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Dissertation Spotlight

Dissertation Spotlight: Interventions Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

By The Room 241 Team December 11, 2018

Educators and policymakers often struggle with the widespread problem of chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism has been attributed to long-term detrimental effects within the student population, including reduced levels of scholastic readiness and lower graduation rates. James Brookins, EdD, earned his Doctorate of Education from Concordia University-Portland and chose to analyze this issue in his dissertation, “Interventions Addressing Chronic Absenteeism.” Brookins specifically examines the results of strategies utilized by a rural school district in Oregon.

As Superintendent of Blachly School District, Brookins has dealt with chronic absenteeism in his rural area. He has presented his research at the Oregon School Boards Association conference. He also serves on committees related to reversing chronic absenteeism: CTE/STEAM (strong attendance motivators) and the High School Success Initiative, at both the state and county levels. Let’s take a look at Brookins’ research to see what successful interventions have been used to address chronic absenteeism.

Examining a rural school district and chronic absenteeism

A rural school district with a total population of 240 was used as the baseline for Brookins’ study. The school district serves students grades K-12 with residences located within a 100-square-mile radius. The school operates on a four-day week with a total of 150 calendar days built into the school year. Oregon was chosen as the site for the study in accordance with data demonstrating the high number of low attendance rates found statewide.

In 2013 alone, one in five Oregon students missed at least 10% of the school year with 100,000 students missing 3.5 weeks of school or more.

The following populations have been confirmed as being at high risk for chronic absenteeism:

  • Special education students
  • Students of color
  • Students from economically disadvantaged families
  • Students residing in rural locations

Notably, behavior disorders are not considered a contributing link to chronic absenteeism. In a 2003 study published in Educational Psychology in Practice, research confirmed that truancy and school refusal exist equally in student populations without conduct disorders.

A closer look at contributing factors

Brookins developed a methodology to measure the attitudes and perceptions of the Oregon students who were chronically absent as well as their parents. Interventions with historic success rates were considered and evaluated for effectiveness within the student population. Implemented interventions were designed to support both students and families based on parent and student survey results.

Based on the data collected, contributing factors that predominantly influenced poor attendance were:

  • Medical issues
  • Student anxiety
  • Family decisions

During the study, students’ ages were also found to relate to high absent rates with lower elementary and late high school grades obtaining the highest numbers. Students in the fifth grade had the highest attendance averages.

For the students who demonstrated good attendance, the factors that had the most significant impact were:

  • Staff and student relationships
  • Peer relationships
  • Academic interests

A few additional causes were reported by the study population including:

  • Fatigue
  • Conflicts with staff
  • Truancy

When asked about supports that could potentially improve attendance records for students, surveyed answers included:

  • Rewards and incentives
  • Check-ins
  • Parent communication strategies
  • Principal involvement

Intervention levels

Interventions can be broken down into four different levels.

  • Level 1: School Supports – attendance tracking, classroom procedures, administrative follow-through, positive behavior supports
  • Level 2: Parent Communication – same-day notification, personal contact
  • Level 3: Individual Supports – individualized understanding of cases, check-ins, counselors, administrators, school psychologists, school social workers, individual incentives, attendance agreements  
  • Level 4: Community Supports – social services, therapists, interagency case management

All student body members should have access to Level 1 supports. In cases of chronic absenteeism, Level 2 supports can be initiated. If chronic absenteeism increases in severity, Level 3 and Level 4 supports should be considered.

Intervention strategies

Interventions implemented within the Oregon school district were designed to combat absenteeism quickly and effectively. Close to 90% of those surveyed noted the preference for tangible rewards like prizes. Prizes for attendance acted as motivators and students reportedly felt positive about going to school in order to receive a prize.

Brookins notes that other strategies highlighted the importance of involved administrators and parents. Principal involvement was featured in post-study interviews. Out of the group examined, 60% of students and 85% of parents felt having the principal actively involved made a difference. Parental involvement and communication identified factors preventing students from attending school with assistance offered to circumvent these issues.

According to a 2015 study from St. John Fisher College, student absenteeism was frequently attributed to family issues such as transportation limitations, before- and after-care solutions, and lack of parental resources. If these problems are addressed early on, chronic absenteeism rates may be reduced.

Tracking attendance can also aid in decreasing absences. Brookins notes one intervention that had students using calendars to track attendance individually. Brookins found that nine out of 10 students were faithfully recording their attendance on a daily basis.

Benefits of interventions

During the course of Brookins’ study, 75% of students were not chronically absent and 80% demonstrated improved attendance records. With a blend of interventions, students were able to access both tangible and intangible rewards.

Based on post-intervention surveys provided to parents, teachers, and students, additional benefits were experienced throughout the research period in conjunction with improved attendance rates.

The majority of participants provided positive feedback with benefits that included:

  • Self-Esteem: Final interview data noted students involved in the study were exhibiting increased self-esteem and self-concept behaviors. Parents reported how students were showing excitement about school and a sense of having the capacity to achieve more through active participation.
  • Attendance Motivation: Parent exit interviews included anecdotes about how students felt a purpose for school and an understanding of the importance of attending on a regular basis.
  • Academic Performance: Without having to catch up on work due to chronic absences, many students were able to improve grades.

Interviewed staff members, parents, and students noted that participation had a positive impact on all involved. With active participation throughout the study, Brookins collected feedback and concerns addressed as a way to set up each student for success.

The study was limited due to the rural setting and small class sizes of no more than 21 students. However, study participants of all ages equally responded well to the interventions introduced as a way to combat chronic absenteeism. It is clear that a multi-faceted approach can properly address chronic absenteeism and better meet students’ needs.

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