’re coming to the SmartLab. We find, seriously, increased attendance because kids are so involved in STEM at our school.”

Paige Kraus, Facilitator, Encompass Heights Elementary | Public |Colorado Springs, CO

Consider policy changes and educational reforms

Combating chronic absenteeism requires foundational support and investment into resources. While school budgets can be tight, there are still areas of government assistance that can provide support. Look for ways to:

  • Establish counseling and in-school assistance. Some learners might need professional assistance outside of the classroom. Designate support staff that can provide student outreach, even something as simple as greeting learners at the entrance to school, to make it easier for them to feel seen. Response-to-intervention teams can provide support to instructors through targeted interventions for at-risk learners.
  • Take advantage of government subsidies to fund new approaches. Research federal student support programs that can provide support in developing solutions, such as funds available through Title I School Improvement Grants (SIGs). These grants can be crucial in helping to fund investments in data systems, professional development, extra-curricular activities, parental outreach programs, mentoring, and more.

Support collaborations between parents and educators

Getting parents and guardians involved with learners’ attendance is essential to reduce the risk of absenteeism. That’s not always easy, especially if the families are experiencing hardship, but finding ways to coordinate and collaborate can help provide consistency between school and home. Some suggestions include:

  • Improving parent-teacher communication. Set up times to arrange regular meetings with parents and guardians to devise strategies tailored to learners. Consider positive ways to inform parents about attendance issues and other underlying concerns — such as bullying or strained peer relationships. A study of different truancy notifications found that the most successful letters:
    • Offered clear information about which days a student missed
    • Shared the potential consequence of chronic absence on learning outcomes
    • Reassured parents and guardians on how to help their children get to school
  • Celebrating success, rather than punishing failure. Avoid punitive responses to chronic absenteeism. Look for ways to implement a reward system to incentivize regular attendance, with rewards for exceptional attendance. Rather than punitive actions for absences, develop assignments that offer an opportunity for lagging learners to catch up to their peers.

What interventions reduce absenteeism?

Belonging, connection, and support — in addition to the academic challenge and engagement and investments in student and adult well-being — are all so crucial to positive conditions for learning.

Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works

If your school or district is struggling with chronic absenteeism, the top three strategies should be to:

  • Identify the root causes of absenteeism. Every case is different. By engaging in one-on-one conversations with learners, educators can discover the reasons behind frequent absences. Only once the main causes have been identified can staff provide the right kind and level of support.
  • Look for ways to secure funding. The government subsidizes approaches that seek to address learning loss, and ESSER funds are still an option for additional funding (as of the time this article was published). If you’re interested in requesting a liquidation extension to the U.S. Department of Education’s ESSER or EANs fund, you can read the full details on the ARP ESSER Liquidation Extension Letter and ARP ESSER and ARP EANS Liquidation Extensions FAQs. The EoD suggests that all requests be filed by December 31, 2024.
  • Follow the examples of other schools. Every district has faced its own challenges with chronic absenteeism. For more reading, consider these pre-pandemic case studies of how schools and districts took action to improve attendance. You can also download our eBook, “Developing Hopeful and Engaged Students,” for advice on how to implement proven strategies to inspire hope and engagement in the classroom.
Bill.Laurienti
Bill Laurienti

Bill Laurienti is a Content Marketing Specialist at Creative Learning Systems. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education (English) from Colorado Mesa University and a Master of Arts in Secondary Teaching from the University of California's Rossier School of Education. Bill came to CLS after 10 years in the secondary classroom. He believes SmartLabs are important tools for engaging unengaged students and helping them access careers they might not otherwise have imagined.

Case Study

Going beyond STEM to teach essential skills

When the team at Jewell Houston Academy, a magnet school in Texas, looked for a STEM program, they wanted one that would not only engage students in STEM careers but could also teach conflict-resolution, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication skills.

Read about how the SmartLab HQ impacted both learners and enrollment.