Chronic absenteeism at preschool strongly linked to poorer academic progress

Photo: Russ. Creative Commons.

A study in the USA has found that children who are frequently absent from preschool programmes make less progress in literacy and math.

The link is substantial. Children who miss 10% of preschool days make the equivalent of two months less progress in math and three months less progress in literacy. This association is 3 to 4 times larger than the association between academic progress and the quality of preschool teaching, as measured in other studies.

Absenteeism has often been found to impair learning in the primary school years. But it has been much less studied at the preschool level, when children are three to four years old. Many parents in the USA believe that attendance is not as important in preschool as it is during the primary school years. Absenteeism is rampant in preschool: in this study, 12% of children were absent 10% or more of the time. Attendance at preschool is not mandated and it is often not even measured.

The study, by Arya Ansari at the University of Virginia and Kelly Purtell at The Ohio State University, looked at 2,842 children attending Head Start in the USA. Head Start—the largest federally funded preschool programme in the USA—is a part-day or full-day programme serving about one million low-income children, helping them prepare to enter school. The study looked at their abilities in language, literacy and math at the start and end of the preschool year. At the end of the year, the researchers asked parents to report on their child’s absences. They also assessed classroom quality, in particular the quality of the teacher-child interaction.

A number of factors correlated with better preschool attendance:

  • Being from a Black, Latino or Asian family
  • Having parents living together at home
  • Having a mother with good mental health and/or employment
  • Preschool classes operating more hours in the week
  • Larger preschool classes
  • Bilingual classes

Chronically absent children who started the year with fewer language, literacy and math skills showed the largest negative effects on learning, thereby increasing the distance between them and their more skilled peers.

The researchers also observed that the benefits of high-quality teacher-child interactions were diminished when children were more frequently absent. We know from other research that the teacher-child relationship is important for learning; it would seem that frequent preschool absence undermines this relationship.

Although all these findings are correlations, meaning that the researchers cannot say for sure that frequent absence causes lower progress. Given the strength of the correlation, however, the findings suggest that it’s important to prioritise attendance in preschool.

Helping parents whose children are frequently absent is one key way to do so. One successful model used in some preschools is to assign monitors to work with parents whose children are frequently absent.

Another approach is to counter the widespread belief among parents that attendance at preschool is not so important by explaining the risks of frequent absences and setting strong expectations that children will attend regularly.

Ansari A & Purtell KM (2017), Absenteeism in Head Start and Children’s Academic Learning, Child Development