Increasing School Attendance: What Works


The other night I received an automated voice message from the school district I live in. It was a message from our superintendent welcoming students back to school. The message also included a brief summary of a new incentive program being piloted this year. “If your child attends the first 50 consecutive days of school, he/she will receive a special reward. If your child attends the entire year with no absences, he/she will receive special recognition at a district-wide assembly”. “Oh, how nice” my mother stated as she listened in as we were preparing for Sunday dinner. I knew she had visions of seeing her granddaughter up at a podium accepting a well-deserved award. As for me, I thought about how my 3rd grader will want to get a special award so much that she will beg to go to school even if she is sick with the stomach flu. This message sparked an entire discussion involving all our guests for the duration of the meal. It became a debate. The Walk Up-Hill for 2 miles in Chicago Winters with No Shoes group (AKA: The reward of attending school is reward enough group) versus the If a Pencil Helps Get Kids to Attend School Regularly Then So Be It Group (AKA: All kids should be rewarded trophies for just trying group). I largely stayed out of it and instead thought about how school absenteeism and school refusal is becoming more prevalent in suburbia. I knew that the incentive program really is not meant for a kid like mine but wondered how effective it will be for students with real attendance issues.

This time of the year my practice gets rather busy with clients who have issues with school attendance and their parents who are having doubts if they can manage to avoid court again this year as a result of their truant children’s frequent absenteeism. Many of these clients have issues with juvenile delinquency and experience significant anxiety related to attending school, i.e., school phobia. These kids are not going to be motivated to attend school by giving them a pat on the back or a certificate of attendance. The intrinsic reward for just attending school won’t be enough either- at least not right away. I often work with the local schools and truancy officers to help kids and families who are having a difficult time with regular school attendance. This is a hard issue to contend with because by the time I get a call, these behaviors have been in place for years. This is also a difficult group to retain as clients because they also have a hard time attending sessions regularly (go figure). In my practice, clients with school truancy attend an average of 3 sessions before they become no-shows so I have to turn to the research and act fast.

A recently completed dissertation systematically reviews and meta-analyzes the effectiveness of interventions for students with truancy issues (i.e., absenteeism from school without permission) (Maynard, 2010). The study included 2,598 truant students with a mean age of 12.16. More than 24 individual, family and court related interventions were included in the study. The mean effect size of interventions examined in the included randomized control trials and quasi-experimental designs was .47 (n=1878) and in single-group pre-post studies was .60 (n=720).  As a whole, the interventions included in this review demonstrated a moderate, positive effect on attendance. However, only studies that included behavioral interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), contingency contracts, parent training, and Positive Behavior Program consistently yielded large, positive effect sizes. Behavioral interventions that included parental participation also demonstrated larger effects than those that did not include a parental component. The author noted that behavioral interventions were common factors in all the studies with large effect sizes but not the sole intervention. The effectiveness of other specific interventions was inconclusive.

It seems that behavioral interventions offer a good place to start reducing the rates of truancy, specifically with parents included in behavioral interventions. I am not so sure where the pencil, pat on the back, or certificate of attendance fits in here but perhaps since it is indeed a behavioral intervention, it will have some positive effect, if not now, perhaps in years to come.

Maynard, B.R., Tyson Mc Crea, K., & Kelly, M.S. ( 2012). Indicated truancy interventions: effects on school attendance among chronic truant students. The Campbell Collaboration.

Kristen Brendel