Cultivate a School-Wide Culture of Attendance

All schools should have a welcoming and engaging environment that includes a strong emphasis on the importance of going to class every day. Principals can model this approach and engage staff in consistently sending the message that attendance matters. 

Principals and school staff are well positioned to help families understand what their children are learning in school and what they miss when they are absent. Parents and students may not realize that even excused absences, if they accumulate, can be a problem and lead to falling behind in the classroom. Few families realize that absenteeism is a problem as early as pre-K and kindergarten. The latest research suggests the most effective communication goes beyond talking about the benefits of attendance to making parents aware of the adverse impact of absences on learning, so they strive for students to only miss school when an absence is unavoidable.

Here are four ideas that can help cultivate a school-wide culture of attendance:

  1. Start outreach before the school year begins
  2. Leverage existing activities to communicate the importance of good attendance and offer support
  3. Nurture a school-wide system of attendance incentives and recognition
  4. Get involved in Attendance Awareness Month

1. Start outreach before the school year begins

Principals can use back-to-school letters, social media, phone calls or visits from teachers, robo-calls (ideally personalized by classroom), and even text messaging to communicate about how important attendance is for student achievement, provide families with valuable back-to-school information, and ensure families know when school starts. While parents are the primary target for elementary outreach, students are also a critical focus of messaging campaigns by middle and high schools.

2. Leverage existing activities to communicate the importance of attendance and offer support

School assemblies, back to school nights, pre-K or kindergarten orientation events, parent-teacher conferences, and newsletters all represent important opportunities to engage students and their families, send the message that regular attendance is an expectation, and build awareness that absences reduce their child’s opportunities to learn. Wherever possible, establish and maintain two-way communication, including collecting up-to-date contact information and encouraging families to ask for assistance if they face barriers such as transportation issues, job loss, unstable housing arrangements, or health concerns.

Keep in mind that most families believe that attendance is important but do not realize how easily absences can add up to academic risk.  

Ad Council, California Attendance Survey Parent Results, August 2015

Talk positively about the importance of attendance while motivating families to keep track of absences. Mention that families will be contacted if school staff members notice too many absences. Make sure families know that even in pre-K and Kindergarten, just missing two days a month can impact learning and make it difficult for children to develop a habit of regular attendance that will help them succeed throughout their school career.

Tools that can be used to communicate with students and parents about the importance of attendance:

Teachers are an especially important resource for engaging in caring outreach, given they are in daily contact with students and can take advantage of regularly scheduled interactions, such as parent-teacher conferences, to talk one-on-one with parents. As the first line of prevention and intervention, teachers can make attendance a normal topic in all interactions with parents. Teachers can also bring in additional school staff if a deeper intervention is needed.

Tools for teachers to engage families in learning about the importance of attendance:

3. Nurture a school-wide approach to attendance incentives and recognition

School communities can send a clear message that going to school every day is a priority by providing regular recognition and rewards to students and families who have good and improved attendance. Tardiness can be addressed by ensuring awards recognize on-time attendance.

Keep in mind the goal is not to focus just on perfect attendance for a quarter or semester since the children who struggle the most will soon be left out of such awards. Schools, for example, can recognize most improved attendance as well as perfect attendance for each week so students have a chance to try again even if they had an absence the prior week.

In addition, schools should consider recognizing parents and families as well as students for their role in getting their children to school.  Schools can acknowledge families by calling out their names or offering a flower at a general school assembly to every family whose child had perfect attendance the past month. 

A school-wide approach can also help improve the accuracy of attendance data since the students themselves are likely to help ensure teachers are aware of who is and is not in class. Attendance incentive programs should be designed to encourage teachers to convey the importance of attendance by taking roll in a positive manner that shows students that they notice and appreciate when they come to class.

4. Get involved in Attendance Awareness Month

Beginning with the new school year and throughout the month of September, organizations and communities throughout the country use Attendance Awareness Month to ensure they start the school year off with a strong start. Since school starts in August in Arkansas, you can begin to highlight the importance of ensuring absences do not add up from the first day of school as you set the school-wide culture and the norms for the entire school year.

 Be sure to check out these resources: