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Children’s absenteeism in Head Start overlooked, study finds

Janet Kiplinger Ciccone
June 08, 2017

The first national analysis of preschool absences has found that 12 percent of children in Head Start programs are chronically absent, a surprising fact usually overlooked by those interested in Head Start.

The researchers also found that those children who miss 10 percent or more of the school year have fewer gains in academics, specifically math and literacy, than their peers who attend the same Head Start more regularly.

Many researchers see high-quality preschool programs as a way to reduce long-term disparities in education. And many large investments are being made in early childhood programs such as Head Start, the largest federally funded preschool program in the United States.

Therefore, understanding the role of attendance in preschool programs, and encouraging parents to ensure that children attend, may be important to maximizing benefits.

"Preschool absences may undermine the benefits of high-quality preschool education," explains Arya Ansari, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia and the study's lead author. He cautioned that while the findings of the study are not causal, they highlight the scope and consequences of preschool absences.

Assistant Professor Kelly Purtell
Kelly Purtell

“Unlike in K-12 schooling, attendance is not mandated by law for preschoolers, so programs like Head Start do not always track it,” said Kelly Purtell, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University.

“Prior researchers may have been unaware of these absences.”

Purtell emphasizes the importance of the classroom experience to children’s early learning. “Not only do the absent children not have academic gains compared to their peers who do attend, but they miss out on the high-quality interactions with teachers that contribute to school readiness.”

The study article was published in the journal Child Development.

How the study was conducted

In the study, the researchers looked at nationally representative data from the Family and Child Experiences Survey 2009 Cohort, which included 2,842 children, ages 3 and 4, who attended Head Start in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Most children in the study were from ethnic-minority households (e.g., Latino, black, Asian). Twenty-one percent of the children were identified as white. Just over half came from single-parent families and had a mother who was not employed. Most families had incomes at or below the federal poverty level.

At the end of the school year, parents reported on their children's school absences. Direct assessments provided information on children's academic performance in language, literacy and math.

On average, parents reported that children missed eight days of the school year. In addition, 12 percent of children were chronically absent — defined as missing 10 percent of the school year or more — and missed an average of 22 days of school.

Fewer gains in math and literacy, who was most likely to be absent

Children who missed more days of school, especially those who were chronically absent, demonstrated fewer gains in math and literacy during the preschool year, the study found.

Moreover, excessive absenteeism was especially a problem for the early academic learning of children who entered Head Start with a less developed skill set, meaning they started school with the lowest language and literacy skills.

The study also found that minority children were less likely to be absent than white children. In addition, children were less likely to be absent when they were enrolled in classrooms that operated for more hours per week, and in larger and bilingual classrooms.

The quality of interactions between teachers and children facilitated children's development of literacy skills, but the benefits were roughly twice as large for children who were absent less often.

Implications for both practice and policy

"Preschool teachers and administrators, as well as researchers and policymakers, should make efforts to reduce preschool absences," said Purtell.

"One way to do this is to discuss the challenges to attendance that parents face and work with them to reduce these barriers."

The researchers indicated that early childhood educators may also want to develop ways to ensure that parents understand the importance of preschool to their children's learning, and see it as education as well as care.

“Many people, including policymakers, still view preschool as child care or babysitting and not an educational experience; so it is less important than later schooling,” Purtell said. “So we need to emphasize the importance of preschool learning for school readiness and future success.”

Not only are the children who were chronically absent not obtaining academic gains, but they were missing the high-quality social experiences with teachers and peers that are so important to learning development.

“Early preparation during a critical learning period can change and improve the entire trajectory of children’s lives,” she said.

The study was conducted with lead author Arya Ansari, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia. Funding came from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.



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