Aboriginal Students and Absenteeism

Presentation of Literature Review Findings


This school year, I have worked in a school with a predominantly Aboriginal population. Three quarters of my students are Aboriginal, and I have discovered large attendance issues with these students. Students are usually absent at least one day a week, and these absences are often unexplained and unexcused. When students are in attendance, they often arrive at noon, this means they miss out on half a day of curriculum, including Language Arts, which happens in the morning each day. This has greatly impacted these students academic performance, as well as their engagement with the class. I have found that variables that often attract students to the school system have not worked with these students, and it has left teachers with difficult planning and not enough time to cover all required curriculum in a year.

Research Questions

Is there a difference between Aboriginal students’ and Non-Aboriginal students’ absenteeism rates?

What factors affect Aboriginal students absenteeism

Aboriginal vs. Non-Aboriginal Student Absenteeism

Romero & Lee (2007) quantitatively examined chromic school absences in the lower grades. A significant level of absenteeism was found, particularly among low-income families. In Canada, Aboriginal people have incomes well below their non-Aboriginal equivalents (Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future, 2015). American Aboriginal students were found to have the highest absenteeism rates, and while attendance improved gradually as students continued through grades, Aboriginal students still missed, on average, twice as many school days as their same-aged peers (Romero & Lee, 2007) (De Plevitz, 2007). Bourke & Rigby (2000) found that Aboriginal students in Australia attended elementary school 84% of the time, while Non-Aboriginal students attended 93% of the time. This is a significant discrepancy, made even more alarming when looking at secondary school statistics. Aboriginal students attendance drops to 75% of the time, while Non-Aboriginal secondary school students’ attendance only drops to 90% (Bourke & Rigby, 2000). It is clear that Aboriginal students attendance results from “significant education, income, health and social disparities between Aboriginal people and other Canadians” (Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future, 2015).

There are also disparities between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal students’ absentences beyond simply the rate. Aboriginal students’ attendances are less likely to be explained, while Non-Aboriginal students are more likely to provide a note to excuse their absences (Bourke & Rigby, 2000). Aboriginal students are more likely to be absent for disciplinary reasons (Bourke & Rigby, 2000). These issues with attendance and absences extend and affect Aboriginal students graduation rates. While high school graduation rates for Aboriginal students has improved in recent years (Ledoux, 2006), the areas with the lowest levels of success in the education system, are the communities with the most descendants of residential school survivors, these groups have a high school graduation rate of 41% and under (Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future, 2015). This is clearly at odds with the statistics for Non-Aborginal people: 15% of Non-Aboriginal adults have not completed high school, while 34% of Aboriginal adults have not (Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future, 2015). Bourke & Rigby (2000) found that Aboriginal students had higher absenteeism rates in areas where the percentage of Aboriginal students was higher, compared to areas where the proportion of Aboriginal students was low.

Factors that Increase Absenteeism

Regular attendance is considered a necessity for student achievement (Hellner, 2007) (Barlow & Fleischer, 2011). There are several factors that have been found to increase Aboriginal students’ absenteeism rates. These are mobility (Aman, 2008), lack of engagement with the school system (Ledoux, 2006), a lack of over-arching policy for absenteeism (Snyder et al., 2014) (Barlow & Fleischer, 2011) (Flannery, Frank & Kato, 2012), and systemic factors (Bourke & Rigby, 2000) (Taylor, 2010).

Aboriginal students have high levels of mobility (Aman, 2008). Mobility between schools and school districts interrupts regular attendance, and also disrupts the engagement of the student with the school, peers and teachers (Aman, 2008). A negative relationship has been shown between student mobility and their academic achievement (Fowler-Finn, 2001).

For years, Aboriginal perspectives have been missing from curricula (Ledoux, 2006). When Aboriginal perspectives are included, they are often not culturally relevant, or insensitive to Aboriginals learning styles (Ledoux, 2006) (Kearns & Anuik, 2015) (Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future, 2015). Education has been used to oppress Aboriginal peoples, culturally, economically, and socially (British Columbia Human Rights Commission, 2001); this has created negative attitudes towards the education system, which continue to this day (Ledoux, 2006). Teachers are often met unprepared for Aboriginal students, and are uneducated in ways to include Aboriginal perspectives (Kearns & Anuik, 2015). All these factors combine to decrease student engagement with the school system, and decrease motivation to attend (Student engagement and attendance, n.d.).

Snyder et al. (2014) found that there was an impact of mandatory attendance policies on student absenteeism, as well as student academic performance. When Aboriginal students absenteeism was examined, it was found that student had an overall recidivism rate of 66% in regards to absenteeism. This absenteeism recidivism rate rose to 86% when the response to the unexplained absence was conferencing, 67% with a detention, 60% with an in school suspension, and 67% with an out of school suspension (Flannery et al., 2012). This shows that the responses to unexplained absences that work for Non-Aboriginal students, do not work with Aboriginal students, and if educators are to encourage attendance, they need to find new policies.

Finally, systemic factors are a clear barrier to the school attendance of Aboriginal students (Taylor, 2010). The level of education of students’ parents contributes to students attendance rates, parents with a low level of education are often unable to assist their children with school requirements, and provide a low level of support (Bourke & Rigby, 2000). The language of instruction within schools is primarily English, leaving Aboriginal students and their parents feeling rejection on the basis of the language spoken (Bourke & Rigby, 2000). Standardized testing has been found culturally biased, leaving Aboriginal students feeling unsuccessful (De Plevitz, 2007), which in turn decreases their engagement and interest in regular attendance. Aboriginal people suffer widespread racism and socio-economic barriers to their success, students feel the affects of these barriers, which contribute to their poor attendance rates (Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future, 2015).

Factors that Increase Attendance

There are several factors that have been found to increase Aboriginal students’ school attendance, however not all of these factors will work for all Aboriginal students, nor will they all work on their own. These factors include early intervention (Bourke & Rigby, 2000), switching to a culturally appropriate school year (NWT Education Renewal, 2014), changing and introducing new curriculum to make education accessible and engaging for Aboriginal students (Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future, 2015), and reflect and address absenteeism as part of a larger issue of social exclusion (Taylor, 2010).

Deh Gah School in Fort Providence, NWT in 2010 altered their school year to one where students attend classes throughout the year with breaks built in to allow students to stay connected with their heritage and culture (Thompson, 2010). Results of the study show more interest from students, better attendance, greater parent satisfaction, as well as more opportunity for students to go out on the land to learn about their heritage and culture. It has also allowed for longer periods of time away from school throughout the year (NWT Education Renewal, 2014). This also gives teachers more opportunities to visit home, as they are often from other provinces or territories. This increases teacher satisfaction, and encourages teacher retention (NWT Education Renewal, 2014). A link has been found between teacher attendance and student attendance, showing that students attend more often when teachers attend, and vice versa (Banerjee et al., 2012).

As previously mentioned, students learning a curriculum that is not culturally engaging often results in increased absenteeism (Bourke & Rigby, 2000), to combat this affect, curricula that teaches Aboriginal culture in an appropriate, engaging, and historically significant way needs to be developed and made mandatory. When students are learning curriculum that is meaningful, they are more engaged, and the link between engagement and attendance is clear. This curriculum must not only include knowledge of Aboriginal people in Social Studies, and History, but also integrate this knowledge into all subjects to make it applicable, and worthwhile for all students (Bourke & Rigby, 2000). First Nations language education must also be part of the curriculum, as many First Nations parents consider their children learn their Indigenous language more important than learning English or French (Ball, 2012). Not only will these changes draw students into schools, as their learning is culturally and personally meaningful, it will also encourage parents to increase their children’s attendance. For many Aboriginal parents, schools were a place where they or their relatives were forced to assimilate and lose their culture (Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future, 2015), educators need to show change is in monitor, and that Aboriginal traditions, knowledge and language have a respected place within Canadian schools in order to gain the support that both the schools and the students so desperately need.

Limitations of the Literature Currently Available

Research on Aboriginal students absenteeism within Canada is surprisingly limited. There is a great deal of research done on Aboriginal students and truancy, however the majority has been completed on Australian Aboriginal students. Results have often indicated that knowing attendance and absenteeism data is important, and that absenteeism is connected with low academic performance. However there appears to be little research on why absenteeism issues exist amongst Canadian Aboriginal students, and how it can be altered.

In the cases of research that has been done on Canadian Aboriginal students, students are often lumped together into one group as “Aboriginal”. This allows individuals to generalize research, but many Aboriginal groups see themselves as separate entities rather than one group (Kearns & Anuik, 2015). To truly understand absenteeism within schools, we need to differentiate between First Nations, Metis, Aboriginal and Inuit students, as the factors that affect each one likely vary. Further research in this area, would offer guidance for schools on providing programs and initiatives to address student absenteeism.

A report written for the Analysis and Equity Branch of the Department of Education Training and Youth Affairs in Australia in 2000, found that Indigenous Students absenteeism was often attributed to “out of school” factors, while ignoring the “in-school” factors that affected and contributed to students attendance (Bourke & Rigby, 2000). Data on particular obstacles to Canadian Aboriginal student success is not regularly collected and reported, this discrepancy in the data, also includes data about absenteeism (Friesen & Krauth, 2012).


It is clear that Aboriginal students’ absenteeism is significantly higher than Non-Aboriginal students (Romero & Lee, 2007) (De Plevitz, 2007). Aboriginal students absences go unexplained more often, and can be linked to permeating cultural biases (Bourke & Rigby, 2000). Aboriginal students react differently to responses to absenteeism; often absenteeism rates increase as a result of these responses (Flannery et al., 2012). Absenteeism for these groups of students worsens with age (Ledoux, 2006). To intervene, educators need to set up early interventions, examine their school year to remove cultural barriers, and create and implement curriculum that is meaningful to Aboriginal students (Kearns & Anuik, 2015).