Chapter 5: Barriers to Regular School Attendance

Despite the importance of regular elementary school attendance, many of our youngest students face extraordinary challenges that make it difficult for them to attend school on a regular basis.111Chang & Romero, 2008. These challenges range from crises and trauma at home and in their community to disengagement or bullying inside the walls of the school building. Other factors that can impact elementary school attendance include transportation issues, physical and mental health issues, and a lack of connection between schools and families.

In order to better understand the barriers to attendance that many California families face, we gathered survey data from parents who had attended a truancy court in Alameda County, a large urban county in Northern California. In addition, we collected survey and interview data from districts and counties representing more than three quarters of California’s elementary school age population. We spoke to officials from school districts large and small, urban and rural, and from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and diverse demographics. We also spoke to vital stakeholders in the truancy problem, including members of the law enforcement community, district attorneys (DAs), community-based organizations and county and city agencies. From these responses, several consistent themes emerged to answer our questions about why so many elementary school students in California are truant or chronically absent from school.112See Appendix B for a description of methodology.

Truancy Signals Families in Distress

When a student is not attending school in the early grades, it is almost always due to an issue grounded in the family, rather than a decision by the child. Family struggles that are part of the reason children are out of school range from the relatively mundane to the truly harrowing.

The leading catalyst [for truancy] is deeply rooted in family problems at home. -California public elementary school district official.

In our interviews with district officials, poverty, homelessness, incarceration, evictions and job loss were repeated over and over as obstacles to school attendance.

For some families and caregivers, getting their child to school is overshadowed by financial and emotional problems or physical stress and trauma. To this end, one district official noted that SARBs (Student Attendance Review Boards) are “always very sad. [It’s about] troubled families trying to keep it together.”

Families are dealing with unemployment, broken homes, and are, as one district put it, “in survival mode.”

Another district official’s story illustrates the struggles that some families face: At a SARB earlier this summer, there was a mother who was 30 years old with three children, the youngest of whom had special needs. The father was incarcerated, but the mother never told her children he was in jail; rather, she just told them he was working. The mother was trying to hold down a job, but had no support system and did not feel safe in her community. Moreover, she did not think it was safe for her kids to walk to school. The mother understood that school was important but reported that she was unable to make the kids go to sleep at night and every morning she had to fight with her three kids to get to school. Some days she just gave up. She did not have the support necessary to address the many challenges in her life. The child who was being SARBed was in third grade, and she had a younger sibling (4-years-old) and a sibling in middle school. The third grader had missed between 30 and 40 days of school due to unexcused absences.

The lack of basic necessities such as housing was also cited by parents we interviewed as a barrier to getting their children to school. As one parent noted, when asked what things outside of school would help get her child to school, “a permanent place to live…stability, safety and less stress regarding where we are spending the night tonight would be very helpful.”

According to school district officials, some parents also need support to create a schedule that will ensure their children make it to school on time.

In some cases, the issue is as simple as a child who struggles to wake up in the morning and parents who find it difficult to enforce the rules. In other cases, district officials report that parents are not home or awake in the morning to make sure their child gets up in time for school. For example, one caregiver leaves at 4:00 a.m. for work and the other works until 2:00 a.m. and is asleep when it is time for the kids to get up and go to school. In other households, grandparents are the primary caretakers and cannot get the children ready in time, or single mothers are faced with getting one or more child to school on their own. Often, these single parents are young and may lack the tools, support network and/or community resources to get their children to school on time.

Truancy Signals Physical Health Issues

According to district officials, chronic health issues are common barriers to regular attendance. In some cases, parents cited their own illnesses as challenges to getting their children to school. More frequently, it is the child’s asthma, diabetes or other chronic health issue that causes truancy or chronic absence.

These reports of health issues impacting school attendance are substantiated by research. Studies have shown that children with asthma tend to perform worse on tests, have more problems with concentration and memory, have their sleep disrupted and miss more days of school. One study blamed the disorder for 12.8 million school absences across the country in a single year.113Basch, C. E. (2010). Healthier Students are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap. New York City: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Daily asthma attacks, strep throat, and other medical issues caused my son’s truancy. - Parent of 4th grade boy whose unexcused absences improved 100% after court referral to an asthma treatment program

Chronic health conditions can affect school attendance when parents and caregivers do not have access to resources to help address the conditions and avoid absenteeism, or when parents and caregivers have not received information about where to seek treatment.
An official in a Southern California school district reported that a first grader in the district missed more than 20 days of school for unexcused and excused absences combined. When the school district intervened, they found out the child missed school because his parents thought he was too ill to go to school, but did not take him to a doctor because they did not have transportation, or health insurance. The family was ultimately referred for insurance through the Healthy Kids Program as part of their SARB contract and the student’s attendance improved.

Another district shared the following story about a student who was kept home from school for multiple days due to asthma:
A mother brought her child to the doctor to get an inhaler for her child’s asthma. The doctor gave the parent a note to excuse the absence for that day. After the doctor’s visit, however, the mother decided to keep the child home for multiple days because she was concerned her child might have an asthma attack at school. Moreover, she did not think the child needed to attend school if she had a doctor’s note. The parent was unaware that the district had an asthma program, which involves the school, family and the student’s doctor. As part of this program, school nurses may exchange information with the student’s doctor, with the parent’s approval. The program also has an Asthma Mobile that goes to the schools and even to the students’ homes.

Some parents keep their child at home because they are understandably worried that he or she will have an asthma attack at school and do not trust the school to intervene appropriately. In these cases, a parent meeting or School Attendance Review Team (SART) meeting offers parents an opportunity to learn about the options to keep a child in school (e.g., establishing an asthma plan). Meetings can also help to inform parents of a range of services, including free family and individual counseling for a depressed student or services required by law for homeless families. These and other types of interventions will be discussed further in Chapter 7.

Truancy Signals Mental Health Issues

Many districts and several parents reported that mental health issues are another reason why students miss school. These issues, whether they are afflicting the child or the parent, can cause students to miss out on important learning opportunities at school.

One parent said: “My children had issues with leaving me, separation anxiety.” Another wrote: “My child has emotional issues. He had a hard time leaving me.” In these instances, parents may require additional information on how to address mental health issues or a referral for services to help them ensure their child attends school regularly.

In other cases, it is the parents who require mental health services. One county official described a student at a SARB meeting who had more than 50 unexcused absences. The official learned that the mother had mental health problems and was scared to let her children go to school. An official in another district similarly recalled the crippling effects of a mother’s mental illness on the school attendance of her twin sons. A mother and her third grade twins were at a SARB meeting. The boys both had more than 40 unexcused absences this school year. The mom claimed the kids were sick but there were no verifiable doctors’ notes. At the SARB meeting, the mom talked about her health concerns for her boys – headaches, sinus, runny noses—and the district offered resources to the family. The mom then said that she herself was having challenges and was depressed. As a result, the district referred her to mental health services, and recruited school-based mentors for both boys. One boy really liked flag football and was placed in an afterschool program that offered flag football. The other boy was struggling academically and was assigned a tutor. The boys are now attending school regularly.

This case speaks to the benefit of communication between the school site and families and how district interventions with qualified professionals who understand when families are in crisis can have a profound impact on school attendance.

Truancy Signals Caregivers Who Need Additional Information on the Importance of Consistent Attendance

Many district officials reported that some parents and caregivers need additional information about the benefits of elementary school education, particularly in the earliest grades. Several districts reported that parents take extended trips to visit relatives and do not appreciate the high marginal value of those missed days of school and their potential long-term, cumulative effect.

District officials also observed that some families do not view compulsory education as necessary or even good for young children. Several districts reported that there are families who prefer to keep their young children at home rather than send them to kindergarten or elementary school. For example, one county official spoke of students who were not enrolled in school until the third or even fifth grade.

Truancy Signals Transportation Challenges

Several parents reported that transportation issues made it difficult for them to get their child to school, and many district officials noted that transportation to and from school was a significant obstacle for some families.

In some rural districts, students have to travel many miles by bus to attend school. But some districts – like Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified, which serves San Bernardino and Riverside counties – have been forced to cut bus services due to budgetary issues.

Transportation to and from school can be especially difficult for families on a tight budget. One parent identified a problem with gas and parking money. Several other parents cited a lack of bus money or the fact that they did not have their own car as a challenge to getting their children to school. In Los Angeles County, for example, the cost of a student bus/metro pass is $24 a month. For a low-income parent or guardian with several children, this transportation cost can be a formidable obstacle.

Truancy Signals Safety Concerns

Several officials and parents noted that safety concerns – both inside and outside the school – are another barrier to school attendance.

Families who live in unsafe neighborhoods are reluctant to allow their children to walk to school. In one district, for example, an administrator noted that in one incident in their community, two high school students and one middle school student were shot and killed in a neighborhood park. According to district officials, when these violent acts occur, attendance is almost always down the next day.

Exposure to violence often causes trauma for the children living in these unsafe environments. To this point, a school district official in one city talked about a young girl in the district who missed a significant number of school days because she was afraid to go outside after witnessing a homicide in her neighborhood.

Bullying was also reported as a significant barrier to attendance, particularly by parents. One parent told us, “[m]y daughter was being bullied and didn’t want to go. The school [principal] refused to address it properly.... Obviously, we had to comply with the courts but seriously if [my daughter] hadn’t changed schools, the truancy may have continued.”

The challenges to regular attendance facing many students and families are substantial. But regardless of the barriers to attendance, no barrier is a reason to overlook the need to get the child back to school. The negative impact of missed school days can have devastating and long-term effects on individual students, on public safety, on the economy and on society as a whole. It is critical that we identify students early who need additional support and provide them with the tools necessary for academic success.

  1.    Chang & Romero, 2008.
  2.    See Appendix B for a description of methodology.
  3.    Basch, C. E. (2010). Healthier Students are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap. New York City: Teachers College, Columbia University.