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Breaking Down the Myths That Lead Young Students to Miss School

Educators might think of "kindergarten as the new 1st grade," but parents often still think of early grades as less academic than higher grades—and thus, less important for their children to attend every day.

Challenging that misconception and helping parents understand the value of the early grades can significantly boost student attendance, according to a new study in the American Educational Research Journal. 

The findings come as 36 states have started to measure absenteeism as part of accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Nearly 8 million K-12 students nationwide were reported chronically absent from school in 2015-16 according to the most recent federal data.That's about a million more students missing 15 or more school days than when the data was last collected in 2013-14. 

But earlier research also suggests that parents tend to underestimate how often their children miss school and the problems that irregular attendance can cause. Prior studies have suggested that patterns of absenteeism in early grades can raise students' risk of later academic problems and even of dropping out of school. 

Carly Robinson, a doctoral researcher specializing in interventions that "mobilize social supports for students" at Harvard Graduate School of Education, led researchers at Harvard, Boston College, and Stanford University who tracked the attendance of nearly 11,000 families of K-5 students in 10 urban, suburban, and rural school districts which had student attendance rates in the bottom 60 percent nationwide. 

Educating Parents

The researchers used focus groups with parents and prior research to develop and send mailings  on key ideas about absenteeism which parents often misunderstood, including:

  • Attendance in early grades affects student learning;
  • Early absences can build absenteeism habits in later grades;
  • Even "excused" absences can lead to missed learning opportunities; and
  • Strong attendance is associated with higher graduation rates.

The researchers were quick to note that educating parents on the value of regular attendance isn't enough—particularly for families coping with unreliable transportation, chronic illnesses, and other problems that can interfere with getting their children to school every day. Some parents in the study also received information about outside support to help students get to school.

The researchers found students whose parents received the mailings missed on average 7.7 percent fewer days than those whose parents had not received the messages. Moreover, students whose families received the messages were nearly 15 percent less likely to miss 10 days of school or more, compared to students whose parents had not been contacted; the reduction in chronic absenteeism was driven by the families who had received information both on the importance of attendance and on supports to help them. The awareness campaign had an even stronger benefit for English-language learners in the study, even though as a group they had fewer absences overall than English-proficient students.

Efforts to raise public awareness has become an integral part of attendance campaigns in many districts, such as this ongoing initiative in Cleveland, Ohio:


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