Your Attendance Policy Doesn't Make Students Show Up

Tammy Jackson's picture

When I cleaned out my files after more than 30 years as a school administrator I found no less than eight different "attendance policies." Those policies ranged from those requiring excessive oversight to one that was more hands off and left to the responsibility of the student and their family.

I actually wrote my master's degree thesis on school attendance. I must have looked at a hundred different policies in the process. Not surprisingly, my research netted beliefs about attendance that ranged the full spectrum, just like the polices I had developed.

School attendance law dates back to the beginning of formal education. The first compulsory attendance law originated in 1524 and was written to ensure that children had time to read the Bible. The next wave of attendance law went into effect in the early 19th century and was developed to discourage child labor practices.

The current Compulsory Attendance Law in Michigan, Section 380.1561 of the revised school code, requires children to attend school regularly until their 16th birthday. There are several exemptions from this requirement, including homeschooling, early graduation and a religious education that has core subject instruction. Once a child turns 16, parents can grant written permission for them to stop attending school.

So what did I learn from all of my research, policy development and reinforcement? The things I discovered as having the most impact on positive school attendance are this:

  • The principal's presence in the hallways and common areas before school and in-between classes. When students see you on a regular basis they actually believe that you will notice their absence. Besides, the best way to clear a hallway and move students to class is the principal walking down the hall.
  • Relevant and rigorous curriculum. If you track attendance you will find that students are often absent from classes when they believe they aren't missing anything. The same student will attend their "difficult" classes.
  • Teachers who have caring and nurturing relationships with students. When students feel like teachers value their presence they are more likely to attend.
  • Support system. When a student is missing too much school there is typically a reason. Prior to being disciplined for their absences someone should reach out to them to offer support. Ask the student "What can I do to make school better for you?" Their answer may surprise you. Often you can do grant the request.

In the end, what I learned is that there is not an attendance policy that will impact attendance more than students feeling valued and supported. I urge you to personally speak with your students before issuing any form of consequence. Excluding them from school or a school activity will only make school less desirable to them.

School Attendance Resources: