Truancy: Helpful Information for Parents

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Webster's Dictionary defines a "truant" as "one who shirks duty" or "one who stays out of school without permission"([6], p. 1266). In school districts across the country, school administrators and teachers are focusing on decreasing the number of students who are truant from school. The increased enforcement of truancy policies is due, in part, to the heightened level of accountability for academic progress expected from public schools and classroom teachers. A student who is frequently absent from school is less likely to perform well on standardized measures of academic achievement and is more likely to drop out of school, earn low wages, join the welfare rolls, and participate in criminal activity ([1], p. 1).

Understanding School Policies on Absences

Strictly speaking, any unexcused absence from school or class could be considered "truancy." However, most school districts have developed clear policies about the number of times a student can miss school, for any reason, before incurring severe consequences. Truancy policies differ among states, cities, and school districts. But most schools have developed a set of procedures consistent with state laws that gradually increase the level of intervention and the severity of consequences as the number of absences during a given term increases.

"Chronic truancy" is often defined by school districts as missing 10% or more of the total days in the term, or about 16-20 days of school ([5], p. 5). Attendance rolls are reviewed quarterly by school staff, and students who are approaching chronic truancy (usually those with 4-5 absences) are noted. For these frequently absent students, many schools will begin to implement a series of interventions designed to turn the situation around. School staff may send a warning letter to the student's home or request a meeting with the parents. If the problem persists or the parents are unresponsive, a teacher or social worker may visit the family at home. If parents and staff, working together, are unable to solve the truancy problem, in many states the school staff is then required to forward the issue to their regional office of education and eventually the state's attorney's office for prosecution. However, states generally make sure that the school has made every effort to intervene and document its efforts before forwarding the case to the next level (Marty Barrett, Christie Brinkley, Shelia Radford-Hills; personal communication; September 20, 2001).

Some parents have thought that legitimate absences by their child were considered "excused," only to find out that they were not. If this mistake results in an excessive number of absences, the student may be required to repeat the year in school. Or an older student may lose credit for the classes from which he or she was absent, making it more difficult for the student to graduate on time.

The confusion between "excessive absences" and "chronic truancy" often occurs because the parent and student are not familiar with the school's policy or the definition of an excused absence. A few schools have made their policies so restrictive that the only excused absences are if there is a death in the immediate family, or the student is ill which must be substantiated by a physician's note. While other schools are still flexible and will accept a parent's note that the child's absence was legitimate, that flexibility may change if the child begins to miss more than the occasional school day. Students who are taken out of school for family vacations or any other event not previously approved by a school administrator may return to find that they will not get credit for days missed or that they cannot make up missed work. Parents and students can minimize the problems by understanding the school's policies before organizing a family event that would require a student to miss class.

Occasionally, there is a breakdown in communication between educators and parents. Busy teachers with large classes may not catch every student's absence on every occasion. Phone calls to a family's home may be answered by the truant child, who will probably not relay the message to the parent. A student trying to hide a truancy problem from his or her parents might erase messages left on the telephone answering machine or discard letters sent home by school staff. Older students attempting to avoid school can become adept at hiding their truancy from family members. When school staff are aware of such tactics, they may try to call a parent at work or make an unannounced visit to the family's home. In some districts, off-duty police officers or parents who are trained as attendance officers are hired to go to the home and visit with the family, or simply to "round-up" truant youngsters from the neighborhood ([1], pp. 2-5). Parents who meet with their child's teachers early in the academic year and let the school staff know where and when to contact them with a problem are less likely to have communication from the school "slip through the cracks."

Reasons Why Students Are Tardy or Truant

Some teachers feel that truancy and tardiness in younger children is the parents' problem. Hectic family schedules combined with chaotic family routines often make it difficult for parents to get children to school on time. Interestingly, this type of truancy crosses many cultural boundaries. All working families struggle with balancing work and family demands, especially when parents are required to work long hours with little support at home.

Keeping consistent routines with younger children becomes a necessity for getting children to school - and parents to work - on time. Sometimes, minor changes in bedtime and early morning routines-such as laying out school clothes the night before, setting the alarm clock to ring 15 minutes earlier, and having simple breakfasts-can make the morning go more smoothly. In recent years, many schools have been making an increased effort to work with parents and students during the elementary school years to develop good attendance habits.

Research suggests that older students who become chronic truants often have other academic or social problems. A few may even be homeless. In a survey of recently immigrated Cambodian American students, Margaret Goldberg found that students identified the following reasons for skipping school or dropping out [2]:

difficulty with schoolwork
problems with English
boredom with school
desire to help parents
desire to earn more money
lack of vocational or educational goals
desire to be with friends
peer pressure
Other reasons for leaving school included marriage, pregnancy, and fear of violence or prejudice. However, the findings in Goldberg's research, when compared with research on other groups of truant secondary students, confirms the similarity of reasons across different groups of truant youth, including a desire to make money, the strong influence of truant peers, and boredom with school [1; 3].

The research also suggests that parents play an influential role in keeping their teens in school. When parents continue to discuss the importance of education with their teen, advocate for their teen in the school, and monitor their teen's activities, they are often successful in helping turn their teen's truancy around ([4], pp. 128-131). Goldberg and other educators believe that the most effective intervention for chronic truancy, particularly with older students, is implementing a "systems approach" that includes a combination of the following characteristics ([2], p. 50):

Changes in school systems: School systems improve safety in and around the school, decrease class size so that teachers know their students well, and encourage students to participate in after-school enrichment activities.
Individual changes: Schools provide students who are of limited English proficiency with easy access to English-language classes and address learning disabilities among special needs students. Also, schools offer students additional assistance in coping with social problems and emotional issues.

Family factors: Parents receive help with parenting and family issues including homelessness or financial stresses, learning how to set limits for their children, and encouraging their child's long-term education and employment goals.

Community factors: Schools, parents, police departments, community recreation groups, and businesses collaborate to create a community environment that discourages truancy. Local businesses refuse to employ minors during the school hours unless the student is part of a school-related internship program. Recreation departments or the faith community support enriching after-school programs, and parents and police can work together to "roust-out" groups of children who are truant to get them back in school.

What Can Parents Do?

Parents can help keep their child on time and in school by following some of these suggestions:

Develop consistent evening and morning family routines. Putting all homework and school items in a box by the door, making school lunches, and laying out clothes the night before may help children the next morning. Waking up 15 minutes earlier also helps, and eating simple, "on-the-go"-type breakfast bars or sandwiches is easier than eating a traditional breakfast if the family is running late. Children who continue to dawdle may need to have TV or telephone time curtailed or may need to go to bed earlier until they are able to stay on track.

Do not schedule long family vacations during school days. Family vacations are important, but taking long trips during the school year can interrupt what the child is learning in class or in group projects when the child's presence is important to other classmates. Instead, parents might use the school's calendar to find "mini-holidays" that overlap with the school's planned vacation days or teacher in-service days.

Know your school district's policies. Most school districts explain their policies in a document like a parent or student handbook. Staff members will copy the relevant information and send it to the parent upon request. Understanding what documentation is required to excuse your child's legitimate absences may prevent future confusion or problems.

Be careful what you call a "sick day." Many young children have an occasional "sore tummy" day, or older students may have a "headache" day. But if there is no fever and the child was fine the day before, she or he should be encouraged to go to school. Although an occasional day at home to rest is probably acceptable for most children, it can send the wrong message about the importance of school attendance or, in later years, work attendance.

Act promptly if you believe your child is deliberately missing school. If you suspect that your older student is dropped off at the front door of the school only to promptly walk out the back door, then it is time for immediate action. Be clear with your child about your family's rules - and the local laws - related to school attendance. Try to include your older student in a meeting with the appropriate school staff, such as the principal, a favorite teacher, or a guidance counselor, to determine how to increase your child's success at school.

Many school districts have strong and somewhat confusing truancy policies. When parents are uncertain about any school policy, the best course of action is simply to ask the teacher or principal for more information. When children see their parents working with their teachers, they are more likely to get the message that school is important and that being "on time" and "present" is important to their future.

For more information

Re-Engaging Youth in School [NPIN Editor's note (3-17-03): this url has changed:]

Urban Policies and Programs to Prevent Truancy

Manual to Combat Truancy

Preventing and Resolving Parent-Teacher Differences

When Should Parents Contact the Teacher? How Effective Parent-School Partnerships Can Prevent School Difficulties

Truancy Codes [NPIN editor's note (01-12-03): this URL no longer exists]

Truancy: First Step toward a Lifetime of Problems

Truancy: A New Twist [NPIN editor's note (02-04-03): this URL no longer exists]

Truancy Program Targets Problems before They Start

The Problem of Truancy in America's Communities

Courting Kids to Class


[1] Department of Justice. (1996). Manual to combat truancy. Washington, DC: Department of Justice. (ERIC Document No. ED397526)

[2] Goldberg, Margaret E. (1999). Truancy and dropout among Cambodian students: Results from a comprehensive high school. Social Work in Education, 21(1), pp. 49-63. (ERIC Journal No. EJ587272)

[3] Malcolm, Heather; Thorpe, Graham; & Lowden, Kevin. (1996). Understanding truancy: Links between attendance, truancy and performance. Edinburgh, UK: Scottish Council for Research in Education. (ERIC Document No. ED393184)

[4] McNeal, Ralph B., Jr. (1999). Parental involvement as social capital: Differential effectiveness on science achievement, truancy, and dropping out. Social Forces, 78(1), 117-144. (ERIC Journal No. EJ593784)

[5] Rossi, Rosalind. (2001, August 20). Mom, dad may face community service in city crackdown on truant students. Chicago Sun-Times, pp. 2, 5.

[6] Webster's ninth new collegiate dictionary. (1988). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.
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