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June 5, 2024
ASCD Blog

Creating a Culture of Attendance

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Shift from punitive to proactive attendance strategies to reduce chronic absences.
EngagementSchool Culture
 A student with a backpack holds his father's hand, smiling up at him as they walk to school together on a sunny day
Credit: Evgeny Atamanenko / Shutterstock
In the past, schools primarily addressed concerning behavior with reactive and punitive models of discipline. The focus was on compliance. If students did not comply, educators applied increasingly severe and exclusionary consequences to change behavior. However, research over the last several decades has demonstrated that these approaches are often ineffective, especially for students with chronic behavioral challenges. Studies have shown the negative impact of exclusionary consequences and how such methods fail to improve behavior and academic outcomes
Today, best practices for behavioral change stress humanistic, proactive, and positive approaches. Educators are intentional about building positive relationships and engaging with students and families. They explicitly teach behavioral expectations and provide a rationale for why particular behaviors are necessary in school settings. They use acknowledgement and reinforcement to engage with students in more meaningful interactions, instead of only correcting misbehavior. Educators strive to provide additional supportive interventions to address barriers, challenges, and other individualized needs for students who have chronic behavioral challenges. 
A similar shift is needed in many school systems regarding student attendance. In reactive, punitive attendance models, students and families may only begin to hear that attendance is important when they receive a letter at three, five, or seven days of unexcused absence—once the problem has already started to emerge. These letters are often filled with unfriendly legal terminology, and they may refer to truancy laws or court procedures. The focus again is on compliance. If kids and families do not comply, there may be a progression of negative consequences to try and force behavioral change. But, these approaches often do not work to address chronic absenteeism. Or they lead to short-term compliance but long-term disengagement and distrust of the education system because these models do not acknowledge and set the stage for collaborative efforts to address the barriers and challenges that contribute to attendance problems. 

When we shift to approaches that teach, reinforce, and support students in meeting attendance goals, transformational change is possible.

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Safe & Civil Schools has led the way for over 40 years in helping schools adopt Multi-Tiered System of Support approaches for behavior. Over a decade ago, as a consultant for Safe & Civil Schools, I began working with schools to apply effective behavioral and motivational practices to the issue of attendance, as described in my book The School Leader’s Guide to Tackling Attendance Challenges. I have seen firsthand that when we shift from compliance-oriented, punitive models to approaches that teach, reinforce, and support students in meeting attendance goals, transformational change is possible.

A Collective Responsibility

Instead of relying on punitive methods and impersonal communication to address chronic absenteeism, schools should shift to a culture of attendance. In this type of culture, everyone works together as a team, mutually accountable and reliant on each other to support students' regular attendance and success in school and beyond. Rather than one or two adults in a school being “responsible” for changing attendance (such as a counselor, social worker, or attendance interventionist), boosting attendance could be viewed as a collective responsibility across all staff, families, and community members. 

Boosting attendance could be viewed as a collective responsibility across all staff, families, and community members. 

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In schools that build a culture of attendance, staff explicitly teach students, families, and the broader community about the importance of attendance and dependability. A variety of staff members might send proactive letters, videos, and messaging at the beginning of the school year and at strategic points throughout the year. Rather than focusing on compliance and legal arguments, this messaging can focus on the positive benefits of regular attendance and the concerns that may occur when a student misses too much school, such as falling behind academically or having less involvement in meaningful classroom activities. These messages clearly emphasize the goal of regular attendance—for students to miss no more than 5 percent of school for any reason (i.e., 9 days in a 180-day year)—and convey that regular attendance is an important cultural value within the school.

Reinforcing Positive Attendance

This message should be taught and reinforced regularly in many ways. From the teachers who greet students at the door and say things like, “We missed you when you were gone yesterday!” to mini lessons taught by the nurse or counselor on topics such as managing student anxiety, all staff should continually emphasize the value of attendance. There might be messaging in the community as well, with attendance posters in coffee shops, doctors’ offices, and local stores or public service announcements on local television and radio stations. In some systems, schools use self-monitoring approaches such as sending home a refrigerator magnet with color-coded categories so that students and families can track their attendance in relation to the goal (e.g., “9 days or less for school success!”). Or students could complete a self-monitoring attendance form as part of homeroom or advisory activities.
An attendance tracker featuring a red light indicator, detailing permissible absences, a graph to track attendance, and the school calendar

Bryan Independent School District in Texas created this innovative attendance tracker magnet with clear indicators and detailed graphs for families to monitor student absences.

Within these positive and proactive attendance systems, educators spend more time acknowledging and reinforcing regular and improved attendance—not just focusing on awards for perfect attendance or correcting students who are not meeting the goal. Administrators, counselors, or teachers might periodically send home a letter, email, or make a quick phone call to families of students with regular attendance or who improved attendance across a designated period.  
If schools want to change the culture around attendance, we must ensure we are acknowledging and reinforcing those kids and families who are actively working to meet the goal. 

Collaborating with Families and Community

Changing the culture of attendance in a school also requires a collaborative effort among staff, families, and the broader community. Schools must reach out and listen to their families and community to understand the reasons their students are missing school. One district with a large African immigrant population, for example, connected with local African Association leaders. Through ongoing discussions, schools improved their ability to address the needs of their African immigrant students, and the leaders of the African community became key advocates for school attendance. In another district, the administration found that connecting with medical and dental offices allowed them to collaboratively design solutions to boost attendance—or at least, not undermine it. For instance, district leaders provided the school calendar to these offices to encourage scheduling appointments for school-aged families on days and times when school was not in session. 

A Lasting Impact

By applying the lessons learned from the shift in punitive behavior management to a proactive, positive, and supportive approach, we can begin to rethink and redesign our attendance systems. These shifts can lead to lasting changes in the school culture of attendance and to greater success for our students, staff, families, and broader communities. 

Jessica Sprick has a master's degree in special education and is a consultant and presenter for Safe & Civil Schools, as well as a writer for Ancora Publishing. Sprick has been a special education teacher for students with behavioral needs and dean of students at the middle school level. Her practical experience in schools drives her passion to help school and district staff develop and implement effective behavioral, academic, and attendance approaches.

Sprick is the lead trainer for Safe & Civil Schools' model of absenteeism prevention and intervention, and she is a coauthor of the following attendance resources: Functional Behavior Assessment of Absenteeism & Truancy, and Absenteeism & Truancy: Interventions and Universal Procedures. Sprick is also a coauthor of Foundations: A Proactive and Positive Behavior Support System (3rd Edition)Functional Behavior Assessment of Bullying, and Bullying: Universal Procedures and Interventions.

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