Being There: Absenteeism Undermines Pre-K Benefits

by Melissa Dahlin
Topic: Early Childhood

The early childhood field is committed to increasing access to high quality early learning experiences. But the work doesn’t stop at enrollment –we need to ensure children are consistently attending in order to reap the benefits.

Every day in high quality programs provides ongoing learning opportunities. Missing out on that can have both short- and long- term consequences for a child. September is Attendance Awareness Month, a national effort promoting  pre-K attendance as the first step in establishing positive attendance patterns as children set off on their educational journey.  For more information on promoting attendance, see this CEELO resource.

While national data on attendance in pre-K is lacking, we do have examples from cities that are cause for alarm and a call for further research. DC Public Schools (DCPS) and Baltimore Public Schools found more than 25 percent of pre-K students missed 10 percent of days in a school year. In Chicago Public Schools, more than a third of four-year-old pre-K children were chronically absent–and nearly 50 percent of 3-year-olds!

Findings in Baltimore and Chicago show that chronic absenteeism in pre-K is associated with continued chronic absenteeism in later grades, high rates of retention, and lower academic outcomes. This corresponds with what we know about the consequences of chronic absenteeism in the early elementary grades, for instance the negative correlation with reading skills.  Clearly, we have to be careful about causal attributions here.  For example, poor health or a highly stressful home situation can contribute to both attendance problems and poor school performance.  However, it is equally obvious that children miss out on important experiences when they are absent often.

Why do children miss school? Recent news stories highlight the expense of uniforms as an issue, which ties to a larger issue of the interlinked circumstances families in poverty or low-income face that make regular attendance difficult (e.g., unstable work hours, illness, and transportation barriers). While these barriers also exist across the grades, pre-k faces another significant hurdle – unlike grade one and above, attendance is NOT mandatory. This can feed misconceptions families often have that children aren’t really learning in pre-K and, therefore, attendance is less critical. Indeed, a study by the Urban Institute found that families in DC Public Schools were not aware of the extensive learning opportunities their child received in a pre-K classroom and, therefore, did not think missing days would negatively affect their child.

Such attitudes prove that more should be done to support attendance. A good first step is family engagement, which can both combat myths that pre-K attendance isn’t important, reveal  circumstances interfering with families getting their child to school and identify potential solutions. A study on attendance in DCPS pre-K found that schools with positive attendance patterns engaged in deep and continuous family engagement throughout the year via home visits and two-way communication. The California Department of Justice also recommends family engagement as a strategy.

Family engagement boils down to relationships. Once relationships are established, there are numerous ways to keep the engagement thriving. Smartphones provide an excellent opportunity for families and educators, with texting as a means to message families about the importance of attendance and raise awareness. Additionally, educators can use texts to communicate with families to show their commitment to the child and family as well as to keep two-way communication flowing. While research is yet to document how effective texting is in promoting attendance, we do have  evidence that text messaging is effective in supporting positive parenting practices. Apps are also useful for sending families photos to show them the rich learning experiences children are engaged in throughout the day and to prompt ongoing conversations at home about experiences in their pre-K program. Schools that had positive attendance patterns in DCPS found both texts and apps to be useful tools for partnering with families.

These approaches above are just a few examples of how schools can work with families to support consistent attendance patterns. The important thing is to take action to help families understand why pre-K attendance matters. When children attend quality pre-K programs consistently, they fully benefit from learning opportunities providing  a strong start for their educational journey.

Melissa Dahlin is a Research Associate with the Education Development Center and a partner with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes, one of 22 Comprehensive Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to strengthen the capacity of State Education Agencies (SEAs) to lead sustained improvements in early learning opportunities and outcomes.

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