By Ben Mark
Outreach Director, Panorama Education

Over 6.5 million students—one out of every seven—are chronically absent from school each year according to the U.S. Department of Education. Defined as missing 10 percent or more of the year, chronic absenteeism is one of the most critical issues facing schools in Michigan and across the country.

Irregular attendance has clear, adverse impacts on student success. Chronic absenteeism is linked to fallingoff track for high school graduation,poorer social-emotional outcomes, andlower academic achievementfor students. Reducing absenteeism is one of the biggest opportunities we have for improving educational outcomes and for increasing equity in our schools.

What underlying factors contribute to chronic absenteeism?

Students often miss school for reasons outside of our control—such as illness, transportation challenges, and family obligation. However, there are several factors that we can influence, such as the school learning environment, campus culture, and student’s social-emotional skills. Leading researchers and organizations, like Attendance Works, have demonstrated that school climate and social-emotional learning (SEL) are key factors linked to chronic absenteeism.

For example, students who don’t feel like they belong at school and students who don’t have close relationships with their teachers are more likely to miss school than their peers.

Here are four ways district leaders in Michigan can prioritize school climate and SEL as levers to improve attendance and reduce chronic absenteeism.

1. Measure stakeholder perceptions of school climate using research-backed surveys.

It’s critical to gather feedback from students, families, teachers, and staff in order to understand the learning environment and campus culture that exists across your school or district. Using research-backed surveys, you can collectvalid, reliable data about the relationships, levels of engagement, sense of belonging, safety, and other factors that promote increased attendance.

Student feedback often highlights opportunities for improving attendance. For example, if many students report that they don’t have strong relationships with their teachers, investing in stronger teacher-student relationships can have a positive impact on attendance.

2. Make connections between attendance, school climate, and SEL data.

Explore how your survey data relate to attendance rates and chronic absenteeism. Run a simple analysis on how the survey data varies by students’ average daily attendance rates, chronic absenteeism status, race/ethnicity, free and reduced price lunch status, and other key demographics. Do certain groups of students perceive their school environment differently than others? Do chronically absent students see school differently than students with strong attendance?

For instance, if survey results show that students with low attendance also feel much less safe than students with high attendance, school leaders may wish to focus on school safety in order to improve attendance.

3. Take action with targeted interventions and supports around SEL and school climate.

Schools make the most progress on improving attendance when they focus on specific climate-culture or social-emotional learning domains. Setting a school-wide priority of “Improve teacher-student relationships” or “Make sure all of our ninth graders feel like they belong at school” will likely lead to better results than a priority of “Improve school climate.”

Whether your team wants to improve school safety, students’ growth mindset, or family engagement, there are dozens of resources geared at improving these non-academic domains. We recommend that educators explore strategies and toolkits developed by Transforming Education,Second Step, Teaching Tolerance, and Character Lab.

4. Monitor progress over time.

Once you’ve implemented new programs or targeted interventions for students, how do you know if they are working? Administer additional rounds of surveys to track year-over-year or semesterly changes in the perceptions of your students, families, teachers, and staff members. Use these results to understand whether your efforts are moving the needle with clear indicators of growth at the student, school, and district levels.

By proactively addressing school climate and students’ SEL skills, educators have an opportunity to ensure that students attend school each day, ready to succeed. To learn how innovative districts like Grand Rapids are reducing chronic absenteeism, download this guide for school and district leaders.

Ben Mark is Outreach Director for Panorama Education. Contact him at bmark@panoramaed.com or 617.380.7762. Panorama Education partners with K-12 schools and districts across the country to collect and analyze data about social-emotional learning, school climate, family engagement, and more. To learn more, visit www.panoramaed.com.