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Ways to Handle Student Absences in Remote Teaching & When We're Back in School

(This is the final post in a two-part series.  You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are effective strategies—both schoolwide and individually—to handle student absenteeism?

 

Though the original responses to this question were written prior to school closures, several contributors have made significant modifications to their answers over the past month.

In Part One, Janice Wyatt-Ross, Dr. Rhonda Neal Waltman, Dr. Felicia Darling, and Maurice McDavid contributed their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Janice, Rhonda, and Maurice on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Dr. Jennifer Rogers, J. Stuart Ablon, Alisha Pollastri, and Roxanna Elden offer their suggestions.

The need for "systemic interventions and individual interventions"

Dr. Jennifer Rogers is the founder of Rogers Training Solutions, LLC. Rogers Training Solutions, LLC provides consulting, professional development, workshops, coaching, and one-on-one leadership support for individuals and organizations exploring social, emotional, and behavioral interventions. Her book  Leading for Change Through Whole-School Social Emotional Learning: Strategies to Build a Positive School Culture is a resource for individuals needing strategies for social-emotional-learning implementation:

Coronavirus Modification to Article:

Whether you are a seasoned teacher of 20 years or a first-year teacher, your world has changed drastically as a newly appointed virtual learning expert. One thing that has not changed, however, is the need to engage our students in learning.  What does that look like in an online environment?

First, recognize that most of us are visitors to this online landscape.  There are stories circulating that students are flooding teaching apps with poor ratings to get them removed from the iTunes store or teachers are being verbally abused on Zoom by their students.  So consider, if we are visitors to another country, how do we behave?  How can we let the students (particularly older students) develop learning opportunities that are meaningful and that can take advantage of their online technical expertise?  Part of this new learning is that we are losing our ability to be the expert in this moment.  And when that veneer of professional teaching slips and they can see us struggle through new applications, they may become even more disengaged. 

One way of providing engagement opportunities is to adopt a constructivist educational mindset.  This means to develop methods of co-creating learning with your students.  There will still be didactic moments, but also include creative projects.  These projects would be student-led where they are encouraged to take ownership for their own learning and how these learnings can be practically applied in the future.

The constructivist classroom is focused on big concepts.  Students are active contributors to the learning environment through questioning and finding the answers in source materials and from critical-thinking dialogues with others. This interactive manner of teaching is always adapting to the needs of the students.  The student point of view is valued and used to push deeper learning opportunities.

We can all benefit from reflection of our experiences and prior understandings, to adapt to this new way of learning. To invite students to participate in co-creating their education will allow them to become more engaged.

Original Article:

Absenteeism can involve both systemic interventions and individual interventions.  One strategy for a school or system is to understand the barriers that students experience in attending school.  Those barriers could include lack of transportation, effective communication procedures for attendance policies, lack of child-care options for nonschool-aged children, language barriers, etc. This can be done through informal meetings at the school, local library, or community center, in home visits, or via surveys. Schools must invest in understanding their student and family population, which may require developing multiple methods to seek them out and ask about the school attendance procedures and policies from their lens. This systemic strategy can help educational stakeholders remove barriers that allow the students to attend more regularly.

A second strategy is to provide more social support to families.  Once you understand why your students are missing school, you may be able to provide solutions to meet their needs.  For example, if the student or parent/guardian has physical or mental illness that is causing them to miss school, is there a list of community resources readily available to provide them.  If there is a language barrier, do you have a translator or someone who can communicate with the family available. If the student is in transition or without stable housing, is their family aware of the resources that the federal and state government can provide?  Some of the families who attend our schools face challenges that we are unaware of and cannot imagine.  And there are times when the family does not want to disclose their personal challenges to getting their students to school.  It is up to us as educators to meet them where they are and, hopefully, offer them a safe place to work together in coming up with solutions.

Another strategy is to educate your community to the effects of absenteeism.  This is both for chronic absenteeism and for sporadic absences.  Schools can present this information in many different formats and talk them through a case of missing school two times per month.  The student is then missing one or two assignments and what that does to his understanding, scaffolding of learning, and his grade if he/she can't make up the assignment. 

The final individual strategy is for all students, no matter their background.  It is about building healthy relationships with students. Students who have good relationships with the adults at their school benefit tremendously.  "No matter the source of hardship, the single most common factor for children who end up doing well is having the support of at least one stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult" (Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University). 

Building relationships with students can be a challenge when the student does not regularly attend.  But it is crucial that the teacher develop strategies to continue to foster relationships without judgment.  This can be hard because often the student who misses school is creating extra work for the teacher who must put together makeup work, get the student caught up, and possibly create extra-credit assignments if the work cannot be re-created outside of that day. But as a high school counselor, I had a student who would miss most of his classes for the day, but he attended Mrs. Smith's class.  When I would ask this student about it, he would tell me that she would be disappointed in him if he missed, and that mattered.  Teachers who listen, ask open-ended questions, withhold judgment, learn more about their students than their current academic status, and demonstrate warmth can help to incentivize students to attend school.  Because relationships matter.

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Relationships

J. Stuart Ablon and Alisha Pollastri are the authors of The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach:

Note: When we first answered this question, the pandemic was yet to hit and force schools online. We offer our guidance on how to handle absenteeism, but we now extend those thoughts to how best to tackle the issue of reinforcing student engagement in this new frontier of online learning.

If a student isn't attending school, they're unlikely to be learning.  But absenteeism isn't only a problem when classes are held in brick-and-mortar schools. Absenteeism can be an issue in distance learning as well. Sometimes, students aren't showing up for online classes or they aren't engaging in assigned group activities.  Even more, beyond not showing up, students can be present without really being present.

Whether in person or online, the most important thing to remember is that you can't solve a problem that you don't understand well. The reality is that there are myriad reasons why particular students might suffer from absenteeism or a lack of engagement. Traditionally, these reasons typically included things like academic frustrations, social anxieties, and an inability to accurately predict future outcomes. In the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis, they also include lack of access to or familiarity with technology, family stress, conflict, illness, financial insecurity, and many other complications. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to complicated problems like these. Thus, the key to developing effective strategies to reduce a student's absenteeism or increase their engagement is understanding why that particular student is disengaged in the first place!

In order to gain that understanding, first start from the basic assumption that all students are doing the best they can with the skills they have to manage their current situation. Perhaps a student's issue is minor and can be easily addressed, or perhaps it is significant enough that school is the last thing on the student's mind. Approaching students through an empathic lens rather than a punitive one, reassuring students that they are not in trouble, and expressing interest and curiosity will be the key ingredients to gathering the information needed. Most students will be reluctant to provide sensitive information if they fear punitive consequences.  For this reason, we need to fight the urge to express our concerns about their lack of engagement and avoid suggesting solutions, but rather stick with the hard detective work of asking questions, taking educated guesses, and reflecting and clarifying what we've heard, until we truly understand. Only once we understand what is getting in the way of that particular student engaging or attending school reliably should we share why we are concerned. But—and this is important—sharing our concern is different from suggesting a solution.  Any potential solution should be generated collaboratively with the student, and it is our job to ensure that any proposed solution would address her concerns as well as ours. If a potential solution only addresses our concerns, you can be sure it is a solution that will not stand the test of time.

When absenteeism or a lack of student engagement is a problem classwide or even schoolwide, paying attention to certain aspects of culture can support change. The most effective strategy for preventing absenteeism is building helping relationships between educators and students.  A helping relationship is one characterized by nonjudgmental acceptance, empathy, and problem-solving. It can be tempting to look at absenteeism and engagement through the lens of motivation; we tell ourselves that if we could just motivate our students to come to class, then we could reduce absenteeism and increase engagement. But students who feel connected to their teachers, who feel competent at school, and feel like they have some measure of independence are students who are already intrinsically motivated to come to class ready to dig in.  If we support students' connection, competence, and autonomy, motivation to attend will follow.

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Three steps to take when we're back to a physical school

Roxanna Elden's teacher-advice book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, has long been a staple in many school districts and training programs. Her recently released novel, Adequate Yearly Progress, follows several teachers as their professional lives impact their personal lives and vice versa. (Like "The Office," but set in an urban high school.):

Attendance is not an easy problem to solve. And it's often a schoolwide problem. With that in mind, here are three efforts that, with support from both teachers and administrators, can help with attendance problems at the high school level. 

Ask teachers where they see students hanging out during the school day. This is a five-minute crowdsourcing activity, easily accomplished by passing out index cards during a faculty meeting and then collecting the answers. That's because any teacher whose room is near a hangout for class-skipping students knows it. On a tough day of teaching, there's nothing more demoralizing than hearing a loud group of students hanging out nearby with no repercussions or passing "the bathroom that always smells like weed" during your planning period. After collecting answers from teachers, create a master list divided by sections of the school building. Then share it with security staff and other administrators. 

Coordinate teacher home calls for the first eight weeks of school. From a high school teacher's perspective, the problem with following up on absences is that students' lack of action means more work for the teacher. Sure, there are teachers who diligently call home every time a student misses class, but as the school year goes on and as other parts of teaching require our attention, it's easy for these efforts to fall off. At many schools, there's kind of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy about whether teachers find the time to do this. A better alternative? Acknowledge that this is incredibly time-consuming. Then, coordinate efforts in the early weeks of school by asking all teachers to focus on a specific period per week, calling home for every student who misses first period the first week, second period the second week, and so on. Committing to this schedule during the first few weeks of school can cut down on the number of calls any one teacher has to make. And it leaves an impression that the school takes attendance seriously. 

Be sure parents are receiving any automated alerts. Many school districts already have technology in place for parents to receive text or email alerts when a teacher marks their kids absent. But parents don't always know these alerts exist, and they don't always know how to sign up. Increasing participation may require a big effort upfront—including calls home, volunteers during parent night, or an extra step in the school's registration process. In some cases, it involves helping parents get an email account set up in the first place. And it can be a big task, especially for schools that struggle to keep parents involved. Over time, however, these efforts can add up. And making attendance alerts automatic can free up the faculty to focus on other things. 

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Thanks to Jennifer, Stuart, Alisha, and Roxanna for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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