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Responding to absences with positive problem-solving rather than blame or punishment this school year is more urgent than ever before. Despite the fact that punitive practices are widespread, a growing number of researchers have found that they are not particularly effective. Indeed, as discussed in our blog from April 2018, punitive practices have not been shown to improve attendance.

What improves attendance is partnering with students and families to identify and address the root causes that lead to students to miss school in the first place, whether absences are connected to barriers to showing up for school, negative experiences in school or a lack of engagement. Root causes can also be related to misconceptions about attendance, such as thinking that sporadic absences aren’t a problem, or missing two days a month doesn’t affect learning.

The events of the past six months have only deepened and expanded the prevalence of such root causes, especially for low-income communities and Black, Latino, Native American and new immigrant families. These are also the same students likely to be harmed the most by a punitive approach.

Too often, when students living in poverty miss school, their absences are treated as unexcused even though they were not intentionally skipping class. For example, before schools closed last spring, when students missed school because they needed to take care of a sibling, help a sick relative or couldn’t get to class due to unreliable transportation, schools too often marked these absences as unexcused. Unexcused absences also added up when families lacked English skills or health care to produce a doctor’s note when a student had been ill.

Now that schools are reopened this fall, students living in poverty are even more likely to miss school for reasons that might not be deemed valid, such as needing to work to support their family, helping their younger siblings with school or lacking computers or access to the internet.

The problem starts with the lens through which missing school is typically viewed. When absences start to add up, often the initial reaction to missing school is to blame the child or their family for not caring enough to make school a priority. This response can make it even more difficult to find a solution because it causes the student and family to feel alienated, distrustful and angry.

By contrast, an emerging body of research shows that a positive problem-solving approach is more effective. A study conducted in California, for example, found that rewriting traditional truancy notifications could increase their effectiveness by 40%. The key was making sure the notices did not begin with the state mandated legalistic language. The most effective letter offered clear, actionable data about which days a student missed, shared the potential consequence of chronic absence on learning outcomes, and reassured parents and guardians that they could help their children get to school.

Research also shows that chronic absence is highly correlated with trauma. The more a child has had adverse childhood experiences, the more likely they are to miss school. The most effective response to trauma is asking “what happened to you, how can I help,” not saying “what’s wrong with you.” Most often, an empathic, restorative response aimed at addressing the underlying barriers yields better attendance.

When truancy (or the accumulation of unexcused absences) persists, it too often results in a court referral, even though what happens in court typically does not help a student and family to overcome the challenges that caused the absences in the first place. A new report from the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, notes that “an arrest, court involvement, and/or system supervision for youth who are truant or commit other low-level offenses actually decreases their likelihood of attending school and completing high school.”

Left unchecked, biases in how schools and communities define and respond to truancy contribute to disproportionate numbers of youth of color becoming involved in our juvenile justice system and pushed out of educational opportunity. At the same time, effective solutions should be crafted with input from students and families, and need to be grounded in a nuanced understanding of the challenges faced by the students who have the most absences.

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