Attendance matters, even in child care

If somebody asks whether showing up for work every day makes a difference in how well someone does his job, you’d probably think, “Of course it does.”

We have the same response about students’ attendance at school. To mark September as the first-ever Attendance Awareness Month, Debi Baldwin (a Best Beginnings board member and director of the Child Development Division at RurAL CAP) and I co-wrote a column about attendance and early care and learning programs.

There’s a growing body of research nationally about the relationship between regular attendance and school performance. Interest is growing, as well, in the relationship between attendance in early childhood programs and both attendance and performance in later school years.

We do know that young children who participate in quality programs are much better prepared for kindergarten. But that assumes they attend regularly. Should we – can we – be doing more to ensure that children in these programs are showing up? As Debi and I pointed out in our column, people tend to think consistent attendance in early care and learning programs and kindergarten doesn’t matter, that it’s only an issue in the higher grades. That’s not so.

The BP Early Learning Center used to allow infants and toddlers to attend only two days a week. But according to Director Angie Lantz, the Center stopped offering the part-time option. “We found from our experience that for infants and toddlers, part time is hard on the child, hard on the other children, and hard on the teachers. We encourage parents to bring their children every day because infants and toddlers do better with a regular routine,” Lantz said.

It’s not just about getting ready for academics or disruptions, Lantz adds. At quality early care and learning programs, children learn social skills and problem solving. Academics come easier if they have those foundations.

Getting children to preschool or child care is a whole different ball game from getting them to school when they’re older. Little kids get sick more. And they are totally dependent on their parents to get them to school. In the Arctic, it’s not uncommon for parents to transport their children by snow machine, even in temperatures well below zero. We can’t and shouldn’t discount these obstacles. But that makes it all the more important that children attend quality early care and learning programs as regularly as possible. (We’ve written before about becoming a kindergarten-ready family.)

Head Start, Early Head Start, and Parents as Teachers all have attendance requirements, and every child’s attendance is tracked over the year. But in other programs, attendance may be tracked only on a shorter basis, perhaps monthly. This makes it harder to see connections between attendance and learning outcomes.
Debi Baldwin at RurAL CAP tells me that overall, they can see the correlation between better classroom attendance and better child outcomes, lower classroom attendance and lower child outcome scores. Local programs with strong attendance tend to have the most children prepared for kindergarten. That’s not a surprise. But what is the cut-off, the minimum rate of attendance that still yields good outcomes for most children?

Is there a difference between less-than-regular attendance due to the parents’ planned schedule (“I need her in child care Mondays and Wednesdays, but not the other days.”) and spotty attendance due to other reasons? And what about families who take their children out for vacations or for other family events?

Families are different, children are different, so it can be complicated. The bottom line is that we want children to get the most benefit from whatever early care and learning programs they attend. What are your thoughts and observations?