FAQ: “Absences are KILLING my PBL. HELP!”

FAQ: “Absences are KILLING my PBL. HELP!”

It happens to everyone eventually: You’ve spent weeks planning this PBL unit. The kids are set up and ready. You have a guest coming in to do the launch event. It’s gonna be a BIG DEAL that will not only drive the learning for the next few weeks, but you know kids will talk about this launch for years! And the day comes, and sure enough, 2 kids are gone. GRR.

Or you’ve got a kid who is just gone a lot. Absent for 2 days of every single week and their group-mates are having to work overtime to get the work done, being a partner short. *And* they’re beginning to grumble that this kid better not get the same grade as them…  

Uh huh. You’ve been there. You’ve taken a walk into the PBL realm. You’ve seen it. What do we do?

That’s the focus of this blog post today! Let’s dig in!


I’m busier than ever, working with educators who are bridging from projects into the realm of Project Based Learning. My heart is full! But so are my FAQ files. And that’s good news for you, my friends! This blog is most often focused on sharing ideas surrounding PBL and today’s post is no different.

Recently, I was challenged by a whole school who is doing a terrific job of embracing beginner-level PBL and quickly moving into the experienced-level, asking smarter, more nuanced questions. Nearly every teacher I visited with that day asked about how to handle the situation when kids are absent. Some students are only gone for a day, but there’s a good deal of chronically-absent students. And that’s a problem (and one of the reasons they’re moving to PBL — to hopefully increase engagement).

So if you’re finding yourself in a similar fix, keep reading!

The Problem: Our kids aren’t coming to school. 

My Question: Why aren’t they coming?

  • Is it because they don’t see a purpose to school? They’re not connected to the content or use of their time? Or …
  • Is there something going on at home (or elsewhere) that’s taking precedence in their lives? Is there some trauma they’re experiencing? Or have experienced? Are they lacking a strong connection with a teacher or someone at school (or elsewhere) deeply enough to help pull them through those daily realities back into a healthy regulated routine?
    Yes, yes, we connect with all kids…but do they connect with us? 

This type of absenteeism is not a PBL issue. This is a trauma-informed and resiliency issue and it won’t go away, no matter how well we’re using PBL, unless we address that first. Let me know if you’d like some help developing resiliency in “those students.” I’m connected with some pretty smart folks who are helping teachers help kids, daily.


You say that’s not the problem for you? Ok. Let’s take the next step:

The Problem: The reason our kids are missing school is because of illness or family month-long (or week-long) vacations. Or they’re just gone a day or two here a month.

My PBL Answer: I’d still take a look at the above building-resiliency model first, but let’s assume the school/class has a working and effective relationship-building structure in place. We’re assuming this question is less about kids being disconnected and more about the mechanics of absences. Gotcha! Here we go!


PBL and Absences, aka “What do we do for those who aren’t in our classes during our PBL unit?”

The Good News? PBL is actually a good thing to have in place for kids and teachers when it comes to absences. The student-led structure actually makes things easier when we’re in the middle of a PBL unit during an absence than if we’re just doing traditional lessons. Let’s explore why:

  • Great PBL brings kids’ interests to the surface and heightens engagement so they’ll want to miss less. Partner that with resiliency-building work, and your absentee issues will most likely fade away.
  • Great PBL mimics what happens beyond the 4 walls of school when we’re absent from work. Life keeps churning and no one hands us our work to do once we get back. We have to go find it, often with some available support once we started seeking out what we missed. And this support is often based on a larger goal our team at work is trying to accomplish over time. It’s rarely a daily, externally-assigned task that we miss. 
  • Great PBL puts the ability and interest to be personally responsible in the kid’s realm of control. 

So asking kids to work with partners on a larger task, we’re helping students develop a personal system for knowing how and wanting to seek out their gaps. Kids learn to say to themselves, “I’ve been gone? No problem! Check in with my group-mates!”

  • What did they accomplish while I was gone?
  • What did I accomplish while I was gone?
  • What needs to be done right now? …for long-term?
  • What work can I pick up to help carry the slack so the group is ready for the big event? I might get to work double-time for a bit.
  • We are all accountable to one another and we’ll all go down if one person doesn’t carry the load to the best of our ability. We each may carry a different load, but that all should carry all we’re able to. 

You like these questions? Would you like to have them in a pretty, ready to print and hang format? Click the pic below to download your own free hi-res copy to use in your classroom.

Download this free poster with a click!

The teacher will likely need to walk through this process with groups a few times before it becomes internalized as “just how we operate now.” They may also need to help negotiate the “re-entry” to group work, especially if the student coming back isn’t up to 100% speed yet (recovering from flu, for instance).

Consider hanging this poster in your room as a quick reminder for a returning student. “You’ve been gone and you’re back now? Yay! Glad to have you back. We missed you. If you’re not sure what you need to do to catch up, check out that poster first.”

So what does this process accomplish for the student?

    • Internal motivation within the absent student
    • External, personalized accountability through facing the group’s expectations
    • Time management recognition and skills
    • Asks kids to consider one another’s strengths and realities, borne through empathy and communication.
    • Task and materials management practice without teacher (or parent) hand-holding

But what about those of us who are dealing with chronic absenteeism? Can we still use PBL with them?

The response depends absolutely upon the student’s situation. Why is this chronic absenteeism happening? Unfortunately, there’s not a technical solution to this adaptive problem. We do have to take it case by case. And if we start to see a common trend developing, then we can make *some* assumptions about many, but not all, of the chronic absentee situations.

  • Trauma/Poverty issues: How do we get the kid to make a connection with at least one adult? To me, this challenge is way more immediately important than the “will they remember my curriculum” question.  
  • Illness: how do we help the kid progress academically while still fighting physical battles? So let’s do that. Can they do an independent PBL learning experience? If so, cool. Set it up. If not, then what’s the best way to keep them progressing? Then let’s do that.
  • Apathy: How do we get the kid to make a connection with at least one adult at the school? How do we re-frame learning to fit the kid where they are? How do we build a connection to learning what they are interested in first, regardless of set curriculum? How do we put our curriculum into their interests FIRST? How do we build trust with that kid? How do we bolster the parents’ efforts? Tackle at least one of these questions, based on which will likely bring the kid forward. Shoving our curriculum harder is NOT going to open up interest. Start with the crack you see and let’s get in that way. 
  • Something else? Why is THIS kid not coming to school? And blaming others isn’t an answer that will lead to a solution.


BUT — when absences actually are a HARD thing

Sure, I’ve tossed out some easy answers and places to start when a kid just misses a day or more. We know what to do when a kid misses a day during the unit (group check in poster, above). We also know what to do when there are bigger issues at play. But barring the bigger-picture issues, what happens when a kid misses a launch day. Or a final presentation day. How do we manage that mess — because that is TRULY a mess!


Missing a launch or final presentation

Sometimes a kid is absent during a critical point, such as during the launch event or during the final presentations. Most any other time can be dealt with using the above strategies/questions. But inevitably, there’s a student or two gone during a launch. UGH.

How do you catch them up on the excitement, the urgency, the mission that was so carefully crafted to elicit a specific response? Would you video the launch, knowing you have kids gone? Would you rely on the other students to convey the needs later? Maybe someone can Facetime the student? Can you catch the kid up when they come back? You know launches are so specifically designed, so depending on the kid and the situation, decide what the best way to catch him/her up would be. 

Or maybe they’re gone during a final presentation. How will their group get their voice included? How would we be included during a sick day for a 10 minute presentation at work when we have a vital role? Skype? Zoom? Maybe it’s not possible. Maybe the kid is too sick or there’s been something catastrophic or just consuming and they can’t. What will the group do to recover? Would they wait to present? Sometimes. But most times, that’s not an option. Could they build in fail-safes and info back-ups, during their work so missing a player during the key game, while crippling, isn’t defeating? Be the voice of potential doom before that situation ever happens so students won’t be caught unawares that this possibility, while rare, might still happen. And it will. And they’ll freak out. And that’s a perfect moment that seals a learning opportunity. 

I had a student whose mom had a migraine on the presentation day of a VERY important, months-long PBL unit. For a variety of reasons, she was unable to get him to school. Yet he was important to his group. Literally, $10,000 of real money was on the line for this group of 7th graders. They saw he was absent. They texted him. He felt so bad for missing the presentation (totally not his fault), but the kids regrouped and told me they’d be Skyping him in for his part. We mic’d up the tech to make it happen and the group presented, despite the troubles. This was not a first-year PBL student group. They were used to managing hurdles and had a solution for themselves, even before I realized what a problem they were facing. Because of their experience with a student-led learning environment, they already had the skills and the tools in their repertoire to solve real problems and swiftly moved themselves forward. 

And your kids can too.

What have I missed? Or maybe you have a question. Let me know what you’d like a little help with on the daily realities of Project Based Learning!

You’re looking to support PBL in your school and community? The daily practicalities are precisely the stumbling blocks where new-to-PBL teachers decide that PBL isn’t for them and with over 13 years of K12 PBL experience, I can help navigate and knock flat those pesky daily hurdles.


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Written by GingerLewman

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