This is the *fourth blog in our series in which we highlight attendance-related issues that are emerging as states work through the complexities of implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As of September 2017, all states have submitted plans to implement the ESSA to the U.S. Department of Education. Due to its strong measurement qualities and significant impact, more than 70 percent of states will use chronic absence as the “fifth” ESSA indicator, often in combination with factors such as school climate or college and career readiness. Schools will be responsible for meeting student attendance and other achievement goals beginning in 2018.


Portrait of cute girl sitting in wheelchairStudents with disabilities are among those most frequently absent from school at every grade level. Data from the 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection show that the chronic absence rate of special education students is an outstanding 19 percent, roughly 1.5 times higher than rates of non-disabled students.  For students with disabilities, who comprise about 14 percent of all students nationwide, chronic absence peaks in high school, where nearly 25 percent of special education students miss 10  percent or more of school. Typically, these children are also the ones who most need the supports and resources that schools provide. 

We know that improving attendance and academic outcomes for all students requires schools to provide engaging, welcoming and supportive environments and to use proactive problem-solving approaches when absences first occur. That said, when students with disabilities are absent, educators and their partners must listen carefully to the child and family to identify disability-specific issues that are contributing to absences. For example, a student may be absent because she is isolated from peers and excluded from enjoyable extra-curricular and after school activities. Another may be struggling academically due to lack of accessible instructional materials.  

It is also worth emphasizing that education leaders and school staff must not allow increased accountability for chronic absenteeism to result in laws, policies and practices that punish or blame students with disabilities and their families. Schools and communities have tried punitive approaches and there is no evidence that they are effective. Indeed, they are more likely to make students avoid school and, even, drop out. For all students, but particularly our most vulnerable students, collaborative problem solving will improve attendance, not punishment. 

Students with disabilities face systemic and structural barriers that can disrupt school attendance. Partly for this reason, state education agencies have an essential oversight role in the development and implementation of attendance policies and practices. For students with disabilities to receive the supports they need to attend regularly, state leaders must ensure that attendance policies treat health and disability-related absences in a manner that will not penalize schools or students. Most importantly, as schools work to improve attendance for ESSA accountability, state education leaders must continually scrutinize state laws and school district policies and practices regarding attendance to be sure that they do not have unintended negative consequences for students with disabilities. These might arise, for example, when a district attempts to improve attendance by requiring blanket access to a child's protected personal, health, disability or family information or using past attendance records to discourage enrollment. 

What Districts and Schools Can Do to Support Students with Disabilities 

Districts and schools have a more direct problem-solving role, one that requires staff training and the full integration of attendance into all aspects of support systems for students with disabilities. To be successful, administrators, principals and teachers should:


  • Communicate in a non-accusatory manner with the parent, caregiver, and student to build a supportive relationship and to emphasize the importance of regular attendance. 

  • Identify the root causes of absenteeism and the steps necessary to solve them. For example, connect with community partners if the barrier is clothing, transportation, housing, access to health or mental health treatment; provide training to teachers and staff to address instructional barriers; review budgets to remedy shortages of staff and/or lack of materials and supplies needed to deliver effective classroom instruction or school-wide accommodations; and engage culturally-competent staff to break down communication barriers between schools and families.

  • Investigate the disciplinary policies and practices of their schools and identify when suspensions and expulsions are used as a response to the behavior of students with emotional disabilities. Although children with emotional disabilities represent only about 5 percent of all students with disabilities, they typically have the highest rates of chronic absence and are overrepresented in school suspension data. Excluding these students from school results in a loss of instructional and support time and provides no opportunity for them to learn skills. To address the chronic absence of students with emotional disabilities, staff must be trained in positive behavioral strategies and conflict de-escalation and schools must develop alternatives to exclusionary discipline. 

  • Include attendance in all IEP/504 team meetings as a regular discussion and action item, given that students with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be chronically absent. Review and revise, as necessary, students’ IEPs to include specific interventions, goals and objectives related to attendance. 

  • Convene an IEP team meeting for chronically absent general education students if teachers, family and other team members suspect a disability. Teams can recommend evaluations to determine if the student has a disability that is affecting educational progress. If so, the student’s IEP should include explicit strategies to address educational needs, as well as attendance goals and objectives. 

  • Convene a 504 team meeting for students with health-related needs that keep them out of school. Ensure that any 504 plan includes a variety of classroom-based and other instructional and behavioral supports that help children stay on track academically and in school as much as possible. 

  • Document and regularly review all efforts to address each student’s absenteeism to provide effective interventions. Seek help if needed from experts and community partners. 

  • Ensure that extracurricular and out-of-school time programs are accessible to students with disabilities, as these activities have been shown to increase school engagement and connection. Be sure to address the barriers to participation that often exist. 

Students with disabilities need and deserve extra support when it comes to school attendance. Increased accountability for attendance should help educators to identify those students with disabilities who are at risk of being chronically absent before their achievement falters. Then, it is up to educators to identify positive, proactive solutions  to ensure that all children with disabilities have the supports they need to get to school regularly and succeed. 

We would like to express our appreciation to Jane Sundius and Pat Halle, Attendance Works Senior Fellows, for significantly contributing to the content of this blog. Kathleen B. Boundy, Co-director, Center for Law and Education and Candace Cortiella, Director, The Advocacy Institute also contributed.

* Read the previous blogs in our series, A Sea Change in Defining and Responding to Poor Attendance, High Quality Attendance Data is More Important Than Ever, and Making the Most of Attendance Indicators.