When Students Are Absent, Do Their Relationships With Teachers Suffer?

Students are missing a lot of classes.

Chronic absenteeism, when a student misses at least 10 percent of the school year — which includes missing school for any reason, and not just unexcused absences — nearly doubled from 2019 to 2022. In May, the White House flagged chronic absenteeism as a national “challenge,” pointing toward its connection to lower reading and graduation levels. Some state-level data has noted that young students, in kindergarten and preschool, are chronically absent at high rates.

Experts argue that relationships are the key to pulling students back into the classroom, a crucial feat if they are going to limit the long-term consequences of school closures during the pandemic.

But how does missing so much school influence those relationships?

When young students miss school, their teachers begin to think of them as less capable in math and language and less committed to learning, according to a new study. For some observers, this reveals that absences may threaten to push students into bad academic patterns early on, with potentially lifelong consequences.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Colder

The study, “Do Teachers Perceive Absent Students Differently?,” was published in the journal AERA Open in late June. It focused on absences in early elementary school, between kindergarten and second grade. Relying on a large sample size of nationally representative data, the study found that teachers felt more distant from students who miss class, and also that they rated those students’ social skills, learning ability and even language and math abilities more poorly.

People may assume that students coming back from an absence are viewed as “troublemakers,” disrupting the class and misbehaving, says Michael Gottfried, one of the authors of the study and a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. But actually, he argues, it’s the opposite: Teachers see them as withdrawn and unengaged.

Why does that matter?

According to the research report, “teacher perceptions of students’ academic abilities can influence outcomes and can indeed shape teachers’ behaviors towards those students.” For example, teachers might call on those students less in class or criticize them more.

Additionally, the findings suggest that teachers shouldn’t be so worried about behavioral issues among absent students, Gottfried says. Those children don’t seem to be more prone to throwing chairs or having fits as much as they are feeling withdrawn, he argues. Teachers should be spending energy considering how to re-engage those students rather than discipline them, Gottfried says.

If true, this would carry some implications. States like Nevada, with the support of teachers unions, have moved to make suspensions easier. Under Gottfried’s view, this is misguided. Teachers may see absent students as lacking social skills and being less academically capable, but not as “blowing up the classroom,” he adds.

But there’s some reason for caution in drawing too many conclusions from this research, including that the study is based on data from before the pandemic. Gottfriend says he doesn’t believe that the pandemic altered the patterns that the study noticed, only made them more common. But further, it cannot exclude some factors like the role parents play in causing these changes in how teachers’ view absent students, he notes.

Regardless, for the researchers, the study adds to a knowledge base about larger classroom dynamics.

Role Models

While teachers have long been evaluated on whether students show up to their classes, absenteeism as a distinct field of study within educational research is relatively new, says Carolyn Gentle-Genitty, an absenteeism researcher who is currently the dean of Founder’s College, a two-year college affiliated with Butler University in Indiana.

It means that researchers are still exploring the vital aspects of attendance, trying to bring together insights from other fields and forge new ones, she says.

What we do know already is that attendance is crucial for schools. Although schools are locally controlled, they rely on federal and state dollars, which are disbursed according to their ability to prove attendance, Gentle-Genitty says. Historically, that meant students had to physically show up for school. But during the coronavirus closures, schools switched to distance learning options. And now that schools have reopened, there’s a “tug of war,” she says, with some parents reluctant to send their children back.

To Gentle-Genitty, the new study could have said more about the characteristics of the teachers, who are role models for students. For example, the study doesn’t distinguish whether teachers taught in large schools or small, in rural or urban areas, or in private, public or religious schools nor explain how those variables may shape the findings. When asked about this, one of the authors said that the research relied on national-level statistics because absenteeism is a nationwide issue.

It’s also important to inspect the developmental factors that are key to students, particularly at those young ages, Gentle-Genitty says. That means that because this is when the student’s relationship with school is being set, there are special considerations, such as how well the teacher understands the “handoff,” when the student is passed from the parent to the teacher.

She also has her own advice for teachers: Pay attention to how students play during recess. If teachers need feedback on how students at that young age are interpreting their discipline, their teaching, or their recording of absence, she says, look at the playground. Students absorb what they see, and they often need to repetitively practice behaviors. So long before any other report or negative reactions show up elsewhere, how they act on the playground can reveal if they feel isolated or withdrawn.

Gottfried also believes that this research suggests schools need to focus more on teachers, not only on absent students themselves.

“Kids aren’t just floating around schools like atoms,” Gottfried says. When a student misses school, he says, that has a ripple effect on everyone else in the classroom. There’s a big subjective piece to classroom organization when it comes to absenteeism, he adds.

About a decade ago, he looked at how absenteeism can lower the test scores of students who didn’t miss school, because when they return the teacher has to “slow down” the class to catch the student up. However, Gottfried said it also dawned on him that this must also have an effect on the teacher, too, something he says hasn’t been adequately studied.

Because the absenteeism crisis affects instructors, he says, schools should not just focus on bringing students back to class, but also on providing more support to teachers, too.

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