One of the most powerful levers at our disposal is predictive data. In contrast to lagging indicators such as end of year assessments or child outcomes, predictive data enables us to proactively intervene where we can make a real difference. While there are many types of predictive data, one of the most powerful is chronic absence.

Chronic child absence translates into serious learning loss over time, and PreK is when good or bad habits are often established. Chronic absence in PreK predicts a child’s failure to read at grade level. Likelihood of completing school, avoiding delinquency and avoiding teen pregnancy all diminish proportionate to their rate of chronic absence.

Unfortunately, low income children are several times more likely to be chronically absent than their peers, and the adverse impact of that absence is greater. In literacy development, for example, chronic absence creates a 75% greater diminishment for low income children than their middle class peers.

According to Rick Mockler, principal of Early Intel, “measuring chronic absence is a powerful way to identify your most vulnerable children, and get at some of the equity issues where we can make the most impact on children that are at risk for not starting kindergarten school-ready.”

How is Chronic Absence Different from Average Daily Attendance?

To effectively confront these issues, it’s critical to understand the difference between “average daily attendance” and “chronic absence.” While both measure attendance rates, ADA tracks the average rate for a group of children, while chronic absence focuses on individual children. ADA looks at how many children are in a classroom on a given day. As a measure, it is more focused on compliance than onchild learning.

Chronic absence has emerged as a concept in education over the last decade as a way to identify at-risk children, and has been identified in the Head Start Performance Standards. Chronic absence is defined as a child missing more than 10% of classes for any reason.

Chronic absence: a child missing more than 10% of classes for any reason.

Measuring chronic absence is often more meaningful than ADA, because even in programs with high average daily attendance, a significant number of children are often chronically absent. A program with 85% rate of average daily attendance can have a chronic absence rate of 45% or more. The children who show up every day mask the group of children who are absent and so those children can slip through the cracks.

Confronting chronic absence is less an issue of traditional quality assurance than of continuous quality improvement. Whereas quality assurance focuses on hitting average thresholds and compliance standards, continuous quality improvement breaks down data to identify vulnerable populations and intervene early to strengthen future outcomes.

Understanding Reasons for Chronic Absence

Once you’ve identified patterns in chronic absence, looking at the underlying causes can help address it. Are there particular classrooms more prone to attendance issues? Is teacher turnover contributing to higher absences?

“It may be that there’s something obvious to you as a program manager as to why some classrooms are doing better than others,” Mockler says. “But oftentimes, it can take a little research to figure that out. Is there something going on in a particular neighborhood or a family? Is there something going on with a particular teacher?”

Mockler recommends converting your attendance data into a “run chart” which lists reasons for absences on a day by day basis, whether it’s transportation issues, illnesses, and other reasons. “No one’s getting blamed for absence, but rather, we’re trying to understand the patterns underneath these issues,” Mockler says.

Tackling Chronic Absence

Chronic absence is a weighty problem that can’t be solved in a single year and it won’t reach zero. However, through teamwork and consistent efforts, attendance can gradually improve. Lowering your program’s chronic absence rate by a few percent each year is an excellent goal.

“It usually involves having to address systems for how we’re working with children and families,” Mockler says. “Sometimes, the best solutions require people across an organization to rethink or redesign how they’re approaching something.”

There’s no golden bullet for reducing chronic absence, but here are some strategies to consider.

  • Educate your staff and parents. Staff and parents oftentimes don’t appreciate the impact of absence on child learning, and parents may not realize how quickly a few absences add up. An effective orientation at the beginning of the school year can make a powerful impact. Attendance Works publishes several resources specifically designed for supporting early education programs.
  • Segment families based on need. Not every family needs high-intensity interventions. Some may just need gentle reminders about the connection between attendance and child learning. Others might need personalized outreach to discuss barriers their family may be facing. For families with severe chronic absences, they may need wraparound support to ensure that their child attends more consistently.
  • Celebrate good attendance. Stress the importance of attendance at the start of the school year, but continue that messaging throughout the year to avoid a slump after the holidays or other times of year. Recognition events provide an opportunity to engage parents and show the value of consistent attendance. “We’ve certainly heard from parents who, once they’ve been brought along on the importance, were much more invested in being able to get their kids to school every day,” Mockler says.
  • Create an improvement team. Assemble people with different perspectives in the organization: family service staff, teaching staff, your data manager, the program director or designee of the director, a parent, someone from the Policy Council and someone from your front office. Every one of those roles has a different perspective on attendance.

“Nobody solves this problem overnight,” Mockler says, “but you can take the longer view and test different interventions, you can see what works with your program, build your staff awareness, and create systems for educating and intervening to really make a difference.”