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Addressing Chronic Absence in Head Start

Chronic absenteeism: the term sounds as though it belongs in the depths of a medical dictionary. Much like a disease, it’s a condition that spreads rapidly, appears in clusters, runs in families, and has serious, detrimental effects. Unfortunately, it’s infecting our schools. What are the risk factors? Is it preventable?

Chronic absenteeism means missing 10% of a school year for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences. Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, paints a picture of what this means in one example: “If you’re chronically absent in kindergarten or first grade because of an asthma issue, then by third grade you’re not reading at grade level and by sixth grade you don’t like school because it was never a positive experience. Now maybe you’re truant and you’re skipping school. But you’re losing sight of the fact that we never created an equal opportunity for this child to be successful in school.” Chang highlights the value at the core of this growing problem: because chronic absenteeism is disproportionately affecting minorities, students with disabilities, and students from low income families, it’s a matter of equity. A missed day of school is a missed opportunity for learning, and the implications are massive.

Foundations for good attendance are formed at an early age.

The premise is simple: students who regularly attend school are likely to do better and stay in school longer. The opposite reigns true, as well. Much like the cognitive and noncognitive skills that students begin to develop at an early age, foundations for good attendance are formed at an early age. To treat the disease, chronic absenteeism, we must first identify the source. The key is tracking absences and causes and identifying the effects, both short term and long term. By identifying students who are in need of intervention and partnering with their families to take proper preventative measures, we can help all children be successful.

Thinking about chronic absenteeism is especially important right now because the proposed Head Start standards (NPRM) will require Head Start programs to focus not only on overall program attendance but also on identifying and intervening with individual children who have low attendance. As you navigate the resources and research below, which would help your program better target those children? Are there steps you can take now? This is one more way Head Start can put children on a long-term trajectory to success.


This blog post is an excerpt from NHSA's monthly Research Blast newsletter, which also includes background research and useful resources for each month's topic. To receive the newsletter each month, become an NHSA member today!