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AAP National Conference: What you can do to promote school attendance :

October 23, 2016

You know which of your patients have a chronic illness and how it may affect them down the road. But do you know how many are chronically absent from school and what that means for their future?

If you don’t, you’re not alone. Most school districts don’t even have a handle on which students fail to show up on a regular basis.

Hedy Chang is hoping to change that by raising awareness of what chronic absenteeism is, how to measure it and what to do about it. Chang is executive director of Attendance Works, a national and state initiative that promotes awareness of the important role that school attendance plays in achieving academic success. 

“All the investments that schools make in quality instruction, better curriculum don’t pay off unless the kids are in the classroom,” said Chang, who will present a session titled “Promoting School Attendance and Preventing School Failure: Is There a Prescription for That? (F2123).” The session will be held from 2-2:45 p.m. Sunday in Room 3018 of Moscone West.

Chronic absenteeism often is defined as missing 10% or more of the school year — or two days a month — for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences as well as suspensions. Reasons for chronic absences may include physical or mental illness, unreliable transportation, and homelessness.

When tracking attendance, many schools only look at average daily attendance (the number of students who show up each day) and truancy (unexcused absences). Both of those metrics can mask high levels of absences, particularly in the early grades, Chang said.

“If you just look at unexcused absences, health-related absences aren’t there,” she said. “But if a kid misses two days a month, 10% of the school year, there’s plenty of research that shows those kids are falling behind.”

Many parents might not hesitate to keep a kindergartner or first-grader home, but Chang stressed that missing a lot of school in the early years puts a child behind in reading.

“Even if your attendance improves,” she said, “we don’t have systems that are aimed at helping kids catch up.”

Another challenge is that many people don’t worry about health-related absences because they are excused.

“We can understand why they might be staying home,” Chang said, “but there are still some adverse consequences of missing that much school.” 

Chang said pediatricians are “critical, key, unlikely allies to help us address this issue.”

Pediatricians can talk with families about why going to school every day matters, Chang said. They can help families understand when sick children should stay home and when it’s OK to go to school with a minor illness. If a student has a mental health issue, they can come up with strategies other than missing school.

During the session, Chang plans to encourage doctors to work with their schools and communities to determine the causes of chronic absence and determine how it can be addressed.

“There’s a lot of health innovation that can be integrated with schools and doctors can help schools think about,” she said.  

For more coverage of the AAP National Conference & Exhibition visit

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