Family Engagement and Absenteeism: 4 Tips For Partnership

Family Engagement and Absenteeism: 4 Ways Home-School Partnerships Maximize Student Engagement

Learn about the relationship between family engagement and absenteeism in our recent blog post.

By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer

Family engagement and absenteeism have an inverse relationship — the more caregivers and educators partner together to promote student learning, the lower absenteeism rates are. 

I witnessed this interaction firsthand while working in an elementary Special Education classroom. Our students and their families faced numerous challenges and encountered traumatic experiences due to factors well beyond their control. For many of them, school was a safe place, but one that was sometimes difficult to regularly reach.

I remember one third grader specifically (let’s call her Allie) whose mother was raising her alone and struggling to secure steady housing. Recognizing the impact that housing instability has on student performance and wellbeing, our classroom team focused on building a strong relationship with Allie’s mom. We coached her on how we could support Allie’s academics and wellbeing when between living situations. Our teacher collected and shared contact information for local shelters and advocacy groups that might help her find permanent residence. 

Though it varied from month to month (heck, even day to day), the partnership between school staff and Allie’s mom directly affected her child. When we were in sync and collaborating, Allie’s attendance in school improved; she engaged in each lesson and she formed positive relationships with her classmates. But when we were out of contact with her mom, or our family check-in rhythms changed, Allie had more chronic absences and worse academic performance. 

Allie’s story illustrates the crucial role of meaningful family engagement to encourage students’ regular attendance and positive attitudes toward school and learning itself. Caregivers are especially potent partners to engaging disengaged students at risk of increased absenteeism. Let’s dive into best practices for integrating families into your team’s strategies to boost K12 attendance and reduce absenteeism.

But first: FAQs about family engagement and absenteeism

What is student truancy vs. absenteeism?

In general, truancy refers to a student missing a specific amount of instructional time in a day, without a reason deemed excusable by a school. This boundary is set by each state; for example, California considers truancy as a student missing more than 30 minutes of instruction without an excuse three times during the school year.

Absenteeism refers to a student missing entire days of instructional time, again typically classified as “unexcused.” According to the U.S. Department of Education, most educators track chronic absences as days when a student misses 15 or more school days within a year. 

The exact definitions of truancy and absenteeism vary, as do the steps that district and school leaders take when a student’s attendance rate changes. 

How does student absenteeism and truancy affect learning outcomes?

Regardless of the definitions or the reasons why students miss school, the outcome is the same: students lose valuable learning time. And research studies have long shown that when students regularly miss instruction, it has lasting consequences for their long-term academic outcomes and overall mental health. 

These effects can start as early as elementary school. When students are chronically absent during these early years, it affects many of their future outcomes like academic achievement — even with improved attendance rates over time (CRESP Policy Brief, 2018). Other outcomes like graduation rates are also affected. 

Absent students miss out on more than just classroom instruction. They also miss opportunities to build crucial cognitive, social, and emotional skills within a school community, which underpin learning, self confidence, and sense of belonging. To make matters more complicated, these factors can have a compounding effect on chronic absences: if a student does not feel that they belong within a school community, or that they have positive relationships with their teacher, they may further disconnect, which may contribute to a continued cycle of poor attendance.

Here again, there’s an opportunity to interlink family engagement and absenteeism — caregivers are part of the school community, just as much as students and educators. Effective family engagement strategies shift parents from spectators to allies in student success.

What can educators do to reduce student truancy and absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism and truancy among students are not new challenges in education, but as the Brookings Institute aptly describes, educators are constantly searching for new solutions. 

Strategies to reduce absences vary, too. Some districts have resources like school social workers available to support families with navigating barriers to school attendance. Enabling families is especially helpful in an elementary school setting where students are often dependent on their families to get to and from school. In secondary schools, educators may tap into community partnership programs like mentorship groups to encourage positive attitudes toward school and increase student attendance. 

These approaches demonstrate a shift towards a culture of attendance across an entire school community — one that sets up educators and families as collaborators to support children with poor attendance records. In fact, families are perhaps the most essential partners to a school attendance team trying to reduce student absences. 

How does family engagement impact student truancy and absenteeism?

Tackling absenteeism isn’t any one group’s responsibility. In fact, it’s when educators cultivate positive, trusting relationships with families that students are better positioned to attend school regularly at any age. 

Research shows that family engagement offers immense benefits, particularly to students from traditionally underserved backgrounds who may face more challenges with attending school than their peers. When educators build connections with families as active partners in their child’s education, student attendance rates increase

In fact, a 2023 research study recently found that strong family engagement was a critical buffer in reducing chronic absenteeism in Illinois school districts during the tumultuous 2020-21 and 2021-2022 school years — even as countless schools across the country faced dramatic increases in student absenteeism. These findings demonstrate the powerful impact that family involvement can make on absenteeism in school.

4 ways to weave families into your attendance strategies

Educators have many creative opportunities to tap into the inverse relationship between family engagement and absenteeism. From our team to yours, we’ve curated four effective practices from the field that you can use to invite families into your strategies to improve student attendance and create a positive school culture. 

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#1: Seek understanding of the interconnected root causes of absenteeism

Why It Matters

Though simple at first glance, understanding why students miss school is the first step toward more equitable and impactful attendance intervention strategies. 

Why? Many of the root causes behind truancy and absenteeism are not within a family or student’s direct control to change. Other factors impacting attendance are connected to having a sense of belonging within the larger community of a classroom or a school. Further, these causes are often interconnected, making it important for educators to detangle these connections while determining how families and community partnerships can help co-create solutions for them.

It is also critical for educators to examine their attendance policy, especially protocols that truancy or absenteeism may trigger within their district or state. Historically punitive protocols for truancy and absences neither work well nor do they affect families equitably. Many educators are experimenting with ways to modernize these policies by shifting towards a strengths-based, whole-child approach to attendance. 

Practice Tips & Considerations For Educators

  • Start with an audit of your available attendance data. Asking questions like “What information are we missing about attendance and absence?” can help you and your team determine if you have enough data to take action — or if further investigation is required. 
  • Collect information about what resources families seek in your area. Connecting families with community resources that may meet their needs can radically shift their capacity to engage with school and in turn, student learning. Family feedback surveys or collaborating with community partners that already hold families’ trust are great ways to begin gathering this information.

#2: Educate families (and students) early and often about the value of presence at school

Why It Matters

While some families may be familiar with school processes like enrolling their children or accessing the school calendar, all families benefit from refreshing this knowledge. This includes reminding and re-educating caregivers about the importance of regular school attendance. It can also look like coaching families about how to partner with their schools when their child misses school, regardless of the reason. 

Classic communication strategies like a school newsletter, a back-to-school welcome packet, and even parent-teacher conferences are nice starting points for raising awareness among families.

A multiethnic family meets with their young son's kindergarten teacher in the classroom.

But educators typically circulate these resources among families after school has already begun, and they’re not often shared throughout the year unless there is a concern with absenteeism. Conversations about attendance can be year-round! 

At the secondary level, communication tactics shift to recognize that, as teens grow up, they gain (and want) greater independence. With that independence comes greater responsibility over their own learning journeys. Families can help reinforce the value of attending school regularly and the importance of taking ownership of consistent attendance as part of a successful high school career. 

The message about attendance does not only need to come from educators or caregivers. Community partnerships offer another conduit for encouraging families and students to regularly participate in school. As an added bonus, these organizations may also offer services that meet families and students’ basic needs, which in turn can help improve attendance. It’s a win-win!

Practice Tips & Considerations

  • Reach out to local organizations, partners, and parent leaders in your community that families know well. Collaborate with these “trust enhancers” to help spread the word about school enrollment processes, ongoing learning supports available to families, and anything else that could support positive attendance rates. You may consider hosting a workshop or session at these local hubs where families already gather, too, making it easier for families to access this information.

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#3: Give families everyday ways to engage in learning — especially in summer

Why It Matters

Speaking of communication — one of the hurdles that impacts student attendance is that transition time when kids move out of summer mode and back into school routines. Though it affects students differently at different ages, it can set the tone for successful attendance all year long. 

Educators can support families through this transition period by cultivating regular practices of everyday learning that can be done anytime, anywhere outside of school. Modern family engagement platforms are excellent ways to offer families age-appropriate learning activities that nurture students’ academic and life skills. Better still, some programs also offer parent self care tips as well as parenting approaches to try out.

Here again, the most effective offerings to families are strengths-based. When educators use strengths-based approaches in a parent engagement program, they empower families to use existing resources and assets to support their child’s learning journey. They also signal to families that parents are equally important members of the teaching (and attendance) team. Both steps create a sense of community and shared responsibility to support student development and cultivate a positive school culture.

Practice Tips & Considerations

  • Prepare your community for summer transitions early. For example you can focus on setting up families for learning well before summer starts to combat that notorious “summer slide.” You may also create pathways of entry for caregivers and students to shift back into the school year. Take a look at the Connecticut Department of Education’s suggestions for deepening levels of family engagement, both for summer transitions and many other common approaches.
  • Utilize text-based family engagement programs like ParentPowered to offer families weekly learning opportunities throughout the entire year, including summer. Text messaging is the most equitable and effective way to reach busy families, no matter the season, and research on the methodology behind ParentPowered shows that using our programs over summer boosts academic achievement in the following school year!

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#4: Leverage trauma-informed approaches to reinforce trust

Why It Matters

Equity in education means all students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to thrive. It also recognizes that families and students arrive to a school community from all walks of life and lived experiences — and some of those experiences may include trauma. 

Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) shows a significant relationship between the frequency of such experiences and unhealthy impacts on child development and wellbeing in adulthood. These experiences also affect attendance, with correlations found between having multiple ACEs and chronic absenteeism in students (Stempel et al., 2017).

Trauma-informed practices in schools focus on minimizing the risk of re-traumatization for both students and their caregivers. All families benefit from a trauma-informed lens, but especially historically underserved families. Educators also benefit as these methods help cultivate and deepen trust with their families.

Practice Tips & Considerations

  • Get to know the protective factors framework. This model offers guidelines for weaving in buffers against trauma (like positive child-adult relationships) into everything from family-school communications to attendance protocols. You can use this framework as a reflection tool and as a compass for shifting family-school interactions even in small ways.
  • Implement programs like ParentPowered Trauma-Informed to meet caregivers where they are. Our program is designed to offer protective factors-aligned messages, connections to concrete supports in time of need, family communications tools, and critical data for educators about levels of family engagement.

Cultivate family partnerships that boost attendance with ParentPowered

Great student attendance and positive school outcomes start with great family-school partnerships. 

That’s why ParentPowered’s low-lift, high-impact programs concentrate on cultivating this essential collaboration between home and school. By supporting caregivers with accessible, culturally responsive, and fun at-home learning opportunities that “grow up” alongside students, we are improving the lives of all families and all children — one text message at a time.

Join an upcoming info session to discover how you can tap into the power of family engagement for your most pressing priorities, from improved attendance and beyond!

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About the author

Maren Madalyn has worked at the intersection of K12 education and technology for over a decade, serving in roles ranging from counseling to customer success to product management. She blends this expertise with fluid writing and strategic problem-solving to help education organizations create thoughtful long-form content that empowers educators.

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