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Ages & Stages

School Attendance, Truancy & Chronic Absenteeism: What Parents Need to Know

How many days has your child been absent from school over the past 4 weeks? Was it just one sick day or two? What about the day they left early for the dentist? Or the days you took off to extend a vacation? It's hard to always keep track.

Missing a day here or there may not seem like a problem. But absences add up quickly. And these missed school days can have a big impact on your child's learning and overall health.

Missing two days a month—excused or unexcused—can add up to a child being considered chronically absent.

That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents to reduce unnecessary absences, learn about attendance policies where they live and prioritize getting their kids to school on time, every day (see 10 tips, below).

Chronic absenteeism affects millions of students nationwide.

You may think this is just high school students skipping school. But in fact, this problem starts early. According to research highlighted in the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement, The Link Between School Attendance and Good Health, at least 10% of kindergarten and first-grade students missed a month or more of the school year. Chronic absenteeism became more common in middle school, and about 19% of all high school students were chronically absent.

It is estimated that rates of chronic absenteeism more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data suggests this was especially the case for vulnerable populations such as students from low-income households.

Students are chronically absent for many reasons.

There are some reasons for missed school days that cannot be avoided, such as the need to isolate during an infectious illness. COVID-19 vaccines and boosters for everyone age 6 months and older help reduce these absences. But if your child is missing many days of school, or a few days every single month, it's important to consider the reason for the absenteeism.

  • A nationwide study found that kids with ADHD, autism or developmental delays are twice as likely to be chronically absent compared to kids without these conditions.

  • Children with common chronic illnesses, such as asthma and type 1 diabetes, miss more school when they are having more symptoms.

  • Mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression, are common reasons for absences.

  • Up to 5% of children have school-related anxiety and may struggle to understand or explain why they refuse to attend school.

Add it all up, and this creates a lot of empty desks and missed school time.

Don't underestimate the harm of these school absences.

Missing just two days a month of school―for any reason― can be a problem for kids in a number of ways. Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read on grade level by the third grade.

For older students, being chronically absent is strongly associated with failing at school―even more than low grades or test scores. When absences add up, these students are more likely to be suspended and drop out of high school.

Chronic absenteeism is also linked with teen substance use, as well as poor health as adults.

Chronic absenteeism & truancy defined

What is chronic absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism means missing too much school—for any reason—excused or unexcused. Experts and a growing number of states define chronic absenteeism as missing 10% (or around 18 days) during a school year.

What makes a student 'truant'?

While chronic absenteeism measures total absences, including excused and unexcused, truancy measures only unexcused absences. The number of unexcused absences it takes for a student to be considered a "truant" differs by state. Read your school district policies and state codes on attendance. Stay well-informed on how many absences are allowed, and what count as excused and unexcused absences.

Too many absences are serious not only for students, but also for parents, too. Schools handle minor truancy with warning letters, parent-teacher conferences and other means. However, in some states, parents can be fined when their kids miss too much school.

10 tips to help get your child to school on time, every day

  1. Set attendance goals with your child and track your child's attendance on a calendar. Try offering small rewards for not missing any school, such as a later bedtime on weekends.

  2. Help your child get a good night's sleep. A lack of sleep is associated with lower school achievement starting in middle school, as well as higher numbers of missed school and tardiness. Most younger children need 10-12 hours per night and adolescents (13-18 years of age) need 8-10 hours per night. Check how many hours your child needs here.

  3. Prep the night before to streamline your morning. Have your child lay out their clothes. Have backpacks and lunches packed. Develop back-up plans for getting to school if something comes up like a missed bus or an early meeting. Have a family member, a neighbor or another trusted adult on standby to take your child to school should you ever need help.

  4. Try to schedule dental or medical appointments before or after school hours. If children have to miss school for medical appointments, have them return immediately afterward so they do not miss the entire day.

  5. Schedule extended trips during school breaks. This helps your child stay caught up in school learning and sets the expectation for your child to be in school during the school year. Even in elementary school, missing a week of classes can set your child behind on learning.

  6. Don't have your child stay home unless they are truly sick. Reasons to keep your child home from school include a temperature greater than 101 degrees, vomiting, diarrhea, a hacking cough, toothache or other infectious illnesses. Keep in mind, complaints of frequent stomachaches or headaches can be a sign of anxiety and may not be a reason to stay home. See School Avoidance: Tips for Concerned Parents.

  7. Talk with your child about the reasons why they do not want to go to school. School-related anxiety can lead to school avoidance. Talk to your child about their physical and emotional symptoms. Try to get them to talk about any emotional struggles they may have with issues like bullying, fear of failure or actual physical harm. If you are concerned about your child's mental health, talk with your pediatrician, your child's teacher or school counselor.

  8. If your child has a chronic health issue such as asthma, allergies or seizures, talk with your pediatrician about developing a school action plan. Meet with and get to know the nurse at your child's school. If you need guidance and documentation for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan, ask for your pediatrician's help accessing services at school.

  9. Follow the rules. Be sure you know what your school's requirements are for when your child will be absent or late. If you are supposed to call, email or provide a doctor's note after a certain number of days out, then do it. If we want our children to follow rules, we must lead by example.

  10. Keep track of your child's attendance so you know when the days missed start to add up. Look into why your child is absent. Think about your child's mood. Have they been spending time by themselves lately? Is their chronic condition starting to be more problematic? Is this school refusal? You know your child best.

More information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2019)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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