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The Attendance Nudge The Attendance Nudge

The Attendance Nudge

Erin Werra Erin Werra Attendance Analyst
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On the eve of his I PROMISE school opening, LeBron James tweeted about missing 83 days of school in 4th grade. 

The importance of showing up for school cannot be overstated—especially since most chronically absent kids don’t grow up to become a living NBA legend. A glance at parenting forums, local news stories, and even analysis by Harvard experts suggests the general public fails to understand the importance of attendance—especially at the crucial early childhood level. 

Schools have managed to get parents on board and turn attendance trends positive by applying tools based on fairly simple behavioral psychology principles.


How important is attendance, anyway?

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 10% of school days throughout the year—which equates to about two days absent per month. Recent analysis from Attendance Works showed 20% of students in 4th and 8th grade had missed three or more days during the month prior to the 2013 NAEP test. If the trend continued throughout the year, students would have missed a total of 27 days or 15% of the school year. 

The primary cause for concern around absenteeism relates to two major education milestones: 3rd grade promotion and high school graduation. More states than ever require students to be proficient readers before they can be promoted from 3rd grade, and every absence denies students essential instruction and practice. Data analysis from the University of Utah found chronically absent middle schoolers were up to 7.4 times more likely to drop out of school.


How to shift parents’ beliefs about attendance

Educators understand early habits set the trend for the rest of a child’s educational career, but parents are more likely to discount the importance of attendance in early grades, according to analysis from Robinson, et. al. 

Without guidance from the school, parents often overestimate the number of days classmates have missed and minimize their own child’s absences, estimating about half the days they’ve actually missed (on average 9.6 days estimated vs. 17.8 days actual, according to a study by Todd Rogers).

These two studies from Robinson and Rogers, both from the Harvard Kennedy School, are closely related. Both analyzed previous research and completed new studies, including surveys of parents receiving “nudge” letters—personalized letters showing information about their child’s absences.
  • The first group of parents were reminded of the importance of attendance, but not shown any specific data. 
  • A second group showed parents attendance data for their own child only
  • The most effective version not only showed data about the individual child, but also compared the child’s record with other students’ absences. 
The mailers helped correct misconceptions and explain the importance of K–12 attendance. Interestingly, Rogers found parents in the first group continued to underestimate their child’s absence record by 50% (about 6.1 days) compared to parents who received personalized, comparative attendance data about their child’s attendance.

Perhaps most importantly, students whose parents received letters were between 8% and 15% less likely to be chronically absent than those who did not receive any attendance letters at all. Imagine the impact in actual days of instruction across a school system, a state, or a country.


Why the comparison nudge works

A component of behavioral psychology, the “nudge” refers to a method of organizing choices to alter behavior in a predictable way, without eliminating options or changing incentives (for further reading, here’s a deeper analysis of its role in policy). 

The nudge changes biases, challenges routines and habits, and redefines boundaries of acceptable behavior. In the case of attendance letters, the personalized, comparative letter creates a choice based on new information and gives a particular social context to the choice. 

Parents are still perfectly free to excuse or ignore their children’s attendance problems, but knowing their kid is falling behind peers may be all they need to act. In some cases, the nudge helps move parents toward collaborating on a solution—this might be as simple as planning family vacations during summer months, or something more unique. One parent worked with her daughter’s school to create an attendance accommodation to balance other family scheduling obligations. Her daughter now insists on arriving at school early and proudly works as a hallway monitor for the hour before school begins.


Automating nudge letters

Research tells us sending nudge letters for attendance works. Allocating resources for letters may be a tougher task. The cost in both Harvard studies referenced was low—no more than $6.60 per household in the study by Rogers—but until recently the amount of data work required to share accurate attendance stats was an obstacle. 

The good news is most modern student information systems have the capability to automate the process, eliminating most manual analysis. Data is automatically filled in through merge fields depending on the content different groups need to see, and comparative attendance trends are available at any administrator's fingertips.

Nudge letters get the personalized message out to parents about the importance of attendance. The research tells us it works. The math tells us it's cheap. Technology tells us it's automated. With no obstacles left on the table, the only question left is, "Why wait?" 


Follow-up resource: Addressing chronic absenteeism

Learn more about the risks and challenges kids face when they miss too much school—and more ways to fix attendance rates in 3 Ways to Treat Chronic Absenteeism.


Erin Werra Erin Werra Attendance Analyst
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