On Time Attendance: Even in the Early Years, It Matters

Today we feature a post from guest bloggers Hedy N. Chang, director of Attendance Counts, and Louise Wiener, president of the Leadership and Learning in Families.

One of the biggest myths affecting the education of young children is the mistaken belief that kindergarten or pre-school is just an add-on – that it doesn’t really matter that much if children skip a bunch of days or arrive perpetually late.  But, poor attendance and tardiness are real issues even for young children and can hamper their ability to learn.

A 2008 report, Present, Engaged & Accounted For, released by the National Center for Children in Poverty, has borne out what many of us already saw as common sense, namely that children don’t learn if they’re not in school. This starts early: Too many absences in kindergarten pull down achievement in first grade; for low-income students who don’t have the resources to make up for time on task, the effects of these early absences appear to be long lasting.

Nationwide, nearly one in 10 kindergarten students misses a month of school through a combination of excused and unexcused absences every year, according to research in the 2008 report.

Data on tardiness is more limited but equally startling in terms of habit development. A nationwide survey of Head Start programs indicates that in half of the classrooms, three to six children arrive late every week (there’s a maximum of 18 per classroom). This is true across programs of all sizes in all types of communities: urban, suburban and rural.  This tardiness also has an adverse impact on the educational experience. It is a problem, for example, when a child arrives 30 or 60 minutes after the circle activities have begun. The child misses out on the activities designed to build connections to other children and transition into the classroom. In addition, the late arrival can disrupt the flow of the classroom activities for other children.

Schools and parents together need to encourage the kinds of routines that get children to school on time, every day, ready to learn. A key step is to convey to parents the importance of early education and to use this first experience with formal education to help develop the habits of on-time attendance.

Schools and community agencies need to build partnerships to reach out to these families and connect them to the resources that will help them build some stability—and routine—in their own lives. Anyone who’s raised a child knows that creating and sticking to routines can be difficult. It’s all the more challenging for families who lack reliable transportation, move frequently or live in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

Together we need to consider how parents, schools, and community organizations can build and support practices in early childhood programs that help families develop the beliefs, skills and strategies to support regular school attendance. This means thinking about resources that are tailored to different stages of the early childhood years. For example:

a.      What do these practices look like for infants and toddlers?

b.      What do they look like for preschoolers?

c.      What do they look like for transition into kindergarten programs?

Early education programs help children gain the foundational skills they need to do well in school and in life. They also assist parents in learning how they can support their children’s on-going academic success.  Working together to ensure children acquire the habit of on-time attendance is a doable and achievable goal that helps ensure all children have a chance to learn and achieve especially among our most vulnerable families.


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