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Addressing the Growing Crisis of Struggling Native American Students

21 min read
Jun 9, 2022 8:00:00 AM

Learn why Native American students are struggling on multiple fronts — and what you can do to help Native students in your school.

Throughout the United States, Native American and other indigenous students in K-12 are struggling on many fronts:

  • Native American students are at greater risk for dropping out, committing suicide, abusing drugs and being involved in the juvenile justice system compared to other racial and ethnic groups (Faircloth & Tippeconnic, 2010; Rolnick & Arya, 2008; Gion, McIntosh, Smolkowski, 2018).
  • Native American students have higher rates of chronic absenteeism (U.S. Dept of Education, 2016) and higher rates of suspensions and office discipline referrals in many states (Brown, C., 2014; SDSU, 2019).
  • Related to all of these factors is the fact that Native American students evidence significantly lower academic achievement in reading and math than white students (Lohes, 2008).
  • Native American students have the highest rates of special education identification and placement (17% of the population) compared with other racial groups.

Despite this alarming scenario for Native American students, there has been a paucity of research done over the years to understand and address these problems.

In this article, we will review the available research into the causes and potential interventions to improve outcomes for Native American students.

Chronic Absenteeism

There are many reasons why students in general do not regularly attend school, but the fact is that chronic absenteeism contributes to significant and considerable negative consequences.

Data from around the United States indicates that Native American students are chronically absent more than any other racial group.

Many studies link chronic absenteeism to students dropping out of school (Kearney & Graczyk, 2013; Ginsburg, Jordan, & Chang, 2014; McConnell & Kubina, 2014; Erbstein, 2014).

Johnson, Simon, & Munn (2014) suggest that students with attendance problems are more likely to drop out of school during, or shortly after, their freshman year of high school. The problem of chronic absenteeism can start rather early in grades, as Allensworth, Gwynne, Moore & de La Torre (2014) found that middle grades attendance is one of the best predictors of how students will perform in high school classes and whether they will potentially drop out.

Moreover, students who do not attend school regularly often demonstrate below-average academic performance, and they tend to score lower on standardized tests, ultimately increasing achievement gaps between students who demonstrate chronic absenteeism and students who do not (Ginsburg, Jordan, & Chang, 2014; Erbstein, 2014).

Balfanz and Byrnes (2012) define chronic absenteeism as absences (excused or unexcused) that equate to missing at least 10% of any given school year.

Chronic absenteeism differs from truancy. Chronic absenteeism accounts for all absences, while truancy only accounts for unexcused absences.

Most students who are chronically absent struggle with numerous barriers and hardships that make regular school attendance challenging (Erbstein, 2014).

In 2016, national data indicated that 26% of Native American students were chronically absent compared to the next highest groups (22% Pacific Islanders; 21% Black). The problem for Native American students gets worse as students move up through the grades, as 31% of high school students were chronically absent (U.S. Dept of Education, 2016).

Christenson, Stout & Pohl, (2012) posit that there are six central causal factors involved in chronic absenteeism:

  1. School climate
  2. Lack of connectedness
  3. Health of the student
  4. Negative student behavior
  5. Academic issues
  6. Family challenges

However, the picture for Native American students is considerably more complicated.

It has been suggested that chronic absenteeism (as well as the other negative outcomes) are related to the “incongruence between American Indian cultures and school systems largely influenced by European cultures” and “using the education system to suppress American Indian culture” (Gion, McIntosh, Smolkowski, 2018; Pewewardy, 2002; Pewewardy & Hammer, 2003).

The Effect of Boarding Schools and Forced Assimilation

Smith (2004) suggested that the creation of boarding schools for Native American students in 1869, which were used to assimilate Native American students into the dominant culture, with little regard for their cultural background, is related to Native American families’ lack of connection with typical K-12 schools in America.

Discipline was also handled in rather draconian fashion for Native American students to accomplish this objective, which may contribute to Native American students’ lack of connection with public schools (Gion, McIntosh, Smolkowski, 2018).

The boarding school movement and the attempt to “civilize” American Indian culture may have contributed to the current scenario of negative outcomes for Native American youth prevalent in today’s K-12 schools (Gion, McIntosh, Smolkowski, 2018).

Gilliland (1999) stated that the combined historical effects of assimilation and resulting loss of culture lie at the heart of Native American students being chronically absent and struggling in the current educational environment.

Chronic absenteeism for Native American students is a side effect of issues that go beyond a lack of awareness of the importance of regular school attendance.

For example, housing insecurity, family instability and lack of access to transportation in rural communities may play critical roles. Native American traditions, such as “tribal funerals, which can last several days, and pow wows can conflict with academic schedules” (Chanda, 2017).

Cultural Considerations for Native American Students

Another related factor is the current lack of awareness for Native American cultures in our U.S. schools (Leverson, Smith, McIntosh, Rose & Pinkelman, 2021).

The two most frequently mentioned reasons given by Native American students for being absent and dropping out of school were teachers’ attitudes and lack of self-esteem (Gilliland 1999).

In the typical classroom, this can be seen with an emphasis on individual achievement and individual competition — whereas Native American culture focuses on group achievement. 

Cleary and Peacock (1998) state that Native American students often do not like to be “put on the spot,” which is common in our classrooms today.

Additionally, Native American students may resist receiving public praise, as in Native American culture it is not acceptable for an individual to be singled out.

Given the cultural norms of many Native American families, typical classroom grades may not appeal to Native American students in the same way as non-Native American students (Harold & Sorkness & Kelting-Gibson, 2006).

Reducing Absenteeism for Native American Students

Creating positive, trusting relationships with students and families is essential to increasing attendance rates for Native American students.

A detailed resource that outlines specific strategies to engage Native American families is the Toolkit of Resources for Engaging Families and the Community as Partners in Education.

This toolkit is designed for administrators, teachers, teacher leaders, and trainers. Native American family and community engagement must be approached in a comprehensive manner to support family well-being and to build strong parent-child relationships, which drives students’ attendance, learning, and overall development.

Engaging Native American families involves getting to know individual parents and their stories to understand their needs in supporting their children’s learning.

This is much more than general communication and information sharing as is done with most families. Essential in the process is understanding that Native American parents (and Native American community members) are not all the same; they have complex strengths and weaknesses, face unique problems, and have specific questions (Edwards, 2009).

The key to making these connections is to shift from a “deficit-based model” and make exclusive use of family strengths and understand that families want to help their students succeed (Moore, 2011).

Collaborating with families based on strengths develops strong relationships between home, school, and community. Educators can help families build on their strengths through diverse and culturally appropriate approaches, as noted in the detail in the Toolkit (Garcia, Frunzi, Dean, Flores, Miller; 2016).

Cross-Cultural Communication

Cross-cultural communication must consider differences in communication styles as interpersonal communication is directly tied to the cultural backgrounds of the participants.

The communication practices used must be sensitive to language and cultural backgrounds, and acknowledging families’ cultural values as strengths encourages family and community engagement (Arias & Morillo-Campbell, 2008). 

Additionally, families may be reluctant to participate in school functions if educators fail to consider communication differences as these will be barriers to understanding or misinterpretation of the message (Stoicovy, Murphy, & Sachuo, 2011).

It is important when communicating with Native American families to listen much more than speaking and to ask open-ended questions.

Often, Native American people communicate a great deal through nonverbal gestures, such as using downcast eyes or ignoring an individual when they are unhappy with or disagree with a person.

Native Americans may use humor to express truths or use humor to cover difficult messages with jokes or smiles. It is important to listen closely to humor and interpret the meaning without asking too many questions that may be perceived as invasive.

Native American people often view it as inappropriate to criticize others even when this critical feedback may be justified. This cultural norm is rooted in the belief that people who have acted wrongly will pay for their acts in some manner in the future (Working with American Indian Families, 2006).

Of course, translating communications into the languages used in the school community, making families feel welcome in the school with signs in their language, all while being sensitive and paying attention to how words are used is very important (Halgunseth, 2009). 

Fostering Relationships to Reduce Absenteeism

One example from Minnesota found an effective strategy to reduce absenteeism was to foster good relationships through a “truancy collaborative” with school personnel and tribal leaders, which met regularly to talk about attendance across the reservation, share ideas and discuss what’s working in improving attendance.

For many Native American students, truancy matters fall to the tribe rather than the county truancy officials, and the tribe tends to focus on more restorative remedies rather than negative or punitive responses. 

One collaborative leader stated:

“Sometimes if a kid knows that somebody here is really worried about them or cares for them, sometimes that’s all it takes… Other times, it’s offering programs: sports, dance troupes, gifted and talented programs, and other activities can also be instrumental in getting kids to school… We want to draw kids in, we want kids to feel good when they’re here” (Kaul, 2017).

These efforts have produced significant results, with graduation rates in the district having increased from 41% to 51%.

Developing relationships with Native American families early in the school year, well before formal parent–teacher conferences, is essential.

Teachers can promote cross-cultural communication during meetings and conferences using the following strategies (Trumbull, 2011):

  • Begin the conversation on a personal level rather than starting with a formal progress report.
  • Allow the personal to be mixed with the discussion of academics.
  • Show respect for the whole family instead of paying attention to only the child who is the focus of the conference.
  • Use indirect questions or observations rather than questions that ask for information about the child at home. For example, “Some parents prefer to have an older child help with homework” rather than “Do you or someone else help the child with her homework?”
  • Discuss the student’s achievements in the context of all the students in the classroom, suggesting how the child contributes to the well-being of all.

Additionally, partnering with the larger Native American community to promote family engagement helps schools make those deep family and community connections.

The fact is that schools, families, and community entities have bi-directional influences on each other, and if the three entities interact and communicate with one another, students are more likely to hear consistent themes and talking points about their successes and the importance of school (Epstein, 2010).

By partnering with communities, businesses, centers and faith-based organizations, research shows that all students can benefit when all stakeholders work together.

Inviting role models from different Native American cultures into the classroom to present their stories provides a powerful incentive to increase attendance and the perceived importance of school.

Improving School Climate to Support Native American Students

Perhaps one of the best approaches to improving outcomes (e.g., reducing absenteeism, improving behavior and increasing achievement) for all students is to improve the school and classroom climate.

A specific climate model, the “Authoritative Climate Model,” has been articulated in the literature and has been shown to be an important approach to building positive school climates and the associated these positive student outcomes (Gregory, Cornell, & Fan, 2011; Konold & Cornell, 2015).

The authoritative school climate model accounted for 65% of the variance in student engagement and 77% of the variance in academic achievement.

These findings provide strong evidence for understanding that a positive school climate leads students to be more engaged in school, results in higher academic performance, and improves attendance in school.

The two central components of an authoritative school climate are high structure (or high expectations) and student support.

The authoritative climate model, when applied to the focus on Native American students, must have a strong emphasis on providing high levels of support to students. Support for Native American students is essential for creating positive relationships and is characterized both by adult respect for students using culturally appropriate methods and students trusting the adults and being willing to seek help.

Student support involves:

  • Deep and reflective listening
  • Teaching SEL and non-cognitive skills
  • Promoting student agency
  • Providing learning scaffolds
  • Providing curriculum with Native American cultural examples
  • Being personally vulnerable with students

Johnson’s (2009) review of 25 studies concluded that “schools with less violence tend to have students who are aware of school rules and believe they are fair” and “have positive relationships with their teachers” (p. 451).

The overall evidence supports the use of supportive authoritative school practices and is associated with improved academic outcomes.

Pellerin (2005) found supportive authoritative practices in schools produced less truancy and reduced dropout rates. Schools with supportive authoritative school climates had higher levels of student engagement (Gill et al., 2004) and reading achievement (Lee, 2012).

Second Component: High Structure

High structure (expectations) is the second component to build positive school climates and is defined as having clear and high expectations for discipline and academic work ethic.

  • Staff have high academic expectations for their students to work hard and learn at high levels.
  • Students also experience school rules that are clear, strict, and equitable for all students. 
  • Staff will engage students in deep conversations around academic and behavioral goals, and students have a chance to explain when accused of doing something wrong.
  • The behavioral expectations in an authoritative school must be distinguished and are different from “zero tolerance” models where students are punished harshly.

Authoritative school climates have lower suspension rates than other schools (Catizone, Cornell, & Konold, 2018; Gregory et al., 2010; Huang & Cornell, 2018) and also supports the potential to help schools reduce disproportionate suspension rates for Native American students (Huang & Cornell, 2018).

A review of the literature shows that authoritative school climates achieve lower suspension rates independently of other student and demographic variables, so the positive impacts are experienced by students in all racial/ethnic groups (Konold, T., Cornell, D., Jia, Y., & Malone, M., 2017).

Academic Achievement

For decades, there has been an achievement gap between Native American and white students, and this gap continues to widen (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015, 2016).

The dependent variables of chronic absenteeism — poor school climates, poor home-school communications, lack of culturally-relevant curriculum, and lack of quality relationships — have led to very poor outcomes for too many of these Native American students.

From the data reviewed, reading and math scores for fourth- and eighth-grade Native American students have been the lowest in the nation compared with students of other races/ethnicities, based on 2018 data.

In the United States:

  • Native American students score significantly lower on tests of academic achievement than white students, with 26% of Native American students proficient in reading compared to 45% of white students.
  • 30% of Native American students are proficient in math, compared with 47% of white students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015).
  • Consequently, Native American students have lower graduation rates than whites (Native American = 84%; white = 97%); (Gion, McIntosh, Smolkowski, 2018).
  • Between 2010 and 2018, the college enrollment rate for Native American students decreased by 33% (from 179,000 to 120,000 students).
  • One-tenth of Native American students could not complete K-12 education.
  • The school dropout rate for AI/AN 16-to-24-year-olds is the highest in the nation (National School Board Association, 2020).

Increasing Native American Student Achievement

As noted earlier, Gilliland (1998) indicated that to be successful in teaching Native American students (and therefore raising achievement), educators must:

  • Implement strategies to increase students’ self-esteem, which includes creating a positive and accepting classroom climate.
  • Have high expectations to succeed with a focus on student strength.
  • Show personal respect.
  • Include Native American literature, art, culture, values, and activities in the curriculum, giving students pride in their people and heritage (Sorkness & Kelting-Gibson, 2006).

There are some specific teaching and interactional strategies that are particularly effective with Native American students that teachers must build into their repertoire of skills.

Corbett, J. (2011) reported that in a study with Montana Native American tenth-grade students, there was significant improvement in literacy, math, and science test scores when implementing instructional coaching by embedding these coaches in the field to work directly with teachers to provide feedback and guidance.

Instructional coaching helped teachers learn and the needed instructional, behavioral, and relational skills necessary to engage students more effectively to impact learning.

Interpersonal Strategies

  • Show concern
  • Listen deeply and reflect
  • Ask questions about students’ personal interests
  • Have a sense of humor
  • Be fair and sincere
  • Avoid public admonishment for misbehavior
  • Be approachable; be visible
  • Show kindness, honesty, and openness
  • Provide positive reinforcement in a private manner
  • Understand Native American culture and their beliefs

Instructional Strategies

  • Giving reasons for what students are learning and relating learning to the real world
  • Providing options or choices in assignments
  • Offering tribe-specific language classes and cultural events.
  • Teaching units on Native American history
  • Incorporating Native American culture
  • Relating school to Native American tribes specifically
  • Providing individual, creative opportunities for students to showcase their talents
  • Doing hands-on projects, computers, games, experiential lessons, and storytelling
  • For reading and writing, one-on-one and tutorial
  • Doing long-range projects (plays, videos, portfolios) with students teaching components of lesson
  • Using a variety of materials (computer, textbooks, video)
  • Working one-on-one, avoiding groups of five or more
  • Doing small group projects
  • Using music

While many of these strategies would be effective with non-Native students as well, it is important to note their particular benefit with Native American students (Corbett, 2011).

Reducing the Discipline Disparity for Native American Students

One potential contributor to educational disparities between Native American and white students may be related to the overuse of exclusionary discipline practices, such as office discipline referrals (ODR), in-school suspensions (ISS), out-of-school suspensions (OSS), and expulsions (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010).

There is a growing body of research that supports improvements in disciplinary behavior, anti-social behavior, student bullying behavior, and peer victimization related to implementing positive behavior support systems (Bradshaw, Koth, Thornton, & Leaf, 2009; Bradshaw, Mitchell, & Leaf, 2010; Horner, Sugai, & Anderson, 2010; Sadler & Sugai, 2009; Simonsen et al., 2012; Waasdorp, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2012). 

Suspension and exclusion have proven to be ineffective for reducing behavior issues in all students but also students with disabilities and Native American students (Hemphill, Toumbourou, Herrenkohl, McMorris, & Catalano, 2006).

Moreover, suspension has been associated with a variety of negative educational and social outcomes, including:

  • Future disciplinary infractions
  • Repeated suspension
  • Academic failure
  • School disengagement
  • Dropout 

Multiple studies have shown that PBIS significantly reduces both antisocial behavior of students and the associated use of suspension by school personnel (Bradshaw, Mitchell, & Leaf, 2010; Bradshaw, Waasdorp, & Leaf, 2012; Nelson, Martella, & Marchand-Martella, 2002).

Due to this overall effectiveness, the framework has been viewed as a potentially effective approach for not only reducing overall suspensions of special education students but also for reducing racial disparities in suspensions (Gregory, Skiba, & Mediratta, 2017; Tobin & Vincent, 2011).

In an interesting study, Vincent, CHiXapkaid, Sprague, & Tobin (2013) found that:

  • Schools had zero out-of-school suspensions for both Native American and white students when implementing PBIS with a strong Native American influence. 
  • Schools with the best outcomes had teachers using Native culture in instruction and significant staff development on American Indian issues.
  • Parent involvement and strong community relationships was also a significant contributor to low OSS rates for Native American and white students.
  • The schools with low rates of exclusionary discipline emphasized the importance of nurturing teacher-student relationships.
  • The implementation of PBIS in these low-exclusionary schools had behavioral expectations and responses that clearly reflected Native traditions, and their student handbooks emphasized exhibiting positive behaviors and parent involvement.

In the final analysis, schools with the lowest disparities in disciplinary exclusion between Native American and white students closely collaborated with the larger Native American community, which was used to improve staff development around cultural sensitivity and culturally relevant instruction combined with healthy family relationships.

Greater disciplinary equity was achieved when these practices were successfully merged with the PBIS model.

Technology Support to Implement Best Practices with Native American Students

The evidence suggests that to address the myriad special needs for Native American students, teachers would benefit from instructional coaching to improve the pedagogical, behavioral, and relational skills needed to positively impact these students.

Implementing software that is designed to support a quality coaching program can be another important factor in addressing teacher resistance.

Software platforms such as SchoolMint Grow provides several functionalities that can help with teacher acceptance, transparency, efficiency, and efficacy of the coaching program:

  • The coaching process, rubrics, and expectations are clearly defined and accessible, so there is no uncertainty.
  • Coaching and teacher evaluations are completely separated, so threats to competence are minimized.
  • Teachers know exactly what to expect from the coaching interactions, so workload demands are transparent.
  • Follow ups, goal setting, and approaches to coaching are specified, so there is better chance of model match with coach and teacher.
  • Growth and improvement are measured and visualized, so teachers are reinforced for engaging in coaching.
  • The use of video enhances teachers’ understanding and guides change.

The evidence is converging that the use of positive behavioral support systems integrated with Native American culturally relevant instruction can positively impact Native American students. 

SchoolMint Hero is a digital platform that is aligned to the best practices of positive behavior support systems, PBIS, and the authoritative climate model to provide consistency and fidelity of implementation, which can lead to an improved school climate and drastically reduce student exclusions.

Hero provides a systematic method for achieving the five-to-one positive interaction ratio needed to improve student-teacher relationships and improve school climate.

One important aspect of the Hero platform that addresses the cultural differences of Native American students is the ability to positively reinforce students in a private manner. Teachers can reward positive behavior points via the app rather than a public display.

Hero is designed to deliver the PBIS framework and best practices insofar as the institution of consistent responses to behavior, positively reinforcing good behavior, providing corrective responses, and tracking students in behavioral interventions.

Student outcomes can be positively impacted in the following areas as supported by the research:

  • Classroom behavior
  • Academic learning time and academic achievement
  • Attendance
  • Mental health
  • Social-emotional learning competencies
  • Family engagement


In conclusion, Native American students are at a crisis point in our U.S. K-12 schools due to chronic absenteeism, low academic performance, excessive exclusionary discipline, poor home-school relationships, poor culturally relevant curriculum, and a general lack of awareness of the best practices for engaging Native American students.

By implementing instructional coaching to drive improved pedagogy, student-teacher-family relationships, school climates, and more positive approaches to discipline, educational institutions can begin to improve outcomes for our Native American students.

Please contact Dr. Christopher Balow at chris.balow@schoolmint.com for more information.


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