By Karen Nemeth
Reports about the damaging effects of poor school attendance in early childhood education, particularly kindergarten, have been in the news lately. Whenever that happens, lists of solutions soon follow. I am concerned that most of these solutions are focused on the superficial symptoms rather than on the root causes. If we really want to turn this around, we need to promote long-lasting solutions that address the causes of absenteeism. Try these:
- Stop giving ‘rewards’ for good attendance! It makes families send children with contagious diseases to school and it punishes children who have already been unfortunate enough to be ill or injured. The money spent on stickers, certificates and ice cream parties could better be devoted to help struggling families overcome problems that cause absences.
- Stop analyzing district wide data and start thinking about each individual child and family. All the time and expense devoted to these data reports could be spent more effectively in strategies that connect with families.
- Stop talking about family engagement if you don’t really mean it. Family engagement should be a two-way street. It should be about what YOU do to support the families, not just what the families can do for you. The more you do for families, the better their children will do in school – so that’s a clear win-win.
- Stop assuming poor attendance is due to laziness. Yes, it may be true that some parents are less responsible than others, but that should be at the bottom of the list of considerations. Along with a positive information campaign about how important good attendance is for each child’s success, schools and districts will need to dig a little deeper. Next are some other factors that raise much more important concerns.
- Families who speak different languages and come from different countries may not be familiar with American school policy and may not be able to fully read the many, many, many papers and notices and handbooks that come home from school. Have bilingual parent volunteer talk them through the policies.
- Parents who are experiencing serious issues like depression, chronic health problems, or addiction issues may be at the top of the list of families with high absentee rates. It’s important to make sure health care is adequate for the children, but healthy children with sick parents are pretty powerless. They don’t need billboards or stickers. They need help and support – especially if they also have limited English language.
- Families who are struggling financially find many reasons to keep their children home from school. They may not have appropriate clothes, jackets or shoes. They may not have money for a field trip or fundraiser and keep their child home to avoid embarrassment. They may work multiple shifts and have trouble getting home or getting up to get their child to school on time. Getting to know the families will give you a chance to figure out how to help them mitigate these issues in a respectful way.
- It’s great when schools provide transportation, but those systems can be precarious for families with problems. If you miss that window of a few minutes to catch the bus, there are no backup systems. And if the parent has no way to get the child home from school, they may not be able to send them to school that day. What alternatives can be made available?
- Embarrassing punishments for late arrival may cause parent or student to panic and decide it’s easier to stay home than come to school and face the music. Sure, there should be consequences for being late, but if your real goal is better attendance, you might have to rethink your priorities.
- Let’s just face the truth: school is not a wonderful experience for every single child. Children who are being bullied or who feel that teachers don’t like them or who are facing frequent failure are not going to be motivated to come to school, no matter how many stickers you offer or punishments you hold out. Keep in mind that many parents also have very bad memories of their school experiences too, so they also have reasons to avoid school. Real family engagement means getting in touch with each family and turning that negative experience around. If you want every child to come to school every day, you need to work harder to make every day a good day for families and children. Opportunities for success, feeling respected and needed are answers to this problem – not stickers and certificates. If not, this is a self-perpetuating cycle that will hurt the child and drag the school down as well. Children who are English language learners may be more vulnerable to bullying and may have more struggles with academics than their peers. This is more than just a job for the hardworking ESL teacher. This is where involvement of the whole community comes in.
Getting the school community and the neighborhoods involved in attendance improvement efforts should be a rallying call for supports for all families. The ones who need the most help may be the hardest to find or the last to ask. When a community comes together to raise up the struggling families, the whole community benefits.