If you’re not in school, you’re not learning

September 18, 2015 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

attendance mattersMy oldest son just started third grade. About once a week, he asks if he can stay home. Sometimes his stomach hurts. Sometimes he’s tired. Other times he says he just needs a break, and he lists the many friends whose parents let them stay home whenever they want, according to my son.

I almost always make him go. I confess it’s not easy. Sometimes I worry I’m pushing too hard. What if he gets to school and is sick? So I call to check. The nurse knows me well after three years. He’s always fine.

There have been times I’ve been tempted to give in and say, “OK, take a day off.” We tried once. That was a mistake. I set a precedent that has been tough to get past.

September is national Attendance Awareness Month. Some startling statistics out there have strengthened my resolve.

Missing even two days a month can add up to trouble. If a student misses two days a month, they have missed the equivalent of 10 percent of the school year, which is considered chronically absent, according to Attendance Works, a national and state initiative that promotes better policy and practice around school attendance.

Nationwide, as many as one out of 10 students is considered chronically absent, and chronic absence is a leading, early warning sign of academic trouble and potentially dropping out.

Consider this (from Attendance Works):

  • By third grade, chronically absent students, especially those who have experienced multiple years of poor attendance, are less likely to read on grade level.
  • By sixth grade, chronic absence becomes a warning sign that a student will drop out of high school.
  • By ninth grade, it’s a better indicator than eighth-grade test scores.


There are lots of reasons for chronic absence, which include excused and unexcused absences. “Absences can be broken up into three categories: discretion, aversion and barriers,” said LaFayette Central School District Superintendent Laura Lavine.

Discretionary absences occur when families and students don’t appreciate how much attendance matters.

Aversion occurs when students who may be struggling academically or dealing with bullying or anxiety do whatever they can to avoid attending school.

Barriers include unstable housing situations, issues with the juvenile justice system, or older siblings taking on the responsibilities of caring for younger family members because of a parent’s or guardian’s work schedule.

School districts are equipped to deal with these, and other, attendance issues, Lavine said. Parents facing challenges in getting their children to school should reach out to their child’s teacher, principal or the school psychologist or social worker, she said.

“We have many, many resources here,” she said.

Making that connection between school and home is critical in working through the issues preventing a child from attending school regularly. Missed school translates to missed opportunities–socially and academically.

“We know from research that time on task is crucial for student achievement,” Lavine said. “If they’re not here, they’re not learning.”

This brings us back to the Attendance Works bullets above.

Some high-performing students can miss a day or two of school and not fall behind academically. But what does that teach them?

“If you’re missing a job two days a month, you’re not going to have that job after a while,” said Eileen Conway-Whitaker, director of student services for Liberty Central School District. “I always like to make that real-world application.”

Once the underlying reason is determined as to why a student is missing school, school officials will work with families to develop attendance strategies. That may include establishing routines, such as a consistent bedtime, laying out clothes and making lunches the night before school, or it could be as simple as buying an alarm clock so the student is awake in time to catch the bus.

School officials will sometimes step in to help by visiting the home to talk with parents and students or request a formal meeting at the school. The idea is not to be punitive but to problem solve, Conway-Whitaker said.

“We really try to have a partnership with the parents when dealing with attendance,” she said.

Having a tough time with attendance issues? Here are some suggestions for parents from Attendance Works.

  • Keep an attendance chart at home. At the end of the week, reward your child for attending school every day. Rewards could include a visit to the park, extra video game time or a special treat.
  • Make sure your child is in bed by a certain time each night and the alarm clock is set.
  • Don’t let children stay home unless they are truly sick. Keep in mind complaints of a stomachache or headache can be a sign of anxiety and not a reason to stay home.
  • If your child seems anxious about going to school, talk to teachers, school counselors, or other parents for advice on how to make him/her feel comfortable and excited about learning.
  • If your child has a cold but no fever (less than 100 degrees), send him/her to school anyway. If you don’t have a thermometer, purchase or borrow one.
  • Identify a relative, friend or neighbor who can take your child to school if you can’t or if he/she misses the bus.
  • Avoid medical appointments and extended trips when school is in session.

For more information, check out the Attendance Works website: www.attendanceworks.org.

Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County and has sons in first- and third-grade. Each day that both of her children get on the school bus she exhales the breath she had been holding.

Copyright ©2015 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

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