Nudging kids to school with Emily Bailard and Steven Masnajak

PodcastJanuary 17, 2022
podcast image - Nudging kids to school with Emily Bailard and Steven Masnajak

Before the pandemic, we saw about one in six students was chronically absent: missing 10% or more days. Now that number has grown . . . it’s about one in four, possibly even one in three.

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Intro

In this episode of the podcast, Brooke speaks to Emily Bailard and Steven Masnajak from Everyday Labs, an organization that applies behavioral science to improve student outcomes. They discuss the growing issue of chronic absenteeism in schools across the United States and how nudges and other behavioral interventions can be used to keep kids in school and engage with their families. Some of the things covered include:

  • What leads to chronic absenteeism and the barriers to effective school participation.
  • Its impact on student success, grade levels and the likelihood of progression to college.
  • How COVID exacerbated some of the underlying factors that lead to chronic absenteeism.
  • The role of nudges in engaging family members and communicating the importance of school participation.
  • Practical steps that teachers and education officials can take to make their student engagement policies more behaviorally informed and ultimately, more effective.

The conversation continues

TDL is a socially conscious consulting firm. Our mission is to translate insights from behavioral research into practical, scalable solutions—ones that create better outcomes for everyone.

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Key Quotes

How Absenteeism Affects Student Success

“We see those academic impacts show up throughout a student’s journey. So, as early as third grade, we see that it’s impacting their literacy levels. By middle school, we see that it’s impacting math scores and English language arts scores on tests, as well as GPA. And then by high school, we see that students who are chronically absent are seven times more likely to drop out and not complete high school. It’s also a leading indicator for students both enrolling in post-secondary and college and then completing college. So, it’s really the leading indicator of a student’s success.”

Barriers to Attendance

“Systemic barriers impact students in vulnerable communities and vulnerable students. Like for some students, their family responsibilities have shifted. They might have more childcare or eldercare responsibilities, for example, or work responsibilities, to be earning income to help support their family. They’re experiencing higher levels of illness. You also have what we sometimes think of as aversions. Students who are behind or struggling academically or maybe struggling behaviorally, are less likely to want to attend school. It can become a bit of a cycle.”

Personalising Nudges

“The ingredients of an effective nudge are to convey personal actionable information to the parent. It needs to be about their specific child, to share with them the number of absences that their child has accumulated, to explain to them why attendance is important and help make the connection to what their child is missing out on when they’re absent.”

The Trouble With Basing Interventions on Social Norms

“It is demotivating if a student has too many absences and the average is not attainable. It’s also demotivating if the student is outperforming the average. We find that if we indicate that a student’s attendance is better than average, then their attendance will actually get worse. It’s demotivating. It’s like, “Oh, well, this seems like a pretty good time to maybe spend some quality time with family or doing other things.” So that’s one nuance that’s interesting.”

Getting to the Crux of the Issue

“What’s really critical with addressing absenteeism is the solution has to be aligned to the root cause of the absence, right? So, if you try to use the wrong solution blanket to address absenteeism, you’re not going to make an impact. In order to really do that, you need good data. Having clean data and using that band to identify trends and patterns specific to individual students, but also at a school and district level, is really critical because that’s when you start to see those individual barriers and systemic barriers, where they intersect and where they may not.”

Transcript

Brooke: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, the Research Director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guests today are Emily Bailard, CEO of EveryDay Labs, and her colleague, Steven Masnjak, Director of Marketing. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about nudges in education, the problems of absenteeism, using behavioral insights to keep kids in school, and building towards better futures for the next generation. Emily and Steve, thanks for joining us.

Emily: Thanks for having us, Brooke.

Steven: Yeah, thanks for having us on.

Brooke: Please tell us, what are the challenges in education that are keeping you up at night these days?

Emily: Well, I think for me, a big challenge that’s keeping me up at night is chronic absenteeism. So, we have an incredible number of students who are not regularly attending school right now. Unfortunately, these students are students who have fallen behind last year. So, they’re falling further behind this year. If we don’t address this, we’re not going to be able to help those students to catch up. So, it’s really critical to be able to act quickly to support these students.

Brooke: Yeah, Steve, anything you want to add to that?

Steven: Yeah, I would say adding to that, COVID just really exasperated a lot of the existing systemic inequities that were driving absenteeism. It seems like, rather than getting better this year, they’re actually getting worse. So, it’s like the train’s going off the tracks a little bit and we really need to think about how to get it back on track. I was just on a call with a district before this, and it’s a major district on the West Coast. They just had to cut 145 bus routes, because they lost so many bus drivers. The systems in place to get kids to school are eroding. Things in the classroom and conditions around feeling unsafe are also exasperating the issue.

Emily: Unfortunately, these systemic barriers and conditions that Steve is talking about are having a disproportionate impact on students in vulnerable communities and vulnerable students. There’s barriers that they’re facing like for some students, their family responsibilities have shifted. So, they might have more childcare or eldercare responsibilities, for example, or work responsibilities, to be earning income to help support their family. They’re experiencing higher levels of illness. COVID has had, obviously, an enormous impact. Also, these students and their families have experienced an incredible amount of trauma over the course of the last 18 months.

So, you have everything from those types of barriers and transportation, which Steve talked about. You also have what sometimes we think of as aversions. Students who are behind or struggling academically or maybe struggling behaviorally, are less likely to want to attend school. It can become a bit of a cycle. Also, school climate. School climates here, despite really important efforts of teachers and school staff, a lot of school climates are not as welcoming as they used to be or maybe weren’t as welcoming as they needed to be even prior to COVID. All of that is adding up to create this challenge, where we have more than double the rate nationally. The average is that twice as many students are chronically absent these years versus prior to the pandemic.

Brooke: Let’s dig into chronic absenteeism. As someone who went through high school, everyone misses some school here. I think it’s hard for me to necessarily have a clearer picture in my mind. When we talk about chronic absenteeism here, how much school do you have to miss to be defined as chronically absent? Where is the threshold where we start to see this becoming a problem?

Steven: It’s 10% of days enrolled for any reason. What differentiates chronic absence from truancy, which is the more typically understood term, is that chronic absence takes into account both excused and unexcused absence. The reason being that it’s a measure of learning loss, essentially, right? 10% is where you really start to see academic impacts. Actually, I’d say even before that, probably around 5%, you start to see impact. But 10% is really that cliff where it becomes drastic.

Emily: We see those academic impacts show up throughout a student’s journey. So, as early as third grade, we see that it’s impacting their literacy levels. By middle school, we see that it’s impacting math scores and English language arts scores on tests, as well as GPA. And then by high school, we see that students who are chronically absent are seven times more likely to drop out and not complete high school. It’s also a leading indicator for students both enrolling in post-secondary and college and then completing college. So, it’s really the leading indicator of student success.

Brooke: You talked about this threshold of 10%. Let’s try to break that down into really digestible terms. People listening who have kids in school, what does 10% look like? How many school days are there in a calendar year? How many days does that mean that you’re missing overall? How many days does that mean you’re missing in a given month? What does it look like?

Emily: It’s just a couple of days a month. So, as a parent, I have a third grader, Jane, and a kindergartener, William. What’s just really striking is that as a parent, your child might miss a couple days of school a month for a wide variety of reasons and it doesn’t feel like that much, but those days really add up to and as Steve said, that really equates to learning loss and can really impact their outcomes.

Brooke: Okay, and you talked about some of those impacts. So, they’re visible early on in reading scores and in math and language arts. They’re these predictors of really, really important outcomes that societally, I think we really care about, like tertiary education and employment, these kinds of things. So, what are the main causes of chronic absenteeism?

Steven: It’s actually pretty complex and that’s what makes it a challenging issue to tackle. It could be something like a student being bullied. It could be a health condition. It could be something like we talked about earlier, with transportation. It could be a lack of culturally relevant instruction, really not identifying with the learning happening in school. It really varies. Emily, I don’t know if you want to add that.

Emily: Yeah, no, you hit on a lot of the different categories. There are wide, wide ranging reasons. Some of these reasons are things that can be really challenging to address. So, for example, a student who’s living in poverty has a lot of systemic barriers that can result in chronic absenteeism, for example, or who’s housing insecure or food insecure. One thing that the research has surfaced in the past few years that was somewhat surprising to many is that there’s also another category that’s misconceptions. There’s a number of misconceptions that parents have, because attendance isn’t something that we spend a lot of time talking about.

For example, most parents understand that truancy is a bad thing but don’t connect the dots that if their child misses school, because they’re sick for a few days, that that would be a problem. There’s also again, like I said, two days a month just doesn’t feel like that much. So, most parents don’t realize that that’s impacting their child’s learning. Also, oftentimes, there’s a perception that attendance matters in high school, but doesn’t really matter in kindergarten and first grade. That can sometimes get in the way as well.

Brooke: That strikes me as the area where behavioral insights probably have a great opportunity to get some traction, right? So, you mentioned these more systemic challenges around transportation and busing, issues around housing insecurity and food insecurity. A good nudge can do a lot of good, but those are some pretty recalcitrant systemic issues to try to nudge, but these information gaps and awareness gaps, that seems like really, really fertile ground to take a behavioral approach. So, what are some of the social or cognitive dynamics that you’ve really seen driving these issues?

Emily: Yeah, so one of the things that’s again, more on the behavioral side of things… Well, first of all, one thing that we’ve seen just really clearly in the research is that by taking an asset-based view of parents and really focusing on empowering parents with information and equipping them with tools, they’re able to have a really positive impact on our student’s learning. So, other misconceptions that I didn’t mention are things that might be unfamiliar to a behavioral scientist. So, for example, the vast majority of parents believe that their child’s attendance is average or better than average, which we see across many different topics across the board.

In part, it’s because parents don’t have context. It’s not like we spend time chatting with other parents about our child’s attendance, so we have no sense of what’s normal. So, simply by providing a social norm, that can provide really powerful context and information to parents, as well as providing the social norm can also provide the nudging behavior that we see in other fields. We also see that parents lose track. So, again, this is something that is not unique to attendance or education, on average parents believe that their child has missed half as many days as they really have missed. That is recency bias and we forget about the things that have happened four or five months ago.

And then, finally, as a parent, I might notice that my third grader is struggling to do her math homework, but I’m not very likely to connect that to the fact that two weeks ago, she had to miss school for a couple days, because she was out sick. So, all of those are things that are, like you said, information gaps that we’re able to address.

Brooke: Right. So, that’s really helpful to have this clear example in mind of parents underestimating by a factor of two, how many days their child is actually out of school. What about on the social norm side? What are parents’ expectations about what a normal number of days of school to miss looks like? How does that compare to reality?

Emily: Yeah, I mean, it’s literally all over the place. What we really see is even parents of students who have an extremely high number of absences, so for example, who are missing 30+ days of school, believe that that’s about average. So, I think that what we’ve seen is that left to our own devices, parents believe that normal is what they see. Because we don’t spend time talking to each other about attendance, it’s really just based on their own personal experience.

Brooke: Right. What does the real average look like?

Emily: In most cases, the average number of absences is somewhere around five. This varies from community to community and school district to school district, but there’s an extraordinarily high percentage of students who actually have perfect attendance every year. So, that’s average. When we look at this measure, chronic absenteeism, so students who have missed at least 10% of days. Before the pandemic, nationally we saw about one in six students was chronically absent, missing 10% or more days. Now, that number has grown to the extent where it appears that it’s about one in four, possibly even one in three.

Brooke: Wow, considering the downstream impacts that we know to expect from that, that’s a pretty big burden societally, but also individually, for us to be carrying. What are some of the behavioral interventions that you’ve been trying out and that you’ve seen as offering the most promise?

Emily: Yeah, so probably the most promising behavioral intervention that we see is nudges. What it looks like is it’s a very specific nudge that works, as we’ve learned, as we’ve tested different types of nudges. So, the ingredients of an effective nudge are to convey personal actionable information to the parent. So, it needs to be about their specific child, to share with them the number of absences that their child has accumulated, to explain to them why attendance is important and help make the connection to what their child is missing out on when they’re absent, and then finally, by providing them with a social norm and showing them what average attendance looks like in their school within their grade level. So, that’s like the basics.

We learned there’s also a lot of nuances to that. Some of these things can be counterintuitive, which is why we are big proponents of testing, testing to learn. So, we run a lot of randomized control trials, both A/B test and measurement, controlled trials with a control group. 

A few of the interesting things we’ve found; one, providing a social norm is a really good idea except when it isn’t. So, it is demotivating if a student has too many absences and the average is not attainable. Again, this is something that we see in the literature in other types of areas as well. It’s also demotivating if the student is outperforming the average. So, we find that if we indicate that a student’s attendance is better than average, then their attendance will actually get worse. It’s demotivating. It’s like, “Oh, well, this seems like a pretty good time to maybe spend some quality time with family or doing other things.” So that’s one nuance that’s interesting.

Another thing that plays into that, there was an interesting study that our Co-Founder and Chief Scientist, Dr. Todd Rogers, did that showed that when you send perfect attendance certificates to high school students, that actually results in higher absences. So, again, praising attendance can sometimes backfire depending on how you do it. We also find that communicating about attendance today or attendance last week is nowhere near as effective as communicating about cumulative attendance.

Finally, this sounds a little crazy given that it’s 2021, but we find that text communication alone is not particularly effective for addressing absenteeism, whereas snail mail communication really is. One reason for that, if you think about it, is that text messages are pretty ephemeral. They’re really useful for driving in the moment one time action, especially if it’s a click through, like to actually do in the text. But when it comes to attendance, the behavior that we’re working on prompting is behavior change that’s not now or today. It’s three days from now or three weeks from now when a parent or the student runs into a challenge or a barrier.

Brooke: Right, so I just want to synthesize a few of the points that you made there. So, one, focusing on cumulative rather than in the moment or very recent attendance. The second is that there can be these kinds of unexpected effects around praising those who are already doing very well. They’ll start to regress towards the mean. You also mentioned for those who are way at the other end of the spectrum, if you set up an unattainable objective, it can backfire and make it really feel out of reach. I want to come back to that point in a moment. 

This last point that you made is a really interesting one. So, if the behavior that you’re looking to nudge is an ongoing behavior, you want to send a durable nudge. If the behavior is ephemeral or one time, you send a nudge that’s ephemeral or one time. You get the effect desired, and then it goes away. Let’s dive back into this group that is really missing a lot of class. For them getting back up to the average can feel unattainable, what nudges have you found are more successful and bringing them back into the fold?

Emily: So, with that group, as Steve talked about a little bit earlier, with that group, there’s a lot of different types of barriers that that group may be facing. So, what’s interesting about that group is that nudges are effective, but they’re not… I mean, nudges are one tool, they are not a silver bullet.

So, with that group, really what the goal is, is to be able to trigger a caring conversation between the family member and a teacher or support staff at the school, so that they can understand, “What are the challenges that the student may be facing, or what are the challenges that the family may be facing?”, and start working to address them. So, what we do with that group is, the goal is less about preventing absences and is more about trying to create that conversation. Really, the goal is for the parent or family member to be able to call.

Brooke: So here, you’re pivoting into something a little bit different. It sounds like what we’ve been talking about up until now is that the endpoint that we’re measuring towards is the actionable element or what it is that we want people to do in response to the nudge is to reduce discretionary absences. But now, it sounds like there’s a second problem that we’re talking about which is related, of course, but it’s a different problem. That’s non-discretionary absences, ones that are structurally enforced by elements of the system that just make it really, really hard for these students to participate in school.

So, let’s shift gears a little bit because we’re talking now about a different problem. I gather here, as Steve mentioned earlier, there’s a different subset of the problem. It’s not just chronic absenteeism. Here, we’re talking about real attendance gaps, that there are certain groups and certain communities, who are structurally disadvantaged in terms of their ability to participate in the education system, their ability to be present in that learning environment. So, let’s shift now to those attendance gaps and start to unpack once again, what are the major causes of attendance gaps distinct from chronic absenteeism for these discretionary reasons?

Emily: Yes, so, again, I mean, they can be very wide ranging. So, some examples are some of the things that Steve spoke about that can lead to disengagement, like lack of culturally responsive instruction, when students don’t have meaningful relationships to adults within the school, lack of enrichment opportunities, other things that might be impacting a single student like when a student is struggling academically or behaviorally or they’re being bullied or experiencing other social and peer challenges and sometimes, an undiagnosed disability or disability accommodations that aren’t sufficient.

And then there are other types of systemic barriers. Steve mentioned poor transportation or housing and food insecurity or insufficient access to needed services and being sick or health conditions. So, those are just some of the examples.

Steven: Yeah. I think, like Emily mentioned earlier, usually, historically underserved communities are the ones that disproportionately feel those effects, right? It’s for all those reasons Emily just mentioned. Those issues tend to compound in areas of poverty or low income.

Emily: It’s rarely one of those things. What you often find with a student who’s severely chronically absent is that there are many of those challenges that they’re facing or that their family is facing.

Brooke: Yeah, so you have this intersection of challenges and they’re all densely tied up together. Okay. So, in this case, the endpoint that we’re looking to address here or rather the journey that we want to catalyze, is engaging with the school to start to identify and address, to the extent possible, some of these systemic issues. So, if that’s really the endpoint then, what are some of the social or cognitive dynamics that create barriers to that engagement?

Emily: Well, one category is that doing really strong family engagement is tough. It’s not as simple as just sending email communication home. It’s about building real relationships with families. That’s something that is very doable, but is hard to do and looks different from ‘business as usual’ in most cases. So, helping school staff learn how to do that is one thing. From looking at the research and literature, there are a few interventions that do show promise with this group and they’re considered tier three interventions or deeper interventions.

One example is home visiting. So, having a practice of going and visiting a student and their family in their own home is something that can get around some of these barriers and help develop a real relationship with the family. You’re showing up. Showing up shows that you care. It also can help get around some of the more logistical barriers of school. School is not set up to accommodate the life of families, typically, right? So, your hours of communication are limited. They might not dovetail with work hours. Transportation and how to get there can be challenging.

So, a lot of those types of barriers to family engagement can be overcome by something like home visiting. Another somewhat promising practice, there’s mixed evidence on this, but a promising practice is some forms of one-on-one mentorship with a student, which also can help to be an entry point to better understanding some of these barriers and then working to address them.

Brooke: So, it sounds like a lot of it is around trust and establishing the trust that facilitates those kinds of conversations from happening.

Steven: Yeah, relational trust is really the critical piece there. Again, especially in a lot of the communities that are disproportionately impacted by chronic absence, a lot of those families didn’t have great school experiences when they were in school. So, it’s generational. It can be really hard to unstick a problem like that without trust.

Brooke: Yeah, yeah, for sure. So, let’s shift gears now again a little bit and start talking about the impact of these interventions at scale or what it looks like to scale these up. So, compared to other interventions that are candidates out there in the space, how difficult is it, how expensive is it, to roll out the kinds of interventions that you’re talking about? Let’s start with the discretionary interventions that we were talking about before, that are more around norm setting? How does one go about setting that up? How complicated is it? How expensive is it to run all that kind of thing?

Emily: So, the good news on this one is that it’s the foundational place to start, because it’s very inexpensive, relatively speaking. So, on an average, it costs less than $10 per absence prevented to do the nudge work. So, that’s the really good news. Also, it’s highly scalable, because you’re able to reach all students district wide, whether it’s a small district or even across very large systems with hundreds of thousands of students. 

The bad news is that… First of all, communication about attendance and about absences is a good thing and a really good place to start. But when it comes to the nudges, there are some nuances and complexities that can make it challenging for schools to take this on themselves. So, for example, the timing of the nudges is really important. If you send out the nudge right before a vacation, for example, it doesn’t end up having an effect. The content of the nudge is really important. The example that we shared earlier, if you share the social comparison, that’s really motivating for some students and really demotivating for others. 

That’s actually the reason that EveryDay Labs, that we exist as a company, is because Dr. Rogers, when he first developed this intervention, he first worked to help a couple districts to implement it themselves. They found that they just didn’t have the capacity to be able to do it with the right content with the right timing, et cetera, for it to be most effective. Unlike some of these other interventions that we’re about to talk about, it’s something that can absolutely be outsourced. So, we want school staff to be focused on building meaningful relationships with families, not printing out a bunch of letters and customizing them and stuffing them into envelopes and getting them out. That is just not the best use of their time.

Brooke: Yeah, for sure. Before we move on from there, you mentioned about $10 per absence avoided. How does that compare to other alternatives out there in the ecosystem?

Emily: So, the one-to-one mentoring, the best research on it, there’s a couple of randomized controlled trials, ballparks it at about $100 per absence prevented. So, it’s a step change in terms of resourcing. And then the estimates for the home visiting are similar. Oftentimes, the educators we work with are working with multi-tiered systems of supports, where you have your tier one based interventions that are for everybody that are highly cost effective and then your tier two interventions for students that are at risk and then your tier three interventions that are more expensive and more resource intensive, but also the most appropriate for the students who are struggling the most and need the most support.

So, those more expensive interventions are best reserved for those tier three situations. Whereas nudges and also work on school climate, some of the things we mentioned, are things that are within the control of the school, like culturally responsive curriculum and working to improve school climate, make school a welcoming place. There’s another example called ‘Breakfast Before the Bell’, so offering free breakfast to all students, but to get free breakfast, you need to be there obviously. There haven’t yet been randomized control trials on it, but there’s some promising evidence that it’s effective. So, those are the types of things that are less expensive, great tier one interventions.

Brooke: Yeah. So, it sounds like a lot of the work that you’re doing is about really optimizing those tier one interventions, making sure that for the people who are going to benefit the most, it’s really crafted in the way to get the most bang for your buck. For those students who could potentially have a negative reaction to the nudge, for instance, or to use that language, we dial it back and take a different approach. So, really leaning into making it work as best they can, where it will work, but also identifying those other cases where it’s going to be less effective or potentially not effective at all and using those to prioritize other resources. Is that about the right picture?

Emily: Yeah, with one addition. For the students who are experiencing severe levels of chronic absenteeism, the nudges are actually still effective. It’s just that the purpose of the nudge becomes more about sparking the request for help or making help easier to navigate. 

So, for example, we layer different communication modes. One thing that we’ve built into the text version of our nudges, for example, is a support bot and we also have a family support team, where one of the main purposes of it is to both offer help and support to try to solicit the questions and the barriers from parents and then to help them navigate, because it’s sometimes really hard to know where to go. So, actually, in some survey research that we’ve done, we found that over 30% of parents of high-absence students didn’t know where to go to find support. So, that is something that we can address with a nudge to then help enable them to get the help that they need.

Brooke: Yeah. So, let’s talk about the impact of these. So, you talked about just now, parents of really disengaged students. saying about 30% of them really just don’t know where to go to access resources that are available to them and to get the support that they might find at the school through the kinds of interventions, we’ve been talking about, home visiting and one-to-one mentorship. How much can we bring down that 30% figure?

Emily: Yeah, I mean, that’s something that we don’t know yet, but I think, our hypothesis is, that there’s certainly room for improvement. There’s certainly room to provide support more easily. Another thing that the same survey found that also gets into the behavioral science principle of simplification is that twice as many parents of high absent students than lower absent students said that they wanted to receive more communication from their schools and that the communication they received was confusing. As any parent might know, I mean, my experience with school communication has certainly been that. It’s very typically, a lovely email from our school principal that has an action that’s buried in the middle of paragraph five, that is just really hard to find.

If you think about it, there’s a few barriers there. First of all, it’s an email. That email address might not work for me anymore or I might not be able to check it regularly or it might be one of 100 emails that’s there. So, I might miss it. We find a similar reach challenge with text. So, with text, particularly later in the school year, we find that phone numbers are out of date for a large number of students, particularly students living in low income households, where phone numbers can change pretty regularly over the course of a year. So, there’s this reach problem.

The second problem is just simplification. We find in all of our testing that cutting words, using formatting to highlight the key message and the action, all of that matters. So, there’s a large part of this that can be addressed and improved by simply doing a better job of communicating with parents. Steve, you want to add there?

Steven: So not really add, but I think that talking about impact, I don’t think we’ve touched on it yet that our nudge program is actually proven to reduce chronic absenteeism by 10 to 15%. So, while it doesn’t seem like a huge number, considering the complexity of the issue of chronic absence, it actually is quite an impact and frees up staff and educators to do the work that’s needed to do that’s more intensive. So, like a baseline impact, right? And then you can do the work that makes greater and greater impact.

Brooke: Yeah. So, let’s walk that storyline through a little bit. So, we talked earlier about how one-sixth of students were chronically absent. Now, in COVID times, maybe a quarter, maybe a third. It’s hard to know exactly what the figure is. So, if the stuff that you just shared with us, that 10 to 15% of that problem can be taken care of with these tier one nudges, is that what you’re talking about specifically, those tier one nudges around discretionary absences and norm setting and this kind of thing?

So, if we’re thinking about 10 to 15% of the absenteeism problem, if we’re talking about a quarter of all students and 10% of them, we’re talking about 2.5%. If it’s 15%, then slightly more or so, 3%-ish of all students in the country. Now, how many millions of students are there across the United States? So applied at scale, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of individuals who could really be benefiting from this.

Emily: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Brooke: So, on that very aspirational note of there’s so much potential to scale this thing up and to increase the impact of these kinds of approaches and these kinds of programs, for a teacher or a principal or a school administrator or someone working in a Department of Education somewhere, who’s listening to this and saying, “Oh, my gosh, this finally sounds something that can help me to get traction on this problem that’s been so recalcitrant.” One of the most useful first steps that they can take tomorrow morning to start actually taking some action on the insights that you’ve been sharing with us today?

Emily: I’ll name a few  Steve, I’m curious to hear your list too. So, the first one is to shift focus, to make sure that we’re addressing and not ignoring students who are at risk of becoming chronically absent. Especially this year when there are twice as many students that are experiencing severe chronic absenteeism, that’s where all the focus often is, with very good reason. But by carving out a percentage of your day or your week or your team’s time to also be looking at the students that are at risk, that can have a huge impact of preventing students from slipping into becoming chronically absent.

Another place to start and one great tactic is a phone call home when a student is absent. Instituting a home visiting program is another great place to start. Those take more resourcing obviously, both of those things, but they can be hugely powerful. Something takes a lot less resourcing is taking a look at how you’re currently communicating about absences and to work to adjust it to make sure that you’re trained to be specific about how many absences the student has had, communicate about cumulative absences, and then also, really making the connection between the why attendance matters and also, what’s the impact on a student when they miss school.

And then finally, looking for opportunities to simplify wherever possible in communication, so take every piece of communication and cut the words in half, look at making it accessible, so try to bring the reading level down to a fourth grade reading level. Strategies like that are another good place to start. And then finally, really looking at family engagement practices and looking for opportunities to develop more meaningful relationships with families. Steve, what would you add to that or sharpen?

Steven: I think those are all right on, Emily. I think the other thing that’s really critical with addressing absenteeism is the solution has to be aligned to the root cause of the absence, right? So, if you try and use the wrong solution blanket to address absenteeism, you’re not going to make an impact. In order to really do that, you need good data.

So, I think really having clean data and using that band to identify trends and patterns specific to individual students, but also at a school and district level is really critical, because that’s when you start to see those individual barriers and systemic barriers, where they intersect and where they may not. I also think it’s not just the quantitative data, right? It’s the qualitative data and that’s what you get through those relationships and really coming to know your students and family. So, that’s why family engagement is so critical.

Emily: So, if you’re talking to the school staff member, if you don’t have access to data that allows you to tier your students and understand, “Which of the students that are missing more than 20% of school days so far? Which of the students that have missed 10 to 20%? Which of the students are missing 5 to 10%?”, go get that data, because that is absolutely the starting point of enabling you to decide which students to prioritize and what interventions will be the best starting point.

Brooke: Right, that’s super helpful. I think it’s very concrete and tangible. So, thanks for sharing that. Thanks for sharing your time and your insights today. This has been a really, really excellent conversation, really helpful to understand the problem that we’re trying to grapple with here, and to offer some meaningful solutions. So, thanks for the work that you’re doing and thanks for sharing about that.

Emily: Thank you for the opportunity. One shameless plug before we leave, if any of your listeners are interested in learning more, come to everydaylabs.com. We’re happy to have a conversation with anyone who’d be interested in potentially working with us.

Brooke: For sure. For anyone who’s listening, if you want to find the link to that, you can find it in the transcript of the episode on our website. Emily and Steve, thanks again very much and looking forward to speaking to you again soon.

Emily: Yeah, thank you. Thank you, Brooke, for shining a spotlight on such a really critical issue. We really appreciate it.

Brooke: For sure.

Steven: Thank you for having us. It’s been great.

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About the Guests

Emily Bailard

Emily Bailard

Emily Bailard is the CEO of Everyday Labs, an organization dedicated to the improvement of student outcomes through the power of behavioral science, data science, and family to 2015 she was the Director of Product Marketing, Energy Efficiency and Demand Response at Opower, growing the company’s core residential energy efficiency business and implementing new behavioral demand response and commercial energy efficiency products. She holds a B.A in Political Science from Yale University and an MBA from Stanford.

Steven Masnajak

Steven Masnajak

Steven Masnjak is the VP of Marketing at Everyday Labs. In this role he leads branding, communications, and integrated marketing strategy with a focus on hyper-growth and client success. Prior to joining Everyday Labs, he was a Senior Strategic Marketing Manager at Scholastic, a leading children’s publishing, education and media company. Steven graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Director, Research

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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