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  • Writer's pictureForest Zafran Consulting

Chronic student absenteeism and what we can all learn from the current crisis, regardless of whether we work in the education sector

Updated: Apr 17

Go to Google news and search "chronic student absenteeism". Pages of articles appear from recent weeks, published by local news outlets across the country. These articles are overflowing with data showing unprecedented numbers of students chronically absent from school and potential solutions. The NYT piece published at the end of March and subsequent letters to the editor and student perspectives provide a national perspective on this topic. Every school I work with will be quick to tell you that while absences may be the most alarming issue related to student attendance; they are also facing other challenges related to student attendance: students arriving tardy to school, skipping class(es) even if they do show up at school, and arriving tardy to class(es).

The articles and conversations about student attendance nearly always start with data: i.e. we see absences increasing by X percent, X number of students have been tardy to school at least three times this year, interactive maps showing the chronic absenteeism rates across various parts of a state or country. Regardless of what industry you work in, the current student absenteeism crisis offers important lessons about how data can effectively be leveraged to make change.

Lesson 1: Quantitative Data is a helpful guide but it doesn't provide answers. Data helps us understand the scope and magnitude of peoples' experiences. It can alert us to trends and patterns and when disaggregated (i.e. by race, gender, age) can help bring visibility to inequities. While data may help us understand the current state, rarely does it provide clear cut answers for how to improve the current state.

Every time I work with schools on issues related to student attendance, we start by looking at the data. In multiple instances I have seen schools and districts immediately look at the data and start proposing interventions or solutions, such as "they all need free transportation to school" or "if we increase the number of detentions they get for being tardy to school, they will stop being tardy". This approach is flawed because it is based on assumptions about what is causing student attendance issues and what will cause these issues to be addressed. We cannot develop solutions based on quantitative data alone because it does not provide us with root causes, and we need to understand root causes to develop effective solutions.

Lesson 2: Data is a representation and compilation of peoples' experiences and stories; so to understand it better, we must go to the source- the people. In order to develop solutions or action steps in response to data, we must understand why the data looks the way it does, also known as identifying the root causes that are leading to the data. For example, instead of making assumptions about why students are chronically absent from school; we need to actually find out from students and their families the reasons, or root causes, of why they are chronically absent.

Restorative Practices can play a key role in helping us understand root causes of the attendance data. For those trained in restorative practices, you can download a restorative conversation template for addressing chronic student absenteeism and tardiness and here is an example reflection form that one of the schools I work with uses after a student has been tardy three times. This is also a great video that demonstrates a restorative problem solving circle being utilized to address student attendance.

While I love Restorative Practices, there are other practices such as focus groups or empathy interviews that can help us understand root causes.


Lesson 3: Root causes are almost always related to larger, systemic issues. We must simultaneously work towards redesigning the system while also supporting individuals' immediate needs. One of the best news articles I read recently related to student attendance was this piece. I loved how it focused on the root causes of student disengagement and learning loss and the failure of the education system to evolve so that it remains relevant and accessible to students.

While we working to redesign systems, which takes time, it is my belief that we have a responsibility to also support the immediate needs of students who are in front of us today. When I worked on student re-engagement, many of the students and families who were not coming to school faced barriers that were both a result of a failed system but also could be triaged at the individual level.

For example:

  • A student who had a baby her Junior year and hadn't figured out how to go back to school and balance childcare with being a student. We need a school system that is inherently designed to support parenting students (check out what NYC does!) AND also right now we can work with that individual student to support her in finding a high school with nearby, affordable childcare.

  • A student who had experienced safety concerns walking to and from school. We need to live in a world where everyone can walk safely in their community without fear of violence gun violence AND also right now we can work with that student to develop a safety plan for getting to school.

  • A student who is being bullied at school. We need to continue to focus on making schools relationship centered communities that teach and build SEL skills where every student is welcome AND also right now we can work with this student individually to address the bullying.

I made this cheat sheet, based on my prior student re-engagement work, to serve as a launching pad for schools and districts on how they may be able to address immediate student barriers to attendance while leaders and policy makers are working towards larger, systems change.

Lesson 4: When analyzing data, addressing root causes, and developing solutions, we must actively examine, and mitigate, our own beliefs and biases. Whenever we look at data, or develop solutions, our thinking is always informed by our own biases and experiences. We must engage in self-reflection to better understand what assumptions we are carrying about what the data is saying.

For example, when engaging school staff in a Professional Development session related to addressing student absenteeism, we began the session by asking participants to what extent they agreed (or disagreed) with the following statements:

  • Most student attendance issues are caused by things that are out of the student’s control

  • Most student attendance issues are caused by things that are out of the school’s control

  • I play a role in addressing student attendance concerns

  • All school staff have a role in encouraging student attendance (i.e. being on time to school, etc.)

  • It is important for students at our school to be on time and in school every day

  • Missing school does not have a significant impact on a student

  • Identifying and intervening early on when a student has attendance concerns will likely lead to to their attendance getting back on track

  • Parents of our students understand the importance of attendance (arriving to school on time, attending school every day)

Participants engaged in facilitated dialogue about their perspective on each of the statements. This activity helped participants to build awareness of their own beliefs and assumptions about the role individuals, students, families and the school as a whole, have on student attendance. This self-awareness helped participants be more open minded and receptive as we went on to discuss tools for understanding root causes of student absenteeism.


We love providing customized support on analyzing and utilizing data. Please reach out to us if you want to discuss what may be possible!


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