As parents all over the country help their children pack their book bags for the start of school, this is a perfect time to reflect on one of the most important influencers of achievement: attendance. September is Attendance Awareness Month, a nationwide recognition of the importance of attendance on development, learning, and academic achievement.
We have known for a long time that regular attendance in school is important for children’s success. We are now learning how important regular attendance is even in the earliest years. Research suggests that chronic absenteeism in preschool can predict chronic absenteeism in the later grades and consequent risk for academic underachievement. For example, one study found that about 25 percent of students who were chronically absent in Pre-K and kindergarten were retained in later grades, compared to nine percent of their regularly attending peers.(1) That’s a big disparity. A child’s first educational setting, whether in Head Start, child care, or preschool may be where children begin to form lifelong habits and routines. While some young children and families may face barriers to regular attendance, it is crucial that programs work with parents to do everything possible to help children get to their early learning program.
The reasons children are absent often relate to factors overwhelming to families in poverty—transportation issues, irregular work schedules, chronic health problems, or unstable housing. Also, some families think of early education as primarily child care and are unaware of the importance or regular attendance.
So what can you do help improve attendance in your program?
- Use data: Track attendance and use the data to identify chronically absent children. Chronic absenteeism is defined as being absent 10 percent of the time, whether the days are consecutive or sporadic they all add up!(2) Keep in mind that only looking at class averages may mask attendance concerns for individual children, so be sure to look at individual and class-wide patterns. By monitoring attendance closely, you can identify at-risk children and intervene early. Avoid policies that result in dropping or dis-enrolling children without ensuring the cause of low attendance has been identified and every effort has been made to resolve the problem.
- Let children and families know you are concerned: Family relationships with caregivers are key. Children and families may be more encouraged to come to school if they know they will be met with people who care about their wellbeing. Children should feel included, safe, and loved and families should feel supported and heard. By fostering relationships between the caregiver and the child and the family, we can make school a more desirable place to be. When frequent absences are unavoidable due to chronic health problems or child custody issues, for example, work with parents to support the child’s learning when they can’t come to the center.
- Identify factors contributing to absenteeism: When you identify chronically absent children, talk to their families about it. Try to identify the barriers to their regular attendance. Connect to community resources that canoffer stability to families, like transportation, housing, or health assistance, as needed. These factors, among many others, may be contributing to chronic absenteeism.
- Communicate how good attendance contributes to early learning: The benefits of preschool and rich early learning opportunities have been well established by the research over the past several decades. However, preschool and in many cases, even kindergarten, is voluntary. Make sure families know the value of what children are learning at such young ages. It is during these first years that children build the foundation for how and what they will learn for the rest of their academic careers and beyond.
Early learning programs can partner with their community and work with families to assure all of their needs are met and they are able to bring their children to their early care and education center regularly. Programs should also visit Attendance Works for helpful resources to improve attendance. A nationwide movement to improve attendance is an important strategy to help eliminate educational disparities, including the achievement gap. During Attendance Awareness Month, we are asking you to join us in this nationwide movement.
/s/ Linda K. Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children and Families
/s/ Shannon L. Rudisill, Director, Office of Child Care
/s/ Ann Linehan, Acting Director, Office of Head Start