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Teachers View Chronically Absent Students Less Favorably

Frequent missed school days do more than harm students academically; they also damage teachers’ perceptions of chronically absent students.

And teachers’ tendency to view absent students less favorably could lead to further disengagement, fueling a negative cycle that may further compound those students’ learning challenges, concluded a new study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published June 25 in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

The study, which looked at thousands of student records over time, found that elementary school teachers reported feeling less close to chronically absent students—those who missed 11 or more school days. Educators also viewed those students as being more withdrawn and having worse social skills and academic proficiency, the study found. Those findings remained true when controlling for factors like race and prior academic performance.

“It becomes a double disadvantage,” said Michael A. Gottfried, a professor at the Penn Graduate School of Education who co-authored the study. “That kid was already disadvantaged by being absent, and now they might be disadvantaged again when they return, because it is literally changing how teachers perceive kids.”

The findings come as schools face the fallout of a dramatic spike in pandemic-era chronic absenteeism, commonly defined as missing 10 percent of school days, or 18 days in a typical, 180-day school year.

About 28 percent of students nationwide were deemed chronically absent in the 22-23 school year, compared to 15 percent in the 2018-19 school year, according to a tracker of state data maintained by the American Enterprise Institute. While many states saw some improvements in attendance in 2023-24, rates have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

As schools seek to rebuild student attendance habits, they should also help educators be mindful of how absences may affect their perceptions of students and offer support for building stronger classroom relationships, Gottfried said.

How classroom absences affect academics, peers, and teachers

Most research about absenteeism focuses on school-level or student-level factors, but less is known about how students’ poor attendance affects classroom dynamics, researchers said.

To study this question, Gottfried and graduate students Phil H. Kim and Tina Fletcher analyzed data on about 14,000 students in kindergarten through 2nd grade collected through one slice of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. That federal collection includes numerous data points about a nationally representative group of students who entered kindergarten in 2010, allowing researchers to analyze connections between academics, demographic attributes, and school and classroom factors.

The data include annual surveys that teachers filled out for each participating student in the spring to measure their perceptions.

Among the findings:

  • Teachers felt less close to chronically absent students. Researchers used a “closeness scale” that combined teacher responses to eight questions about factors like affection and open communication. They found that a student’s chronic absenteeism correlated with a score that was about a tenth of a point lower on the 1-to-5 scale.
  • Teachers believed students with poor attendance had weaker social skills. A student’s chronic absenteeism correlated with about a third of a point lower score on a 1-to-4 scale that included questions about how well each student got along with peers and formed healthy relationships.
  • Chronic absenteeism did not affect teachers’ negative views of students tendency to fight or act out. But it did correlate with about a tenth of a point lower score on a 1-to-4 index that measured teachers’ perceptions that students had “internalizing behaviors,” emotions, like anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness.
  • Teachers also believed chronically absent students had weaker study skills, like persistence in completing tasks. And educators rated chronically absent students about a fifth of a point lower in both math and literacy skills on 5-point scales. That finding remained true even after researchers tested it against students’ actual academic performance; absent students with stronger academic records were still viewed as less successful than their peers, Gottfried said.

These findings add to previous research about how students’ absences affect their classrooms.

Gottfried detected peer-to-peer effects in a 2022 study.Even students with good attendance struggle academically in classrooms with high rates of absenteeism, that study said. And that may be because teachers are in a constant cycle of remediating and reviewing content for students who missed class, he said.

The newer research suggests that frequent absences may give teachers less time to form strong relationships with students and less time to identify their strengths, Gottfried said. But being aware of that dynamic may help teachers to test their perceptions and build stronger connections when students are present, Gottfried said.

“I really believe that absenteeism exists in an ecosystem,” he said.

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