The Empty Space on the Carpet: Absenteeism in the Early Years

While the Perfect Attendance award may be a coveted prize for some, young students are missing an alarming number of school days. According to the national nonprofit Attendance Works, about 1 in 10 kindergarteners and first-graders are chronically absent—that is, missing 18 or more days of the school year, or about 10 percent of class days. Most research on attendance does not start until kindergarten, but a new analysis in Chicago makes clear the issue persists even earlier.  During the 2009-2010 school year, 62 percent of preschoolers in the city’s state-funded Preschool for All program were chronically absent. In more than a quarter of program settings, the rate of chronic absenteeism reached 80 percent. From preschool to grade 3, 15 percent of all students missed 18 days or more of school. Attendance problems were especially seen at schools in low-income areas.

Absenteeism is a serious obstacle to getting the most out of school, even starting in early elementary school. Chronic absenteeism in kindergarten and first grade is linked with a decline in test scores and can cancel out a degree of school readiness.  As one principal noted in the Catalyst Chicago article, “We have an excellent, excellent Head Start teacher, but she worries she’s not as effective because the students simply aren’t there.” A study by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) also found that children who were chronically absent in kindergarten were likely to continue this pattern in first grade, though the study did not address preschool attendance.  If half the battle is showing up, these young students are not making the cut.

So why are so many young learners not making it to circle time?

The Preschool for All coordinator for Chicago Public Schools cites the lack of support staff—having only two social workers for over 400 classrooms leaves teachers in the lurch in fighting the absentee battle. Beyond just Chicago, parents may think consistent attendance isn’t important until “real” school starts in first grade.

Part-day programs may also play a role—parents with inflexible schedules need to arrange alternate child care after the school day ends, as well as transportation to a second site. This hassle may be enough to just forego the pre-K classroom for the whole day if another setting is easier. As shown in Table 1, in the 2009-2010 school year, only 12 of the 54 state-funded programs profiled in NIEER’s Yearbook required all children to have full- or school-day schedules (minimum of 5.5 hours per day). Many other programs allow for local flexibility or may combine two part-time slots to create a full day, but these strategies may still leave parents without the opportunity for full-day classes for their preschool-age children.

Table 1: State-Funded Programs Requiring School- or Full-Day Schedules, 2009-2010

State Hours of operation per day
Alabama Full day, 6.5 hours/day
Arkansas Full day, 7 hours/day
Georgia Full day, 6.5 instructional hours/day
Louisiana 8(g) School day, 6 instructional hours/day
Louisiana LA4 Full day, 10 hours/day; School day, 6 hours/day
Louisiana NSECD Full day, 10 hours/day
New Jersey Abbott School day, 6 hours/day
North Carolina School day, 6-6.5 hours/day
Rhode Island Full day, 6 hours/day
South Carolina CDEPP Full day, 6.5 hours/day
Tennessee Full day, 5.5 hours/day
District of Columbia PEEP School day, 6.5 hours/day

Some state-funded programs provided extended-day services using program funding, though others require that it be paid for out of a separate funding source. These wrap-around services may be limited to children whose families receive child care subsidies or meet other requirements set by a state human services department, leaving working poor or middle-income families without extended-day services. As Table 2 shows, only 47.3 percent of children in Head Start programs in 2009-2010 were in a full-day, 5 days-per-week setting; another 4.5 percent attended full-day classrooms but only four days per week.

Table 2: Head Start Enrollment by Schedule, 2009-2010

Enrollment Option Percentage of Children
Center-based Full Day (5 days per week)


Center-based Part Day (5 days per week)


Center-based Full Day (4 days per week)


Center-based Part Day (4 days per week)


Home-based Program


Combination Option Program


Family Child Care Option


Locally Designed Option


Note: These figures do not include the Migrant or American Indiana Alaskan Native programs.

Source: 2009-2010 Head Start Program Information Report (PIR) Enrollment Statistics Reports – National Level

The Office of Head Start provides some support in converting part-day slots to full-day slots, though they are still a long way from providing this to all students. In addition to being more convenient for working families, full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten programs have been found to have a greater impact on children’s learning than half-day programs.

How can preschool programs combat the problem of chronic absenteeism? Catalyst Chicago reports that some programs are requiring parents to sign contracts regarding attendance expectations. Some districts may be able to drop students once they have missed a certain number of days, while others use the contracts as a means of communicating expectations, albeit without teeth. Others suggest that improving outreach, as both Chicago and Detroit have done with older grades, and conveying the importance of consistent attendance in pre-K is a less punitive approach.  Mandating full-day programs and making it easier to provide extended-day services on site could relieve burdens for parents and improve attendance rates; even requiring a school-day schedule would simplify pick-up for parents with students also in older grades.

State-funded pre-K programs have made tremendous progress in the past decade, increasing enrollment, beefing up standards, and expanding program options. But all of these efforts are undermined if programs cannot get kids into the story corner.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

5 Responses to The Empty Space on the Carpet: Absenteeism in the Early Years

  1. Dan Gilbert says:

    Hello, I have a quick question for you about your site. If you could please get back to me at your earliest convenience I would greatly appreciate it. Have a great day!

    Dan Gilbert
    Communications Coordinator
    Primrose Schools

  2. Rosa Aguilar says:

    In Mexico kindergarten starts at 3 years old for the first grade, 4 years old for the second and 5 for third graders. Kindergarten has been declared obligatory as part of the basic education system. This year I am the first kindergarten group’s teacher. Absenteeism for this age group has a link to the fact that once children begins to go to school she gets in contact with many different bacterias and
    viruses different from those at home, at this age children put a lot of things in their mouths like toys, crayons and tend to clean their noses with their hands so I ask them to wash their hands when they arrive at school then we also carry cleaning activities that for a third world country that had had the severe flu attack is basic. The kids love “cleaning” the tables it is important to do so because I work at the afternoon shift so it means there is another group using the school facilities during the morning, So I mix a little chlorine just half a bottle’s cap and add some liquid fabric softner so it will smell nice I put cleaning clothes in the water and give each child a cloth so they desinfect their hands at the same time they clean only I can shrink and wet the rags so their hands will not be in contact with the cleaning water when we finish they wash their hands. This simple action has lowered the absenteeism in my classroom so I hope it will help other teachers just remember to be responsible to throw away the cleaning water mix so no body will have an accident with it. Truly Rosy

  3. […] newsletter contained a link to an article titled “The Empty Space on the Carpet: Absenteeism in the Early Years” which had some interesting rationale as to the reasons behind chronic absenteeism. One that I had […]

  4. […] programs can further many of the goals in Article 28, including the reduction of drop-out rates, combating chronic absenteeism, and the elimination of illiteracy. Studies have found that preschool education programs have […]

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