Chronic Absenteeism

Our nation’s efforts to provide a quality education to all children are threatened by startling rates of chronic absenteeism, often affecting very young children who face chronic health conditions.

Chronic Absenteeism Directly Affects Lifetime Learning

Chronic absenteeism—or missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason, excused or unexcused—detracts from learning and is a proven early warning sign of academic risk and school dropout. Nationwide, a staggering number of children are chronically absent, often at a very young age and often without attracting attention or intervention.

While the causes are multi-fold, one stands out as especially significant: student health.

Students with unmanaged chronic health conditions (such as asthma or diabetes) are more likely to miss class because of the symptoms of their illness or because they are receiving medical treatment during the school day. Students can also be chronically absent because of health issues such as fever, flu, dental pain, vision problems or mental health and anxiety issues.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many students do not have access to healthy school environments.

The crisis of health-related chronic absenteeism is especially poignant as it primarily affects young children in ways that can shape academic outcomes for their entire school career. For example, research shows that children who are chronically absent in both kindergarten and first grade (such as a child who suffers frequent asthma attacks) are much less likely to be reading at grade level by the third grade; and students who are not reading at grade level by the third grade, in turn, are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Policy change to support student health is a critical step to addressing chronic absenteeism and a key opportunity to make a profound positive impact on children’s lifelong learning and health. It also offers a natural opportunity for collaboration among the health, public health and education sectors.

Sign on to Here + Healthy!

Raise your voice to increase awareness about the connection between health, attendance and learning by signing on to Here + Healthy campaign.

The Challenge We’re Facing

Our nation now has the highest graduation rates in its history and education leaders—from policymakers at the state and federal level to educators on the ground in schools—are working hard to ensure all students receive a quality education. Yet even the most thoughtful efforts to reduce dropout rates and address the achievement gap are threatened by the problem of chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism isn’t just a matter of truancy or skipping school. In fact, many of these absences are excused and tied directly to health factors.

A snapshot of the current environment shows:

  • 5 million to 7.5 million students across the U.S. miss nearly a month of school each year.
  • Children who are chronically absent in both kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to be reading at grade level by the third grade; and students who are not reading at grade level by the third grade, in turn, are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
  • Rates of chronic illness are highest among students from low-income families, communities of color and those with disabilities.
  • Asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism, accounting for one-third of all days of missed instruction. Children with persistent asthma are more than three times as likely to have 10 or more absences than their peers.
  • Children between 5 and 17 years miss nearly two million school days per year nationwide due to dental problems. A full twenty percent of children aged 5 to 11 years have at least one untreated decayed tooth.

Chronic Health Conditions

Students with unmanaged chronic health conditions (such as asthma or diabetes) are more likely to miss class because of the symptoms of their illness or because they are receiving medical treatment during the school day.

The examples of asthma and oral health illustrate the scale of this challenge:

  • Asthma. Nearly one in 10 children (9.9 percent) age 4-14 are diagnosed with asthma. Asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism, accounting for one-third of all days of missed instruction. Children with persistent asthma are more than three times as likely to have 10 or more absences than their peers. Asthma can be exacerbated by factors in the school environment, particularly issues such as mold or harsh cleaning chemicals that have an impact on indoor air quality. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way: Research has shown that creating healthy indoor environments and providing adequate levels of school nursing can all but eliminate the disparity in attendance between students with asthma and their peers.
  • Oral health. A full 20 percent of children age 5-11 have at least one untreated decayed tooth. Among school-age children, tooth decay is the most common chronic disease, five times more prevalent than asthma. Children age 5-17 miss nearly two million school days in a single year nationwide due to dental health-related problems. Children with poor oral health status are nearly three times more likely than their counterparts to miss school as a result of dental pain. Tooth decay and dental pain are easily treatable if students have access to dental care; the consequences of leaving such pain untreated are significant not only for children’s lifetime health but also for their education. Schools can take on this issue by partnering with public health and health providers to increase access to dental services.

Of course, the problem of health-related chronic absence goes far beyond these two issues. Research indicates that other common health conditions resulting in missed school include diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), influenza, diabetes, obesity, seizure disorders, mental health and anxiety, and vision problems. Other health-related factors such as food insecurity, housing insecurity and violence in the community also play a significant role.


Access to Healthy School Environments

Compounding the problem is the fact that many students do not have access to healthy school environments.

For example, less than 50 percent of the nation’s students have access to a full-time school nurse or school counselor, and less than 5 percent of the nation’s students have access to health services through a school-based health center. In addition, one in five schools in the United States reports unsatisfactory indoor air quality, a known trigger of asthma attacks. Low-income children are less likely to have access to a healthy school environment. Students in low-income schools are less likely to have recess and high-quality physical education than students in higher income schools. In addition, students in low-income schools are more likely to have no school nurse or have higher ratios of students to nurses than higher-income schools.

Despite the scale of this problem, we must remember that health-related chronic absenteeism is not an inevitable fact of childhood. Keep reading for more on what we’re doing and what you can do.

Sign on to Here + Healthy!

Raise your voice to increase awareness about the connection between health, attendance and learning by signing on to Here + Healthy campaign.

Reducing Absenteeism by Supporting Healthy Schools

HSC’s innovative programs are designed to address health-related chronic absenteeism by ensuring that children are able to attend school in healthy school environments. A healthy school environment includes regular access to school health services (including physical, mental, dental, vision and behavioral services), healthy school food, physical activity, good indoor air in a clean and well-maintained building, access to water and a supportive school climate and culture.

HSC works at the national, state and local levels to ensure that both the health and education sectors have the tools and information necessary to understand and address the health-related causes of chronic absenteeism.

HSC and Attendance Works are currently collaborating on Here + Healthy, an initiative to raise awareness about the health-related causes of chronic absenteeism, and the proven solutions. Find out more at hereandhealthy.org.

Sign on to Here + Healthy!

Raise your voice to increase awareness about the connection between health, attendance and learning by signing on to Here + Healthy campaign.

What You Can Do

Taking action to address health-related chronic absenteeism can have a powerful impact on students’ academic success and well-being for a lifetime. There is much we can do as a society to address this issue and relieve the lifelong burden it places on young children. Cross-sector collaboration—particularly connecting the education community with the public health community and the medical community—can play a powerful role in mustering the resources to make lasting change.

HSC and Attendance Works are currently collaborating on Here + Healthy, an initiative to raise awareness about the health-related causes of chronic absenteeism, and the proven solutions. Find out more at hereandhealthy.org.


Stay Connected!

We encourage you to:


Make a Donation

As a nonprofit organization, we rely on support from people like you so we can continue to make schools healthier places where all children can learn and thrive. Your gift—large or small—will make a meaningful difference.

Make a Donation

Sign on to Here + Healthy!

Raise your voice to increase awareness about the connection between health, attendance and learning by signing on to Here + Healthy campaign.

Chronic Absenteeism Resources

Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.

pdf

Here + Healthy Factsheet

Nationwide, a staggering number of children are chronically absent, often at a very young age and often without attracting attention or intervention. While the causes are multi-fold, one stands out as especially significant: student health. Attendance Works and Healthy Schools Campaign are calling on partners across the country to sign on to Here + Healthy and raise their voices about the connection between chronic absenteeism and health.

pdf

Here + Healthy Campaign Call to Action

Nationwide, a staggering number of children are chronically absent. While the causes are multi-fold, one stands out as especially significant: student health. Taking action to address health-related chronic absenteeism can have a powerful impact on students’ academic success and well-being for a lifetime! Healthy Schools Campaign and Attendance Works are calling on partners across the country to sign on to the Here + Healthy campaign to raise awareness about the connection between chronic absenteeism and health.

pdf

Education Data for Health Systems: Challenges and Opportunities

This brief highlights existing efforts to integrate education data, such as chronic absenteeism, into health and public health accountability systems, describes common barriers and best practices, and suggests key opportunities for further exploration to advance this work.

Related Programs:

pdf

Addressing Chronic Absenteeism through ESSA Implementation

ESSA presents an important opportunity to create public accountability around chronic absenteeism and ensure state ESSA plans support a comprehensive approach to address chronic absenteeism. This document highlights various approaches that stakeholders might use to leverage ESSA to support efforts to address chronic absenteeism.

pdf

Addressing the Health-Related Causes of Chronic Absenteeism

Taking action to address health-related chronic absenteeism can have a powerful impact on students’ academic success and well-being for a lifetime. This document focuses on preparing educators—particularly school district decision-makers —with knowledge and practical guidance for creating meaningful change to address health-related chronic absenteeism.

pdf

Oregon: Chronic Absenteeism Statewide Plan

Oregon's statewide plan to address chronic absenteeism takes a strategic multi-sector approach that can provide useful examples for other states. As explained in the plan: "Chronic absenteeism is a complex issue that requires a thoughtful and complex response. Schools and students cannot fix this problem alone. Cross-sector partnerships with local and state health agencies, community based organizations, community and business members, with families must be leveraged to provide essential wrap around support to address the root causes of chronic absenteeism for all students. Creating these partnerships and welcoming school environments can impact absenteeism rates, as well as high school graduation, school discipline, and academic performance. Best and promising practices are most successful when they are systematically applied with knowledge of the local context."

web link

School Attendance, Chronic Health Conditions and Leveraging Data for Improvement: Recommendations for State Education and Health Departments to Address Student Absenteeism

This publication highlights how state education and health departments can help lead the way in reducing absenteeism through a comprehensive approach that is inclusive of addressing chronic health conditions. It describes connections between school attendance and chronic health conditions, discusses challenges and opportunities for data collection and use, and promotes the integration of school health services, specifically nursing, into efforts to improve school attendance. The document provides recommendations for action and features successes within various states and communities.

pdf

Healthy and Ready to Learn: Recommendations to the Next Administration

We can create a better future for our children and our nation by improving health in schools. The next President of the United States has the opportunity to support states, school districts and communities in creating the conditions of student health and wellness and giving all children a chance for a healthy, brighter tomorrow. This document outlines Healthy Schools Campaign’s recommendations to the next President for improving health and education for our nation's students.

pdf

Letter of Support for Chronic Absenteeism

October 5, 2015 Dear Secretary Duncan, We the undersigned organizations are writing to express our support of the U.S. Department of Education’s national effort to address chronic absenteeism. We commend you for your leadership in increasing awareness of chronic absenteeism as a national problem and we are committed to working with you to support efforts to eliminate chronic absenteeism in our nation’s schools.

Related Programs: ,

pdf

Brief on Chronic Absenteeism and School Health

National Collaborative on Health and Education Brief on Chronic Absenteeism and School Health, May 2015

Related Programs: ,