A+ Advice for Parents

Chronic Absences Can Negatively Affect Student Learning

Q: My son is a kindergartner. The school nurse called saying he had been tardy three days and absent four so far this year and asked if she could help make his attendance more regular. I'm a single working mom. The bus comes early and mornings are stressful. What's the big deal if a kindergartner misses a little school?

A: It's potentially a very big deal. The school nurse's outreach is the result of some sobering data. Kids who are frequently absent miss essential instruction and can quickly fall behind their peers.

Missing a lot of class time -- even in kindergarten -- can increase the risk of dropping out from high school. The school nurse is trying to help you nip a problem in the bud.

A longitudinal study of Rhode Island students shows that chronically absent kindergartners were twice as likely to be held back a year in elementary school. They lagged their peers on reading tests by 20 points and on math tests by 25 points in later elementary grades.

Another collaborative study by education nonprofits Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign estimates that 1 in 10 kindergartners misses at least 18 days of classes, or nearly a month of schooling, per year.

"Too many parents still think kindergarten is just play, but we teach early reading and math concepts," explains Marcie Johnson, a southern California kindergarten teacher. "Instruction is sequential. One day's learning builds on the previous day's. A child who misses one day can catch up. One who misses a week or more has a much harder time, and needs considerable support."

During September, Attendance Awareness Month, many schools reach out to parents to help them establish consistent patterns of attendance and to suggest logistical support and health services that can cut down on absences. (Some schools even enlist celebrities to do "wake up" calls to students.)

Attendance Works, which is a national and state initiative that promotes better policy and practice around school attendance, offers practical advice to parents:

-- Establish and stick to basic routines that will help children develop the habit of on-time attendance (going to bed early, waking up on time, being organized to get out the door).

-- Talk to your children about why going to school every day is critically important, unless they are sick. If your son seems reluctant to go to school, find out why and work with the teacher, administrator or after-school provider to get him excited about going.

-- Create back-up plans: Can you turn to another family member, a neighbor or a fellow parent to help you get your son to school if an emergency comes up?

-- Reach out to the school for help if you are experiencing tough times such as a transportation problem, loss of a job, unstable housing or health problems that make it difficult to get your son to school. Other parents as well as your son's teacher, principal, social worker, school nurse, after-school providers or community agencies can help you and connect you to needed resources.

-- If your son is absent, work with his teacher to make sure he has an opportunity to learn and make up for the academics he missed. For more ideas, go to attendanceworks.org and healthyschoolscampaign.org.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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