Bullying and Chronic Absenteeism

Eskinder AssefaBullying, Chronic absenteeism0 Comments

Education researchers are finding out that chronic absenteeism is one of the strongest predictors of success in school, impacting not only performance but high school graduation rates. Kids who are chronically absent find it very difficult to keep up with their school work and eventually may drop out.

We are also seeing research evidence tying bullying at school with chronic absenteeism. Any strategy to combat chronic absenteeism must also include strategies for combating bullying at school.

this article describes these issues in more detail and proposes some solutions.

Defining Absenteeism

The Federal guideline states that a student is considered chronically absent if she/he misses 10 percent or more of the school year—for any reason. That is roughly 18 school days, or about a month per school year.

However, since actual attendance is taken at a local level, definitions of absenteeism vary from state to state. For example, in some states, absence as a result of observance of a religious holiday may be excused. In others, absence due to care for a family member may be excused and not count as lack of attendance. Still more complicating the definition of absenteeism is whether attendance is recorded at the beginning of the school day or at the beginning of each class.

With that said, the vast majority of schools do not really keep attendance record by student, but mostly track percentage attendance per day. Therefore, a 90% daily attendance simply means that 90% of students showed up that particular day (and perhaps didn’t stay all day). It does not in any way provide information on which students missed 10% or more of school that year.

What we know about Absenteeism

In a comprehensive study on the effects of chronic absenteeism (Balfanz, R., & Byrnes, V. (2012): Chronic Absenteeism: Summarizing What We Know from Nationally Available Data. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools), raises an alarm that all educators should heed:

  • Chronic absence in kindergarten was associated with lower academic performance in first grade. The impact is twice as great for students from low-income families.
  • Chronic absenteeism increases achievement gaps at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
  • Chronic absenteeism is most prevalent in poor and/or rural communities, regardless of race and gender.
  • The study postulates that strategies that reduce absenteeism can drive up achievement, high school graduation, and college attainment rates even more than any changes in improvements of the education system.
  • The negative impact of absenteeism on school success increases with each passing year as students who are chronically absent tend to continue this pattern year to year unless steps are taken to change this. In other words, achievement gaps worsen with each passing year as such students end up missing a year’s worth of school in a five-year period.

The study also found out that only six states—Oregon, Rhode Island, Maryland, Florida, Georgia, and Nebraska—collected any data on chronic absenteeism. The picture from this data is not encouraging. The percentage of students who are chronically absent (miss 10% or more school days in a year) are from 6% (Nebraska) to as high as 23% (Oregon).

When looked at by specific counties, rural and/or poor counties tend to have a disproportionate rate of chronic absenteeism, reaching as high as 20% to 34% of students who are chronically absent. The problems are especially more urgent in high schools, and particularly among seniors. In many of these impacted areas, half or more of the students are chronically absent, missing as much as a month or more per school year.

For example, in one county in Maryland the percentage of students who are chronically absent are 24% of elementary students; 41% of middle school students, and 67% of high school students.

Furthermore, when a cohort of sixth-graders in Florida were tracked for seven years from 1997-98 through 2003-04, 46% of the students were found to have been chronically absent at least during one year (missed at least one month) and 18% of these sixth graders missed at least two months of school that year.

This long term tracking found that while for one-third of the students the chronic absenteeism occurred only once (only in one year), for two-thirds of the students, it was more persistent, occurring at least two out of the seven years: 39% were chronically absent three years or more; 22% were absent four years or more; and 10% were absent five years or more. The last group missed an average of 171 days of school in the seven years—practically a whole year of school.

Although we have data for only six states, the numbers in Florida and Maryland are likely representative of the nation due to the diverse nature of their population. It appears that anywhere from 10-11% of students nationally are chronically absent, missing one or more months of school per year, and that half of these are likely to be chronically absent at least two years. Millions of students nationwide are missing months of school.

Who, When and Where of Chronic Absenteeism

From the John Hopkins study, we see that chronic absenteeism starts high in Kindergarten, gradually decreases to its lowest level in third and fourth grade before rising again to peak in high school. This seems to indicate that initially, children miss school as parents adjust to new circumstances, and that this adjustment has reached its peak by elementary school. The fact that absenteeism rises again especially in high school indicates that new circumstances are the cause of it later on. There seems to be a correlation between key transitions in schooling.

The John Hopkins study further showed that gender does not seem to be a factor—those that are chronically absent tend to be equally divided by gender. Nor does it seem to matter whether the school site is urban, sub-urban, or rural.

However, the study shows a high degree of correlation between poverty and chronic absenteeism—students from poor areas (regardless of gender, race, or geographic location) showed high levels of chronic absenteeism. For example, in Maryland, the study found that chronic absenteeism were three times higher for economically disadvantaged students for middle and high schools, and at least twice as high for high school students. Similar results were shown for Oregon, Nebraska, and Georgia.

What may be more revealing is that the study consistently found that chronic absenteeism seemed to be concentrated within a few schools. Whether this is solely due to concentration of disadvantaged or poor students in that school or whether there are additional factors is not clear.

Does Attendance Matter?

Now that we have a better understanding of what chronic absenteeism is and whom it impacts, the next question is: How big an impact does it really have on learning success?

Various studies show that chronic absenteeism impacts students at all stages from kindergarten through high school graduation.

  • A study by Change and Romero (“Present, Engaged, and Accounted For. The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades”) showed that chronic absence in kindergarten had an immediate impact on academic performance on all children, with long term consequences being most significant for poor children. The study found that not only the chronically absent children were affected, but so were the regularly attending children due to the constant disruption and changing dynamics.
  • A 2010 paper by Douglas Ready (“Socioeconomic Disadvantage, School Attendance, and Early Cognitive Development: The Differential Effects of School Exposure”) showed that chronically absent students had 14% less literacy skills in kindergarten than regularly attending students. These gaps became more pronounced by first grade with 15% less literary skills and 12% less mathematical skills.
  • More significantly, The Ready study showed that children from low-income households with good attendance gained more literacy skills than their higher income family peers.
  • Research by Michael Gottfried (“Evaluating the Relationship between Student Attendance and Achievement in Urban Elementary and Middle Schools: An Instrumental Variables Approach”) states, “The findings support the premise that a significant and practically meaningful relationship exists between attendance and achievement across multiple grades in urban schools: students with a higher number of days present have higher GPAs. Attendance also appears to be more strongly correlated with a higher GPA as students advance through years of schooling.”
  • Research by Chicago University Allensworth and Easton (“What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public High Schools. A Close Look at Course Grades, Failures, and Attendance in the Freshman Year”) showed that how well students did in ninth grade was a strongest predictor of high school graduations and that, in turn, attendance was found to be the strongest predictor of academic performance.

These and various researches have indicated that from kindergarten through high school, attendance is highly correlated with academic performance—regardless of gender, geographic location or socio-economic status. In fact, these studies show that regular attendance was the single most reliable antidote to performance gaps shown between students from low-income households and more students from more affluent households.

What causes Chronic Absenteeism

So far, we have examined absenteeism and the incontrovertible evidence of significant impact on k-12 academic performance. The next question becomes, what are the causes of chronic absenteeism and how do we effectively deal with these to improve student attendance?

Various studies show that there are primarily two categories of reasons why students are absent from school:

  • They cannot go to school because they are required to be elsewhere (as in working to help support family or taking care of a family member) or are too sick to attend school
  • They will not to go to school because are trying to avoid unpleasant or even dangerous situations at school or on the way to and back from school.

Considering the fact that chronic lack of attendance for any reason is highly detrimental to academic success and high school graduation, it is imperative that schools find effective strategies to deal with each type of reason for such absence. However, as the reasons for absence are different, it is important to understand that the strategies must also be customized to address the reason for absence.

In this article, we look a little further into the second reason for chronic absenteeism—why children make a conscience effort to avoid school.

Why Kids Will not Go To School

While it is true that some kids are chronically absent because they find school boring and would rather be elsewhere, a significant portion of chronically absent students who make a conscience decision to avoid school do so avoid being harassed or bullied by other kids, either in school or on their way to and back from school.

An annual report called, “Bullying in US Schools. 2014 Status Report” indicates the following:

  • About 17% of all US public school students report being involved in bullying (12% were bullied only; 3% were both bullied and bullied others; and 2% reported bullying others).
  • However, the report found that bullying was the highest among 3rd grade students who reported being involved in bullying with 4th graders being the second highest at 19%. We will recall from the section on chronic absenteeism that this was precisely when chronic absenteeism was lowest, perhaps contributing to the higher number of students reporting being bullied.
  • This could also be indicative of why absenteeism continues to rise after 4th grade as more kids try to avoid being involved in bullying.
  • The report also shows a strong correlation between bullying and liking school: in grades 3-5, one out of five students exposed to bullying reported strongly disliking school. This number goes to one out of two students involved in bullying reporting strongly disliking school.
  • The report further showed that the level of empathy for those bullied was highest among 3-5th graders, and decreased with each increase in grade—from a high of 73% of 3-5th grade girls who want to help those being bullied dropping to 48% by the time they are 9-12th graders; and from a high of 69% of 3-5th grade boys who want to help dropping down to 42% of boys by 9-12th

This report tells us two important pieces of information we need to address regarding bullying in schools:

  1. It is highest among 3-4th graders
  2. That is the age when kids have the highest sympathy or empathy for those who are being bullied.

Therefore any strategy that focuses on teaching 3-4th graders to reduce bullying—by teaching those that are bullying that it is wrong; by teaching those that are being bullied how to properly respond so they are not bullied in future; and by teaching bystanders what the appropriate way is to help those that are being bullied—will have the highest impact on reducing bullying in schools or grades going forward.

The classroom curriculum should include instructions that help kids know how to appropriately respond to being bullied so that they are less likely to be bullied again. It should further teach compassion so that other kids know how to appropriately step in and help those that are being bullied. Ultimately, the goal is to teach kids why it is wrong to bully others so those likely to bully others stop doing so.

In a bullying-free school zone, kids would have fewer reasons to dislike school and avoid it, improving attendance, which improves performance at school.

This is born by evidence. A 2011 BERC study showed a strong correlation between 6th grade attendance and high school graduation rates. For kids who missed less than 10 days of 6th grade school, the high school graduation level was 70%. On the other hand, only 13% of students who missed 40 days or more of school year in 6th grade ended up graduating from high school.

The BERC study strongly indicates that reducing the number of school days missed at an early age increases high school graduation rates. Any effort that goes towards reducing absenteeism increases graduation and overall academic success.

Effective Anti-bullying programs for Schools

The most effective anti-bullying programs for schools should focus on very young children that are between kindergarten and 4th grade. It is especially most effective when taught to 3rd and 4th graders precisely because that is when bullying truly begins and kids at that age also have the highest empathy levels for other kids.

At a minimum, the characteristics of an effective anti-bullying program should look as follows:

  • It is directed primarily at young children
  • It teaches by example and is engaging, utilizing the medium that children prefer such as video animation
  • It does not create a burden for the teacher or the school, but enables the homeroom teacher to easily weave the program into the normal curriculum
  • It is builds on lessons so that students increasingly understand why bullying is wrong, why they should not engage in it, and why they cannot be just bystanders but must act appropriately to stop it. The program must be offered on an ongoing basis from year to year throughout elementary grades.
  • It is data driven and measures the effectiveness of the program, enabling teachers and administrators to see the effect and adjust the program as necessary
  • It should be inexpensive enough for every school to purchase, implement, train teachers and administrators, and continue to use the program from year to year


This article has documented the research done to show the impact of chronic absenteeism on overall academic performance and high school graduation levels.

It has also shown that a major contributing factor to chronic absenteeism is a need on the part of the student to avoid harassment and bullying in school. The article further shows studies on bullying that provide strong linkage between bullying and the dislike of school.

More importantly, the article makes the case that the right time to prevent bullying and increase classroom attendance is very early in elementary grades, where the likelihood of the of the effectiveness of programs are the highest.

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