Improving Attendance, One Trusted Relationship at a Time
National data from the U.S. Department of Education shows a continual increase in K-12 chronic absenteeism. This important data must be monitored closely, as multiple studies show that absenteeism is a predictor of lower achievement and decreased graduation rates. While there is no doubt that teachers want to teach students and not empty desks, there may be a direct link between teacher-implemented strategies that build trusted relationships with their students and the number of students they see in their classes every day.
A range of things can influence a child’s attendance—medical conditions, family emergencies, and transportation are just a few examples—and all factors must be considered when planning interventions for individual students. But there is one simple strategy every educator can use to combat chronic absenteeism: make school a place that kids want to be. A series of studies reveals that a positive school climate is correlated with decreased student absenteeism. Our research shows that kids want to be in a place where they feel a sense of belonging, have opportunities to contribute, feel safe, and are connected to at least one trusted adult.
Schools that promote safe, caring, participatory, and responsive school climates tend to foster in students a greater attachment to one another and to school in general, which provides the optimal foundation for social and academic learning. Research shows that when students can name at least one trusted adult at school, they experience a range of positive impacts, including decreased risk-taking behaviors and improved mental health, well-being, and educational achievement, as well as more positive attitudes toward school.
Some qualitative evidence confirms the direct association between school investment in advisory programs, student leadership opportunities, opening of school orientations, hallway greetings, and community meetings and a more positive perception of school among students. Quotes from advisory programs signify this connection:
At One Trusted Adult, we hear stories every day of young people who experienced educators who encouraged, challenged, and inspired their students to show up and do their best in school. A college-aged student shared his story of how a trusted adult at his high school changed the trajectory of his life:
Luke said that he didn’t have the best homelife when he was growing up. He found comfort in school and found ways to remain at school as long as he could. He volunteered to help teachers, participated in theater events, joined clubs, and signed up for various opportunities. Luke would spend up to twelve hours a day at school, often arriving at 7 a.m. and leaving at 7 p.m. For Luke, school was an escape.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and Luke’s school went online, his life changed dramatically. Routines, structure, and opportunities to get out of the house disappeared. He stayed in his room for hours each day and remembers quickly spiraling down into a dark place. He had resigned himself to giving up on school and joining the workforce.
Luke’s school counselor noticed the changes in his behavior and attendance and grew concerned. He’d gone from earning straight A’s and being named a member of the National Honor Society to skipping classes and earning F’s. The counselor reached out to check in, doing her best to motivate Luke to attend class, but she saw little result from her efforts. Luke’s history teacher, Mr. Rush, was also deeply concerned. Because Luke didn’t seem receptive to the counselor’s efforts, Mr. Rush shared his concerns with his own trusted adult and mentor, Mr. Peterson, and asked if it would be appropriate, under the circumstances, to contact Luke. Mr. Peterson encouraged Mr. Rush to reach out to Luke.
Luke recalls hearing Mr. Rush’s voice on the phone asking, “How have you been? We miss you.” His check-in was different. It was not focused on school, attendance, or grades. Mr. Rush showed genuine care and concern for Luke’s well-being, and he sent a strong message that school was different without Luke.
Luke noted, “This was the first time in my life that I remember an adult really caring and showing me this kind of support.” Mr. Rush soon began recommending that Luke read various articles that he knew would spark his interest. He created history lessons that catered to Luke’s strengths, encouraging discussion and sparking a fire in Luke to participate and attend classes again.
“Looking back,” Luke said, “it was as though Mr. Rush somehow knew that if he checked in with me and gradually started talking to me about school topics I enjoyed, I would be fooled into going back to class—and he was right! I didn’t even realize I was doing schoolwork—it was like Mr. Rush nursed me back to liking school again.”
When we show up in the way young people need us, they will show up too. Student attendance can improve, one trusted relationship at a time. A strong investment in school climate and trusted relationships between adults and students is the community-wide intervention we need, and it demands commitment from everyone: teachers, counselors, principals, secretaries, librarians, cafeteria staff, janitorial staff, coaches, and volunteers. Give your students what they need and train your teams to be accessible, boundaried, and caring trusted adults for your students.
Ferrarin, E. (2022, November 4). These 6 strategies can help schools tackle chronic absenteeism. K-12 Dive. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://www.k12dive.com/news/6- strategies-tackle-chronic-absenteeism/635820/
Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Guffey, S. & Higgins-D’Alessandro, A. (2013). A review of School Climate Research. Review of Educational Research, 83(3), 357–385. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654313483907
Whitehead R. et al. The relationship between a trusted adult and adolescent health and education outcomes. Edinburgh: NHS Health Scotland; 2019.