REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE
One major barrier to learning faced by students and teachers in every school today is a lack of consistent attendance in classrooms. Although many schools realize the importance of this issue, educational researchers have not consistently given this topic the attention it deserves (Corville-Smith, 1995). Additionally, while some attempts to increase attendance rates have been successful, the methodologies used have had notable disadvantages including cost, drainage of faculty resources, difficulty of implementation, or time consumption (DeKalb, 1999; Lamdin, 1996).
Researchers have attacked this problem from a number of directions. For example, interventions have been community-based (McPartland & Nettles, 1991; Reid & Bailey-Dempsey, 1995), family based (Copeland, Brown, & Hall, 1974; Volkmann, 1996), and school-based (Gottfredson, Jones, & Gore, 2002; Noonan & Thibeault, 1974). The intent of this paper is to summarize existing research on improving attendance rates in schools and offer suggestions for school psychologists on how they can become involved in formulating interventions to help schools deal with problems of attendance.
As students, we are expected to excell in our every performance, most especially in the academic aspect. One factor that dictates the quality of performance of a student is his/her attendance. It is generally distinguished between unauthorised absence from school (also labelled truancy) and authorised absence from school. Authorised absence from schools can be “authorised” by parents, schools or both. Furthermore, authorised absence from school can be defined as legitimate or illegitimate (also sometimes labelled school phobia). Legitimate absence will be authorised by the parents and the school and refers to factors such as illness of a learner. Illegitimate, but parentally authorised absences include; child labour, excessive household responsibilities, or perceptions within communities or families that school attendance and/or education is less important than the tasks assigned to the child. School phobia refers to the phenomenon where a learner is unwilling to attend school, and stays at home with the knowledge of his or her parents. Factors contributing to school phobia include fear of failure and concerns about the health and welfare of parents. (Weideman, Goga, Lopez, Mayet, Macun & Barry, 2007, p. 19)
Truancy has been labeled one of the top 10 major problems in every schools, and rates of absenteeism have reached as high as 25% in some cities. School officials are unsure as to the proportion of legitimate verses illegitimate absences, nationwide estimates have ranged from 1-22% for illegitimate absences (Guevermont, 1986; Nielsen & Gerber, 1979). These studies may actually underestimate non-illness related absences due to the large margin of error likely to be found in self-report data of this nature. It is quite possible that the proportion of illegitimate absences has changed since these data were reported; however, no recent estimates are available. Additionally, the proportion of illegitimate absences may vary substantially among school districts in different parts of the country.
Factors affecting absenteeism
Reasons for being absent in class and other factors affecting the attendance of a student vary. There had been theories that pointed out that tardiness is caused by the personality of a person. Predictors of absenteeism and truancy can be found inside and outside the school environment. Bimler and Kirkland (2001) indicated that there may be as many as 10 different ‘hot spots’ that can predict student absenteeism and truancy. These ‘hot spots’ broadly include: school conditions; home-based behavioral issues; psychological issues; family background; school-based behavioral issues; peer issues; as well as lack of motivation or interest in school.
Individual Predictors of Student Attendance
Researchers have focused extensively on student-level predictors related to chronic absenteeism and truancy. Predictors at the student-level relate to the student’s physical and mental health; perceptions of school; as well as the availability of family and community resources. These predictors offer the most direct link to student attendance whereas other predictors that will be discussed are often mediated. Student predictors broadly include the student’s physical and mental health as well as their perceptions of school.
Issues related to the student’s physical and mental health appears directly related to student attendance (Kearney, 2008). Chronic health conditions are among the most significant predictors of student absenteeism. This review found that asthma is one of the leading predictors for student absenteeism (Center for Disease Control, 2009; Kearney, 2008). The Center for Disease Control estimates that 9.1% of children under 17 years of age have been diagnosed with asthma (Akinbami, Moorman, Garbe, Sondik, 2009). The CDC estimates that nearly 14.7 million school days were missed in 2002 because of asthma-related illness (Meng, Babey, ; Wolstein, 2012). Researchers estimate that students with asthma miss between 1.5 and 3.0 times more school days than their peers without the condition (Bonilla, et al., 2005; Dey ; Bloom, 2005; Moonie, Sterling, Figgs, ; Castro, 2006). According to Kearney (2008), absenteeism related to asthma can be exacerbated by numerous factors, including age, poverty, medical care, as well as the student’s living environment.
Research suggests that other health issues influence student attendance, as well. For example, obesity, chronic illness, and chronic pain all appear to significantly predict higher levels of student absenteeism (Palermo, 2000; Sato, et al., 2007). Geier and colleagues (2007) studied 1,069 fourth and sixth graders attending nine elementary schools in Philadelphia and found that students who had a higher than normal Body-Mass-Index (BMI) were more likely to miss school than students whose BMI was within normal range. They concluded that obesity was thus a significant predictor of student absenteeism after adjusting for the student’s age, race or ethnicity, and gender. Taras and Potts-Datema (2005) reviewed literature related to chronic health conditions in children and disclosed that the literature associates student attendance with diabetes, sickle cell anemia, epilepsy, among other chronic illnesses. This research builds on related work suggesting that other chronic conditions have also been attributed to increased student absenteeism, including migraines, abdominal pain, musculoskeletal pain, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (Chan, Piira, ; Betters, 2005). Roth-Isigkeit and colleagues (2005) conducted a large-scale study of children who experienced chronic pain. They concluded that “30 to 40 percent of children and adolescents with pain reported moderate effects of their pain on school attendance” (p. 153). In addition, researchers have found that teen pregnancy (Kirby, 2002) and drug/alcohol use (Roebuck, French, ; Dennis, 2004) are also significant predictors of student absenteeism. Drawing upon survey data from the 1997 and 1998 National Household Surveys on Drug Abuse, Roebuck, French, and Dennis (2004) found that among 15,168 adolescents age 12 to 18, marijuana use was strongly associated with truancy and increased likelihood of high school dropout.
Mental health conditions
Mental health conditions have also been attributed to student attendance. Researchers suggest that mental health conditions often manifest themselves in the form of school refusal or school avoidance behaviors (Egger, Costello, ; Angold, 2003; King ; Bernstein, 2001). Egger, Costello, and Angold (2003) examined the association between mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, etc.) and both school refusal and truancy. They found that school refusal was typically associated with depression and separation anxiety. Truancy tended to be associated with oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. In children who exhibited a combination of school refusal and truancy, 88.2 percent of the 4,500 school aged children included in the study had a specific psychiatric disorder. A smaller study conducted by Kearney and Albano (2004), found that among 143 youths the most common psychiatric conditions associated with school refusal were separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and depression. The findings obtained by Kearney and Albano mirror those obtained in a smaller study conducted McShane, Walter, and Rey (2001). As Kearney (2008) noted, there is “remarkable consistency with respect to the type of diagnosis most commonly seen in youths with problematic absenteeism, which essentially involves depression, anxiety, and disruptive behavior disorder” (p. 457).
While underlying mental health conditions contribute to school avoidance or refusal behaviors, Kearney (2008) suggested that these conditions are often overlooked. It may also be due to a lack of diagnosis for many psychiatric conditions believed to be influencers or causes of the avoidance behavior, including depression, separation anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and substance abuse (King, Heyne, Tonge, Gullone, ; Ollendick 2001; Kearney 2008). Certain other risk factors may also increase anxiety or school-refusal behavior, leading to absenteeism or truancy, such as homelessness and poverty, teenage pregnancy, school violence and victimization, school climate and connectedness, and parental involvement (Kearney 2008).
Student perceptions of the school
Student perceptions of the school have also been associated with student attendance. Research strongly associates the student perceptions of the school culture and rigor of the academic program with student attendance (Balfanz, Herzog, ; Mac Iver, 2007). Researchers find that students are less likely to attend school when they perceived their classes are boring or irrelevant; feel unsupported or disrespected by teachers and other school staff; feel uncomfortable or bullied by other students; or feel targeted for discipline and behavioral issues (Wagstaff, Combs, ; Jarvis, 2000). The same research also noted that were less likely to attend school when they perceived that they had fallen behind on their school work or could not balance the competing demands of work and school (Wagstaff, et al., 2000). These factors broadly reflect the degree to which a student is engaged in their school experience. Decreased levels of student engagement have been associated with reduced attendance (Balfanz, Herzog, ; Mac Iver, 2007).
Parent and Family Predictors of Student Attendance
Parent and family factors (i.e., whether the student resides in a single-parent household, family socioeconomic status, parental unemployment, homeownership, etc.) have also been shown to predict school attendance. Gottfried (2011) noted that it has traditionally been difficult for researchers to disassociate student and family characteristics in analyses that examine school attendance. Indeed, in his analysis of data obtained from Philadelphia, he discovered that past research may have underestimated the influence of parent and family predictors may have been under-estimated in previous research. Despite this assertion, existing research suggests that there are specific family-related factors that influence school attendance.
Family socioeconomic status and place of residence
Research suggests that the family’s socioeconomic status wield a significant influence on the likelihood that students will attend school regularly (Crowder & South, 2003; Henry, 2007; Reid, 2005). Students who reside in urban neighborhoods are more likely to miss school and/or become chronically absent due to the myriad of factors that distract students from school (Balfanz & Letgers, 2004; Orfield & Kornhaber, 2001). Students who are homeless or reside in temporary housing are also more likely to miss school. Citing reports from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Coalition for the Homeless (2007) reported that while 87% of homeless youth are enrolled in school only 77% attend school regularly. The National Coalition for the Homeless (2007) report that children who are homeless are also more mobile than their peers making regular school attendance more difficult. They estimated that half of homeless youth change schools two or more times each academic year. Forty percent change schools at least one time. Thus, the child’s home status significantly predicts whether the child will attend regularly.
Composition and involvement of the family
Past research has suggested that family characteristics such as the number of parents in household and parental practices all influence student attendance, as well. For example, students from single-parent families are more likely to miss school than students from two-parent families (Finlay, 2006). Parents who are actively involved in their child’s school experience and monitor their child’s participation in school – these behaviors include talking with their child about school, checking homework, and participating in school-based parent organizations. Sixty-four percent of students who responded to the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement indicated that they attended school because of their parent or guardian (Yazzi-Mintz, 2009). However, it bears noting that the existing research also suggests that parental “over-involvement” can be detrimental to student attendance (Corville-Smith, Ryan, Adams, ; Dalicandro, 1998). Corville-Smith and her colleagues (1998) found that students who perceive their parents as controlling were less likely to attend school than those who perceived their parents as supportive.
Placement in protective services
Children who are supported by protective services, including foster care, frequently miss more school than children who are not served by these programs. Conger and Rebeck (2001) analyzes records from 17,000 New York City children in foster care and disclosed that approximately three-quarters of children placed in foster care attended school. Heilbrunn (2004) studied 30 truant students in Colorado and found that the students were frequently in the care of child protective services and had been removed from their homes. Heilbrunn (2004) also reported that informal tallies collected by the juvenile justice system revealed that truant students frequently experiences issues such as child neglect, abandonment, mental and physical health concerns, as well as previous placement in programs operated by health and human services.
School Predictors of Student Attendance
Researchers have also evaluated whether school-level factors influence student attendance. Research suggests that a variety of school-level factors influence student attendance. The factors relate to the culture and climate of the school; the condition of the school facility, particularly the school’s ventilation system; as well as the rigor and relevance of the school’s instructional program (Barnham, 2004; Lauchlan, 2003; Schendell, et al., 2004; Simons, Hwang, Fitzgerald, Kielb, ; Lin, 2010). These factors shape student perceptions of the school environment and thus shape the desirability they feel to attend school. Moreover, the physical condition of the school impacts student health and thus influences whether the child feels well enough to attend school.
School culture, climate, and safety
The culture and climate of the school, particularly as it relates to teacher-student relationships and more broadly to issues of student safety, has been moderately associated with student absenteeism. The likelihood that a student will not attend school increases when students feel unsafe or threatened by the school community. Stewart (2008), drawing upon National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS) data, disclosed that student outcomes were related to the student’s sense of belongingness or connection to the community. Similarly, Rumberger and Palardy (2005) reported that students who perceived that their school was unsafe had higher rates of attribution. In particular, students who experience bullying and victimization by peers or their teachers tend to miss more school than peers who do not experience these conditions (Glew, Fan, Katon, Rivara, & Kernic, 2005). Dinkes, Kemp, and Baum (2009) reported that seven percent of students age 12 to 18 who participated in the 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey reported that they “avoided school activities or one or more places in school because they thought someone might attack or harm them” (p. 56). The same survey revealed that “approximately five percent of students ages 12-18 reported that they were afraid of attack or harm at school, compared with three percent of students who reported that they were afraid of attack or harm away from school” (p. 54). The prevalence of fear and avoidance among students appeared greatest among middle school students and high school freshman and sophomores (Dinkes, et al., 2009). These are also the grade levels which research suggests are most likely to predict student absenteeism, truancy, and high school dropout (Balfanz & Byrne, 2012; Gottfried, 2013).
Bullying appears to be a significant predictor of student absenteeism and, at the high school level, a significant predictor for students who ultimately drop out of school. Recent research indicates that bullying (including adversarial relationships with education professionals) is now widely recognized as a significant factor in student academic performance and student attendance as manifest through school avoidance behaviors (Kearney, 2008; Roberts, Zang, Truman, & Snyder, 2012; Swearer, Espelage, Vaillancourt, & Hymel, 2010).
Nature of the academic program
The academic program also influences whether students attend school. There is a growing body of research that suggests that school culture influences student learning, engagement, and achievement (Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009). Researchers note that disengagement can lead to a significant increase in ‘deviant behavior’ – including truancy (Appleton, Christenson, & Furlong, 2008).Klem and Connell (2004) noted that “Students who perceive teachers as creating a caring, well-structured learning environment in which expectations are high, clear, and fair are more likely to report engagement in school” (p. 270). Higher-levels of student engagement reduce the risk of students missing school or dropping out of school (Appleton, et al., 2008). This perception can be achieved through lower student-to-teacher ratios (Catalano, Oesterle, Fleming, & Hawkins, 2004) as well as other school-based programs (i.e., Check and Connect) that increase student-teacher contact through mentoring (Sinclair, Christenson, Lehr, & Anderson, 2003).
Condition of the school facility
Researchers have also associated the conditions of the school facility, particularly the school’s ventilation system, with student attendance. Poor ventilation systems introduce students – particularly those with respiratory health challenges including asthma – to conditions that promote chronic illness (Shendell, et al., 2004). In one study that examined indoor CO2 concentrations in traditional and portable classrooms, Shendell and colleagues (2004) disclosed that student attendance in portable classrooms was 2 percent lower than students who attended class in traditional classroom settings. More broadly, Branham (2004) analyzed data for 226 schools in the Houston Independent School District using a Tobit analysis, he determined that students were less likely to attend schools that were in need of structural repairs, used temporary structures (i.e., portables), and had understaffed janitorial services (presumably impacting the cleanliness of the school facility). Studies using similar data have not been conducted nor have the results of Branham’s (2004) analysis been replicated in other settings.