Nationally, there has been a great effort to increase funding for early education programs to increase enrollment of at-risk children into high-quality programs, such as Head Start. However, recent research highlights that once children are enrolled in preschool, they must also regularly attend to reap the benefits.
A study conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, in collaboration with Chicago Public Schools, found that preschool students who are chronically absent – meaning they miss 10 percent or more of enrolled school days – have lower levels of math, letter recognition, and social-emotional skills by the time they enter kindergarten than children who attend regularly. In the 2011-12 school year, 45 percent of 3-year-olds and more than one-third of 4-year-olds were missing this much school – equivalent to three weeks. Moreover, for a portion of these students, preschool is the beginning of a pattern that continues well into the elementary school years.
The reasons for absences vary, but health of the child and family members is the leading reason why preschoolers miss school. Some families struggle with logistical obstacles in getting their children to school, including transportation and child care.
Poor school attendance, beginning in the earliest of years, is one of the first indicators that a child may be struggling at home and at school. It is a call for individual outreach by teachers and program staff to families, to understand their particular struggles and barriers to school attendance. Expressing to families that program staff care can be a monumental first step in redirecting a child onto the path of success.
But early attendance is not just an indicator of a problem. It can be a powerful lever for putting children on a path toward later success, including better attendance and better grades in third grade and beyond.