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A Teacher's Survival Guide to Student Absenteeism at the End of the Year

A Teacher's Survival Guide to Student Absenteeism at the End of the Year

When your numbers dwindle, it’s time to pull out your “special reserve” lessons.

As the school year winds down, teachers may start to see an unexpected increase in student absenteeism. Besides the usual reasons, like illness, doctor appointments, and family obligations, some kids may just give up on coming to school toward the end of the year.

Further reading: How to Handle Plagiarism and Cheating in the Classroom

Students who haven't done well during the year may feel that there's nothing they can do to change things now. It may feel like it's too late to make up the work they've missed, and they may not feel a real connection to school. Here's how to reestablish the connection between students and their education, and what you can do to keep absenteeism in check.

Connecting with Your Students

Schools across the country deal with absenteeism to varying degrees of success. Evie Blad says that trying to change some kids' attitudes toward regular attendance is like "untangling a rope [and] loosening knotted-up, long-established habits..." But many districts work hard to keep kids in school. Elementary educators, for example, know that poor attendance can have a negative impact on basic skills, like reading. To counter this, some schools offer incentives for good attendance such as pizza parties, ice cream at lunch, or extra recess. One of my local schools has even promised kindergarteners that the class with the best attendance would be visited by a super hero!

Incentives help, but some teachers also plan activities or projects at the end of the year that engage students and spark their interest—the perfect way to ensure they won't want to miss what's happening in class. One middle school teacher I know always saves debate for the last month of school. The topics she assigns are fun, like "Who's smarter, Patrick from SpongeBob SquarePants or Beast Boy from Teen Titans Go?" or, "Should kids be allowed to have cell phones before age 16?" Whatever the topic, students need to do the research, follow debate rules, and present a convincing argument. In this teacher's experience, no one wants to miss the final debates.

A history teacher I worked with saves World War II for the final topic of the year, capitalizing on the lesson's popularity with students. On the first day of the new topic, he comes into class dressed like General Patton and gives instruction to his "recruits" about the research projects they'll work on over the next few weeks.

At the elementary level, teachers in my school helped students develop and present a short play by mixing together the characters of the books they've read. One primary teacher does a "Bring Your Pet to School Day," and students bring in their favorite stuffed animals. These teachers recognize that projects requiring student participation not only encourage attendance, but help them connect with teachers.

Working with Students and Families to Improve Attendance

When a student is chronically absent, contacting parents is usually effective—especially if you emphasize how you've missed the student in class and hope he or she is all right, rather than demanding to know the reason for the absence. It's also helpful to have a conversation with the student the next time they attend class, stressing that you've noticed their absence, and you care about them and their education.

I always try to avoid asking a student why they've been absent. In my experience, if they've been absent for a legitimate reason, they'll tell you. Other times, there are personal or family issues they may prefer not to share. When a student with a string of absences returns to class, it's important to welcome them back and help them get up to speed on missing work. Giving your students a hard time about poor attendance is counterproductive, and doesn't make them want to return to school in the future.

Helping Students Get Caught Up

Chronic student absenteeism can, of course, impact a student's progression to the next grade level or graduation. For some students who have missed a lot of instruction, the only recourse may be summer school. But for others, teachers may be able to identify the work a student needs to complete to get caught up. These cases are rare, but it may be possible for the student to make up the work, take the important tests, and pass. I have taken this approach in the past when it was clear that despite the student's absences, repeating the entire course the following year might very well produce the same results. Needless to say, this plan requires real commitment on the part of the student—and their parents.

Encouraging Attendance All Year Round

We want good student attendance to be a habit, not a daily decision. Studies show that chronic absence (missing 10-15 percent of school time) in elementary and middle school can be an important "early warning sign" that a student is at risk for failure and early dropout. That's why we need to welcome kids into our classes and tell them we notice when they're not there.

Further reading: 3 Simple Year-End Activities to Wrap the School year on a High Note

A high school teacher told me about a girl in her class who kept her head down, rarely spoke, and missed a day or two every week. One day the teacher called her aside and said, "Anita, I want you to know that I see you. In fact, I have my eye on you. You're a bright girl and I know you can do better." "What?" the girl said, surprised. "You know who I am?" Her attendance improved and she did do better because she was convinced that her teacher cared.

The first step to succeeding in school is showing up. But as we approach the summer, absences tend to rise. To combat this, use these tips to guide you and make sure to set clear expectations with your students and their parents.