Chronic absenteeism can have a long-term, negative impact on students’ academic progress and social growth. Research conducted by the US Department of Education found that there were over 7 million chronically absent students in the 2015 - 2016 school year. That factors out to about 1 out of every 6 students missing school regularly.
Understanding the reasons for chronic absenteeism is critical to reducing rates and giving students the best learning opportunities. Together, we can make strides toward fixing this persistent challenge that’s become so prevalent in our education system.
Read on to learn the 6 leading causes of chronic absenteeism and discover solutions for how to deal with student absenteeism.
1. Academic difficulties
Students who are regularly absent might be avoiding the classroom due to academic difficulties and challenges they experience at school. Kids who struggle to grasp educational content, do poorly on assessments, or are held back often feel they don’t have the support and resources they need to succeed. It’s easy to see how quickly a cycle of absenteeism can start.
While some students who don’t find school rewarding might start missing school because they’re frustrated and failing, the pattern can quickly become an uphill battle that seems impossible to overcome.
Missing assignments, late work, and subpar test scores due to missed lectures and lessons can cause grades to slip further, causing some students to miss even more school outside of excused absences to avoid the reality they’ll face when they’re there.
Solution: Help chronically absent students who face academic difficulties by ensuring comprehensive, adequate measures are in place, including accommodations for special education. Support solutions must address curriculum challenges from each grade level and be sensitive to the emotional well-being concerns linked to high absenteeism rates.
Bullying has become more prevalent in recent years. This silent but pervasive issue affects schools in every state across the country. Research suggests that up to 22% of students aged 12 to 18 are bullied during the school year — and an estimated 160,000 take unexcused absences from school every day because they’re being bullied.
Bullying takes on many forms — everything from consistent harassment to verbal and physical abuse to cyberstalking can all cause severe harm. Bullied students can feel alienated in this kind of school climate or disconnected from their peers, resulting in extreme anxiety, depression, and even thoughts or acts of suicide, making school even more challenging.
Solution: Every school district in the United States must have bullying prevention policies, but this isn’t always enough. They must also implement and promote a proactive approach to reducing bullying by:
- Creating a positive school culture that emphasizes a sense of belonging
- Emphasizing social and emotional learning (SEL), which highlights self-awareness, social awareness, and responsible decision-making
- Making anti-bullying efforts age-appropriate because one size doesn’t fit all when addressing bullying — the education and consequences you put in place should be appropriate for your age groups
- Having an open door policy where students can find a trusted adult for support — whether they’re being bullied or they’re witnessing bullying
- Instituting a see-something-say-something policy and promoting it
3. Health-related issues
Chronic illnesses like asthma or diabetes affect around 25% of students in the US. Health-related issues can cause children to regularly miss school, whether it’s due to frequent doctor’s visits or time spent at home for recovery. The effects of health-related absences are more than just physical — illness can lead to emotional stress that makes it hard for kids to concentrate in class or feel overwhelmed when they try to get caught up.
Aside from physical illness, other visible and invisible health challenges can affect students. For example, a student with mobility issues may struggle to get around campus. Someone with disordered eating or who self-harms might avoid gym class so they don’t have to undress in front of their peers. A student who has dyslexia might avoid class out of fear of being asked to read aloud.
Solution: To address health-related chronic absenteeism rates, schools should try to have more on-site health services. Access to a school nurse or counselor during the school day can encourage students to manage their health without missing essential learning opportunities.
4. Socioeconomic challenges
A significant factor affecting student absenteeism stems from the socioeconomic challenges many students in our country face.
- Lack of educational resources: Things as simple as proper school supplies or clothing can discourage children from attending school regularly.
- Poverty and housing instability: Studies link poverty and housing instability to poor attendance. Families who are unhoused or frequently moving might need help consistently getting students to school.
- Transportation barriers: Transportation barriers are yet another common cause of absenteeism in students for families who can’t afford to get their children to and from school every day.
Solution: Economic hardship can create serious hurdles for students and families. By understanding the relationship between socioeconomic elements and chronic school absenteeism, we can start finding effective solutions and ensure student success. The following might help:
- Consider offering qualified families private transportation or providing public transportation cards to help cover the cost of getting to school
- Create walking groups based on location so students can safely get to and from school together
- Establish student attendance teams that track data and can reach out to families and students who need help
- Foster peer connections — students who are socially and emotionally healthy will want to be at school
- Improve school-parent relationships
- Avoid punitive approaches, such as suspension or other punishment, especially if the absenteeism is due to a socioeconomic-related cause that’s out of individual students’ or family’s control
5. Mental health
Mental health in students is a major player in chronic absenteeism. Studies show that students struggling with mental health are more likely to miss school. The Centers for Disease Control (CDD) notes that the most common mental health conditions affecting children today are depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and behavior problems — all of which can contribute to skipped school days.
We’re in crisis mode when it comes to the mental health of adolescents in this country. The pressure of academic achievement and extracurricular activities can cause chronic stress that compounds until burnout strikes. Students who are burned out might find it difficult to attend class because they’re mentally exhausted.
Social issues today add another complexity for students trying to navigate adolescence. Social media and cyberbullying can severely harm the student psyche as young people try to figure out their identity and attempt to make social connections with their peers.
Solution: Talkspace offers online therapy for students that can serve as an effective support system for struggling students. Giving access to mental health professionals from the comfort of home can reduce the stigma or fear attached to seeking help.
Other ways to improve mental health in schools include:
- Monitoring and following up on absences
- Focusing on parent engagement and reaching out
- Ensuring students know where they can find support through counseling services provided by the school
- Instituting an open-door policy where students can come to school counselors anytime during the day for help
- Establishing mental health days for students
6. Family circumstances
While home life is supposed to provide a safe space for young people, for some children, the family demands placed on them can interfere with school attendance. Students caring for young siblings or other household members might be forced to put their responsibilities at home in front of school. The burden can be heavy for these children, leading to increased absenteeism and other struggles at school.
Family disruptions — divorce, crises, food instability, or moving — can be other reasons for chronic absenteeism.
Solution: Schools must find ways to support students juggling multiple responsibilities or dealing with personal crises at home. This can be accomplished by:
- Encouraging autonomy in the classroom which can give students a sense of control that they may not find at home
- Making sure kids know that their classrooms are “safe zones”
- Checking in with students often and providing counseling and support resources
- Scheduling downtime into days or weeks so students can rely on regular times they know will be peaceful
Solve the root issues of absenteeism
Getting to the heart of chronic absenteeism means taking the time to understand and address the root causes. Comprehensive intervention and resources can be powerful, allowing students to feel safe and supported at school. This can help them overcome whatever obstacles they face so they can be more motivated to come to school ready to learn every day.
Online therapy at Talkspace can offer struggling students a lifeline. Every child deserves an equal opportunity to be educated. Providing resources to help deal with the cause and effect of absenteeism of students can make all the difference. Whether it’s dealing with bullying, physical or mental health issues, financial instability, or a complicated home life, all educators are responsible for addressing the concerns of students head-on. Talkspace can be your ally in doing so.
- “Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools.” Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools, January 2019. https://www2.ed.gov/datastory/chronicabsenteeism.html.
- “The NCES Fast Facts Tool Provides Quick Answers to Many Education Questions (National Center for Education Statistics).” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, 2019. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=719.
- “Bullying.” Values in Action. Accessed October 9, 2023. https://www.viafdn.org/bullying.
- Consensus Statement on the Core Tenets of Chronic Condition Management in Schools. Accessed October 9, 2023. https://downloads.aap.org/AAP/PDF/Consensus%20Statement%20-%20Core%20Tenets%20of%20CCMS%20%202021-08%20.pdf.
- Elaine Weiss, Emma García. “Student Absenteeism: Who Misses School and How Missing School Matters for Performance.” Economic Policy Institute, September 25, 2018. https://www.epi.org/publication/student-absenteeism-who-misses-school-and-how-missing-school-matters-for-performance.
- Lawrence, David, Vaille Dawson, Stephen Houghton, Ben Goodsell, and Michael G Sawyer. “Impact of Mental Disorders on Attendance at School.” Australian Journal of Education 63, no. 1 (2019): 5–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004944118823576.
- “Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 8, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html.