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3 Questions To Promote Head Start Attendance

November 21, 2023

As an ACF Head Start Dissertation Grant Scholar over the past two years, I used the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey, 2009 Cohort data—a nationally representative sample of children enrolled in Head Start in 2009 to 2010—to address different questions related to absenteeism during the preschool year. Established in 1965, Head Start is a federal initiative focused on expanding access to early care and education (ECE) for children from low-income households to promote their school readiness and the well-being of their families. It is currently the largest federal investment in ECE programming and serves more than 1 million children each year across all 50 states and in many of the U.S. territories. Access to preschool for low-income children has increased through programs like Head Start.

Nevertheless, research has shown that children’s daily attendance has been surprisingly low. Studies including children enrolled in Head Start programs and public preschool programs have found that 20 to 51 percent of enrolled children were chronically absent (i.e., missed 10 percent or more of instructional days) during the preschool year. These high rates of absenteeism have important implications for children’s learning and development. Compared to their peers with fewer absences, preschoolers with more absences exhibit lower school readiness skills by the end of the year and significantly reduced academic skills in elementary school. Importantly, some children who are chronically absent in preschool are also chronically absent in subsequent years, suggesting that patterns of absenteeism may develop early in children’s educational trajectories. Collectively, these findings suggest that a focus only on expanding access to preschool via more slots is not enough; children’s attendance also matters to maximize the benefits of these investments during preschool. Yet, little research has focused on absenteeism during this critical period of development.

To address this gap, I’ve identified questions that might help us better understand how to support attendance in Head Start programs.

1. When does missing school matter more for children’s learning and development, and for which outcomes?

My dissertation findings confirm prior research showing that missing school matters during the preschool year. I found that children who were absent more frequently from their Head Start program had lower literacy and math outcomes by the end of the preschool year. However, relations between absences and outcomes varied when examining them in the context of children’s home environments. Regardless of levels of household stimulation children were exposed to at home, children with high absences continued to have lower math outcomes by the end of the preschool year. This pattern did not emerge among children’s literacy skills. Specifically, children with high absences but who were exposed to high levels of household stimulation did not exhibit lower literacy outcomes by the end of the preschool year.

These findings are consistent with prior research that has shown how children’s homes offer more supports for language and literacy development than math development (e.g., stronger messaging to promote reading and the use of varied language at home, math anxiety leading to decreased time on activities related to children’s math skills). They also point to school contexts as a particularly critical setting for children’s exposure to math instruction and early math skill development, beginning as early as the preschool year. Indeed, nearly all children enrolled in Head Start engaged in counting and were exposed to shape and geometric properties content in their classrooms at least three times per week (Markowitz & Ansari, 2020). Therefore, ensuring that children can regularly attend school is important for their academic success, especially for their early math skills. Moreover, these findings also point to a need for future research that explores whether boosting exposure to early math activities at home could offset the negative outcomes associated with absenteeism.

2. How can we identify children who are more likely to be absent?

My findings also showed that children who simultaneously experienced multiple barriers to attendance were—unsurprisingly—more likely to be absent. Therefore, building in structures that can support early identification of children who are more likely to be absent, such as in the form of the needs assessments conducted by Head Start programs at intake, are needed. In doing so, programs and schools can identify children as early as possible, seek to understand family processes and dynamics, and work with families to pinpoint areas that may support children’s regular school attendance.

3. What approaches can better meet families’ needs?

In this study, I examined the role of two family engagement factors—families’ connection to Head Start and Head Start programs’ provision of family support services—and their potential role in reducing absenteeism. I found that children from families who felt more connected to Head Start programs and those enrolled in programs that provided more family support services reported fewer absences by the end of the preschool year. This suggests that building strong, trusting relationships with families and providing family support services may help programs identify barriers to attendance and help families mitigate these challenges. However, more research is needed to help us understand what is happening.

Though my findings are drawn from data from 2009, they highlight that we need now, more than ever, to pay attention to absenteeism and to support programs’ ability to promote young children’s regular attendance, as absenteeism has only increased since the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, my findings also suggest that focusing on reducing absenteeism alone is not enough. To ensure that Head Start is promoting all children’s learning and development, more research and work is needed to focus on pathways that promote both regular school attendance and high-quality interactions across the various settings in which young children spend time.

This research was supported by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) of the United States (U.S.) Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award (Grant #: 90YR0156). The contents are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACF/HHS, or the U.S. Government. For more information, please visit the ACF website, Administrative and National Policy Requirements.

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