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Breaking the Cycle of Absenteeism: Strategies for Prevention

Sudeshna Das, University of New Haven

In the United States, juvenile crime is an area of major concern. Research on delinquency often examines indicators existing at the early stages of development (McCluskey et al., 2004). Relatedly, school absenteeism affects students’ performance and can lead to long-term effects (Ginsburg et al., 2014; Aucejo & Romano, 2016). Truancy, for instance, may result in poor academic performance, dropping out of school, substance abuse, and juvenile delinquency (Henry & Huzinga, 2007). Furthermore, chronic absenteeism also is a predictor of students dropping out of school, an increase in sexual risk behaviors, and criminal behavior (Romero & Lee, 2007; Henry et al., 2010).


This brief first outlines the definitions of truancy and chronic absenteeism in the United States. The policies of states with absentee intervention programs then are examined. The brief recommends that states adopt an early warning system approach that can help identify youths who are at risk to miss school, as identifying such risk factors will limit youth contact with the juvenile justice system. Further, the brief discusses the use of interventions that are not punitive, to ensure young adults remain in school. Instead, tailored and unique interventions can target particular risk factors to effectively address school absenteeism.


Statement of the Problem

In the last several decades, the focus of the juvenile court shifted from status offenses and less serious offending to more serious law violations (McCluskey et al., 2004). During this time, family crisis units, court attorneys, and social service agencies began to handle many status offenses (Juvenile Court Statistics, 2013). Consequently, juvenile courts often do not get involved in status offenses until youth are referred to intake, by sources such as social service agencies, schools, law enforcement agencies, and more (Juvenile Court Statistics, 2013).


One of the status offenses, truancy, generally is handled by schools and outside of the formal domain of the juvenile justice system. However, this diversion contributed to greater enforcement of school attendance laws. Thus, when students do not abide by these attendance laws, and when there is an excess of unexcused absences, schools sometimes resort to punitive practices, such as court appearances, fines for parents and students, and exclusion from extracurricular activities (McNeely et al., 2023). These practices can be counterproductive and may not improve attendance (Anderson, 2020; Yaluma et al., 2022).  Furthermore, sometimes schools do not recognize that absenteeism could be due to a lack of resources available in the student’s community, as well as challenges experienced at school that lower the student’s willingness to come to school (Attendance Works & Healthy Schools Campaign, 2015; Brundage et al., 2017; Chang et al., 2019).


Definitions of Truancy and Chronic Absenteeism

Truancy and Chronic Absenteeism (CA) both are markers of school absenteeism and are often used interchangeably. However, they cover different aspects of school absenteeism. Truancy refers to unexcused absences, whereas CA incorporates excused and unexcused absences, as well as suspensions and expulsions. Federal law requires each state to define truancy. For instance, in California a student is categorized as a truant if they miss three days of school without a valid excuse, or when they are late to class three times by half an hour or more (Attendance Works, 2016). In Maryland, when a student misses 20% of school in one academic year, they are categorized as a truant (Attendance Works, 2016). In Connecticut, a student who has 4 unexcused absences in one month or 10 unexcused absences in 1 school year is categorized as a truant (CSDE, 2023). In the same light, CA does not have one definition, although practitioners and schools follow a national standard of missing 10 percent or more of the school year (Attendance Works, 2016).


Punitive Actions

How a student is categorized also determines the treatment received from the school. With unexcused absences, the student and family may receive differential access to services. Teachers do not assist students with making up missed learning opportunities after unexcused absences, but they are obligated to do so for excused absences (McNeely et al., 2023). With truancy, responses typically are more punitive, rather than therapeutic. Previous research suggests that punitive approaches are not effective in improving attendance and can also be counterproductive (Anderson, 2020; Yaluma et al., 2022). Many absences are caused by challenges experienced by the student in the community, such as lack of access to health care, transportation, and stable housing, as well as challenges experienced in school, such as bullying and struggling academically (Brundage et al., 2017; Chang et al., 2019). Due to the pandemic, illness and quarantine measures further exacerbated absenteeism, because sometimes students did not have documentation to validate their absence. In light of these challenges, a punitive approach may not address the underlying reasons that lead students to miss school days.


Underlying causes and risk factors

In one study, 84% of respondents concurred that they missed school due to health-related issues (Grump, 2004). In another study, 5.5% of a nationally representative sample of high school students reported missing one day of school in thirty days, because of either feeling unsafe at school or feeling unsafe traveling to or from school (Basch, 2011). Absenteeism may also be caused by family factors, school factors, personal problems, peers, and gender-related issues (Ozkanal &Arikan, 2011). Thus, a plethora of risk factors may contribute to the development of absenteeism, and without knowing the reason behind the missed school days, punishing young people will not improve attendance. Relatedly, it is crucial to understand if youths are missing school due to individual factors, such as behavioral inhibition and fear of failure; family factors, such as separation and divorce of parents, parental mental health problems, or dysfunctional family interactions; school factors, such as bullying or the structure of the school day; or community factors, such as increased pressure to achieve academically,  inadequate support services, or socio-economic disadvantage (Kiani et al., 2018).


Preexisting Policies

As discussed above, the definitions of truancy and chronic absenteeism vary by state.

Similarly, intervention models in states undertake different approaches. In this section, intervention models in three different states, along with a nationwide program, will be discussed.



Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) operates statewide and is the largest volunteer mentoring network in Connecticut. BBBS provides children between the ages of 6 and 14 with mentors, with a focus on developing positive relationships with them. Each match is supported by coordinators and a trained team, so that matches develop a relationship through conversations and shared activities that address the challenges young people face daily. This community-based mentoring program dedicates at least 6-10 hours per month to young people. Previous research on volunteer programs has shown that frequent contact with mentees for a longer time is more effective (DuBois, 2002). This was further confirmed by national research that has shown BBBS contributes to participants being more confident in their school performance, along with experiencing improved family interactions. Further, mentored youths were less likely to use illegal drugs and consume alcohol, and most importantly they were less likely to skip school (CSDE, 2018).



Becoming a Man (B.A.M.) offers a social and emotional learning (SEL) program in

Chicago, Illinois. This program is complemented by afterschool sports for at-risk male students, particularly in grades 7-12. The program incorporates a small group session where participation is voluntary and is conducted once per week to develop particular skills through stories, role-playing, and group exercises. A randomized controlled trial conducted by the University of Chicago Crime Lab (n.d.) showed that B.A.M. increased students’ engagement with school, reduced arrests for crime (violent as well as nonviolent), and is likely to increase high school graduation rates. Further, the study also revealed an increase in lifetime earnings and tax payments, as well as lower public benefit use (CSDE, 2018).



The Corona-Norco Unified School District (CNUSD) tracks attendance data in the district by gender, grade, race/ethnicity, and more. Specific interventions are then fashioned to create a safe and supportive environment for students. Based on the student needs, tailored services and resources are provided, such as transportation services to and from school, mental health resources, English learner support, student health and wellness, bullying prevention, and more. In terms of the effectiveness of the program, the absenteeism rate was recorded as 10.4% in 2012-13; however, it dropped to 9.7% in the following year (CSDE, 2018).


Nationwide Program

Check and Connect is a nationwide program in the United States. Since the 1990s, the program has been implemented in 48 states. Students are referred to the program when there is a history of poor attendance, low grades, and behavioral issues. The program utilizes mentors who coordinate with students to facilitate engagement at school and in the community, through a personalized and timely approach. The primary focus of the program is to improve engagement, as well as to encourage students to enjoy education, build skills, and solve problems (CSDE, 2018). In terms of the program effectiveness, a study found that when 9th-grade students were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups, the Check & Connect students who received services for 4-5 years were less likely to drop out of school and were more likely to be enrolled in an educational program (Sinclair et al., 2005). Another study found that 86% of Check & Connect students were more engaged with school and also arrived at school on time (Lehr et al., 2004).


Policy Options

Based on the policy options discussed, states should implement interventions that address the needs of students to reduce unnecessary absences. As discussed earlier, school absenteeism policies may vary by state as well as the school district in a state. Thus, it is beyond the scope of this policy brief to cover all policies related to school absenteeism. Most states steer away from punitive approaches, and the following policy options will also focus on other non-punitive measures so that the underlining reasons why students are avoiding school can be addressed.


Option 1 – Addressing Health-Related Issues

Based on available research, many students skip class due to health-related issues

(Grump, 2004). This requires the school to have adequate staff so that students’ health-related needs are addressed. Additionally, schools should have skilled counselors to assist students who are faced with emotional and mental challenges.


  1. Early screening can address physical health, mental health, and behavioral needs.
  2. Targeting students’ individual needs.
  3. Identifying risk factors that contribute to kids missing school.


  1. Budgetary concerns.
  2. Inadequate staffing.


Option 2- Professional Development

With mentoring models, a mentor can guide and support a student who has missed too much school. The mentor can be assigned by the court or from the community, but in any case, they can directly improve students’ academic performance and behavior at school, and minimize student defiance (Norcross & Wampold, 2011). This specific policy could incorporate the key structures of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) that operates in Connecticut.


  1. Provides positive role models for students.
  2. Reduction in risk behaviors, such as substance abuse and alcohol consumption.
  3. Improved academic performance.
  4. Less likely to skip school.


  1. Mentors may experience burnout due to inadequate resources.
  2. A mismatch between adult volunteers and children.
  3. Incompetent mentors.
  4. Budgetary concerns.


Option 3- Group Specific Intervention

Research suggests disparities in the labeling of unexcused absences also exist. Disparities may be observed across four categories: socioeconomic disadvantage, race and ethnicity, disability status, and English learner status (McNeely et al., 2023). Thus, tailored intervention is needed to have fewer disparities and achieve higher attendance by non-punitive measures.  


  1. Can help identify if disparities exist statewide or in a particular district.
  2. Engage in more equitable practices, and thus more equitable outcomes.


  1. Schools will have to routinely revise school discipline policies to abide by current trends, and some may not adhere to that.
  2. Implementing uniquely tailored interventions may be time-consuming and expensive.



The policy recommendations stated in this brief are based on existing policies and extant literature. Policy interventions related to school absenteeism are not universal, but rather they are tailored to the requirements of each school district in a state, or they vary by individual state. In light of the research, the policy brief recommends Option 3, since by tracking attendance by socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, and more, the school district can monitor attendance patterns for a year and even compare student attendance over time.


On evaluating the data published on excused and unexcused absences in California, it was found that in 2017-18 and 2018-19, 43% of the students from socio-economically disadvantaged families had their absences labeled unexcused, in comparison to 27% of students who did not face similar disadvantages (McNeely et al.,2023). Further, Black students were more likely to have unexcused absences compared to eight other racial-ethnic groups included in the study (McNeely et al., 2023). Therefore, this brief recommends providing targeted attention to students who are disproportionately affected across four categories: socioeconomic disadvantage, race and ethnicity, disability status, and English learner status.


It should be noted all the policy options discussed above are based on preexisting policies that are evidence-based; however, more research is needed to identify what other barriers disproportionately affect students. States need to routinely monitor absences so an early warning system approach can help identify youths who are at risk and are likely to miss classes. Further, it should be ensured that punitive practices are not employed to improve attendance, as research suggests this is highly ineffective (Anderson, 2020; Yaluma et al., 2022). Finally, the district policymakers do need to update and revisit their policies annually to accommodate the needs of the students (Watson, 2014). The question that should be asked to students who miss school days for a wide-scale reform is: “Why don’t you want to go to school?”


Annotated Bibliography

Anderson, K. (2020). Academic, attendance, and behavioral outcomes of a suspension reduction policy: Lessons for school leaders and policymakers. Educational Administration Quarterly, 56(3), 435–471.

The study recommends the use of alternatives to punitive practices such as restorative justice practices and positive behavior interventions and supports. The author highlights the importance of data collection and analysis to monitor the impact of policies and interventions on student outcomes.


Attendance Works. (2016, January 11). What’s the difference between chronic absence and truancy? Attendance Works.

The blog post discusses the key differences between truancy and chronic absenteeism. Definitions of these two vary across states. The post highlights the need to know the difference in definitions so that educators and community partners can monitor the numbers and determine which strategies can improve attendance.


Attendance Works & Healthy Schools Campaign. (2015, September). Mapping the early attendance gap: Charting a course for student success. Attendance Works.

This is a report that shows disparities in school attendance rates from preschool and kindergarten. These disparities contribute to high school dropout rates across the country. The report also highlights strategies and policies to improve attendance.


Aucejo, E. M., & Romano, T. F. (2016). Assessing the effect of school days and absences on test score performance. Economics of Education Review55, 70-87.

The study utilized data from North Carolina public schools and analyzed the relationship between school days missed due to absences and test score performance. Findings suggested that every missed day of school was associated with a decrease in test scores, particularly in math and reading scores. However, the findings also show that extending the school calendar by ten days would increase the test scores, but that increase in test scores is more prominent when absences are reduced instead.   


Basch, C. E. (2011). Aggression and violence and the achievement gap among urban minority youth. Journal of school health81(10), 619-625.

In this article, the previous literature was reviewed to outline the prevalence and disparities of aggression and violence among school-aged urban minority youth. Violence and aggressive behavior have a negative impact on academic achievement and may also increase absenteeism. It was also discussed how feeling unsafe at school results in avoiding school. The author suggests evidence-based school policies to reduce aggression and violence in schools.


Brundage, A. H., Castillo, J., & Batsche, G. M. (2017, August). Reasons for chronic absenteeism among secondary students: Survey summary report. Florida Department of Education and University of South Florida. uploads/2018/07/Aggregate-RCA-Report-Final-1.pdf

The report presents the result of a survey aimed to identify the reasons for chronic absenteeism among secondary students in Florida. The findings discuss students’ perceptions of absences and reasons for absences as well as provide ideas and strategies to improve attendance.


Chang, H. N., Osher, D., Schanfield, M., Sundius, J., & Bauer, L. (2019, September). Using chronic absence data to improve conditions for learning [Report]. Attendance Works.

This brief discusses how chronic absence data addresses inequities and improve student outcomes. The report also discusses the role of policymakers in promoting efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism in schools.


Connecticut’s Official State Website. (2013). Guidelines for implementation of the definitions of excused and unexcused absences and best practices for absence prevention and intervention. Absence/guidelines_excused_and_unexcused_absences.pdf

This guideline covers the definition of truancy and chronic absenteeism in the state of Connecticut. The guidelines also discuss as per the statute, the interventions schools are obligated to take once a student is categorized as a truant and when the student’s family should be classified as a family with service needs.


Connecticut State Department of Education. (2018). Catalog of Truancy Intervention Models.

The catalog provided intervention models related to school absenteeism across school districts in different states. The catalog consists of models that are evidence-based and have proven to be effective.


DuBois, D. L., Holloway, B. E., Valentine, J. C., & Cooper, H. (2002). Effectiveness of mentoring programs for youth: A meta‐analytic review. American Journal of community psychology30(2), 157-197.

The authors used meta-analysis to review 55 evaluations of mentoring programs for youth. The results of the meta-analysis showed that mentoring programs had a small, positive effect on youth outcomes however programs that had longer durations and those that included structured activities tended to have stronger effects.


Ginsburg, A., Jordan, P., & Chang, H. (2014). Absences add up: How school attendance influences student success. Attendance Works.

Ginsburg and colleagues (2014) examined attendance rates for every state and posited that students with higher rates of absenteeism than their peers perform poorly in standardized tests. There were no significant differences across age groups, demographic categories, and locations analyzed.


Gump, S. E. (2004). The Truth Behind Truancy: Student Rationales for Cutting Class. Educational Research Quarterly28(2), 48-57.

Grump (2004) found students who are categorized as truants primarily have health-related issues. Women were more likely to choose this option. The author suggests instructors also look at gender and college year composition when determining attendance policies and providing incentives to make attending classes more meaningful.


Henry, K. L., & Huizinga, D. H. (2007). Truancy’s effect on the onset of drug use among urban adolescents placed at risk. Journal of Adolescent Health40(4), 358-e9.

The authors used data from the Denver Youth Survey, a longitudinal study of at-risk urban youth was conducted to examine the association between truancy and drug use. The authors found that truancy was a significant predictor of drug use onset and that the relationship between truancy and drug use persisted even after controlling for potential confounders.


Henry, K. L., & Thornberry, T. P. (2010). Truancy and escalation of substance use during adolescence. Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs, 71(1), 115-124.

The study utilized data from the Rochester Youth Development Study, consisting of a longitudinal sample of predominantly minority youth. Findings indicate that youths categorized as truants engaged in more substance use.


Hockenberry, S., &  Puzzanchera, C. (2015). Juvenile court statistics 2013. National Center for Juvenile Justice.

The Juvenile Court Statistics Report 2013 was compiled by the National Center for Juvenile Justice and described the delinquency cases handled between 1985 and 2013 by U.S Courts with juvenile jurisdictions and status offense cases handled between 1995 and 2013.


Kiani, C., Otero, K., Taufique, S., and Ivanov, I. (2018). Chronic absenteeism: A brief review of causes, course, and treatment. Adolescent Psychiatry 8, 214–230. doi:10.2174/2210676608666180709155116

The authors discuss the factors leading to absenteeism, including health problems, family issues, school-related factors, as well as socioeconomic status. The authors emphasize the importance of early identification and a multidisciplinary approach to create a supportive learning environment to improve student engagement and motivation.


Lehr, C. A., Sinclair, M. F., & Christenson, S. L. (2004). Addressing student engagement and truancy prevention during the elementary years: A replication study of the Check & Connect model. Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk, 9(3), 279–301.

An overview of Check & Connect was presented and it was found that the model was effective in improving attendance and academic engagement for participating students. The authors suggested that the Check & Connect model has the potential to address issues of student disengagement and truancy in elementary schools.


McCluskey, C., Bynum, T. S., & Patchin, J. W. (2004). Reducing chronic absenteeism: An assessment of an early truancy initiative. Crime and Delinquency, 50(2), 214-234.

McCluskey et al. (2004) used a quasi-experimental design to assess an early truancy initiative in three different schools. Results suggested that the program was successful in addressing elementary absenteeism. The study noted that although intervention did not result in zero absences, the attendance habits of the youth involved in the program improved significantly.


McNeely, C., Chang, H. N., & Gee, K. A. (2023, March). Disparities in unexcused absences across California schools [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.

The report highlights effective ways to improve attendance (both excused and unexcused) and highlights the disparities observed in unexcused labels in California schools. The report recommends adopting a more problem-solving approach to address this issue to ensure an equitable response to poor attendance.


Norcross, J.C. & Wampold, B.E. (2011). Evidence-based therapy relationships: Research conclusions and clinical practices. Psychotherapy, 48(1), 98-102.

The authors discuss the importance of therapeutic relationships and how empathy, positive regard, collaboration, mutual goal-setting, and more lead to improvement in behavior and can help individuals enhance their skills and knowledge.


Ozkanal, U. & Arikan, N. (2011). The relation between success and absenteeism at Esogu English Preparatory School, Journal of Teaching and Research, 2(1), 68

The authors investigated if there is a correlation between absenteeism and academic success. Findings suggest there is a significant negative correlation between absenteeism and success, suggesting that higher levels of absenteeism were associated with lower academic achievement. The authors also identified the factors that contribute to school absenteeism.


Romero, M., & Lee, Y. S. (2007). A national portrait of chronic absenteeism in the early grades. National Center for Children in Poverty.

This brief examines the level of absenteeism in the early school years, especially among low-income children using a nationally representative sample of children entering kindergarten using The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. The brief concluded that when children are not in school the chances of them succeeding in school reduces.


Sinclair, M. F., Christenson, S. L., & Thurlow, M. L. (2005). Promoting school completion of urban secondary youth with emotional or behavioral disabilities. Exceptional Children, 71(4), 465–482.

An experimental research design was used to examine the effectiveness of a targeted, long-term intervention to promote school completion and reduce dropout. The study was a replication of a model called Check & Connect. The study found that the intervention program was effective in increasing the graduation rates of the participating students compared to students with similar backgrounds and characteristics who did not receive the intervention. The program reduced dropout rates as well as students had more comprehensive transition plans.


Watson, M. (2014). Minimizing discipline, maximizing instruction: An exploratory examination of punitive discipline policies and student absenteeism. International Journal of Education (IJE)2(3), 1-8.

Watson (2014) discusses how punitive measures have become quite prevalent in schools, but they have negative consequences. The authors suggest that schools should focus on creating a supportive environment for students by modifying their discipline policies and focusing on models that cater to the needs of students.


Yaluma, C., Little, A. P., & Leonard, M. B. (2022). Estimating the impact of expulsions, suspensions, and arrests on average school proficiency rates in Ohio using fixed effects. Educational Policy, 36 (7), 1731–1758.

The study highlights the consequences of disciplinary actions on academic outcomes. The authors recommend alternative discipline practices to improve student engagement and targeted support for at-risk students.


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