A pediatrician friend speaking to me about a child’s health was careful to point out the difference between a label and a diagnosis. “Labels are not helpful; diagnoses are.” When asked for further explanation, she said four characteristics found in a diagnosis may be absent in a label. First, there must be clear signs or symptoms. Second, a cause is identified. Next, a valid protocol for intervention or treatment is established. Finally, a prognosis can be determined. “All should be objectively established, which is not often the case when assigning a label.”
While chronic absenteeism may not be a disease, it is garnering a great deal of attention. Signs of chronic absenteeism are evident which, if left unchecked, have a poor prognosis for those affected. Concern has rightfully trickled down from truancy in upper grades to inconsistent attendance in early education programs. Early educators claim the early warning signs of “trouble ahead” often can be seen in preschools and kindergarten, a claim confirmed by Fellows during an after-hours discussion at a recent CEELO Leadership Academy meeting.
The new CEELO FastFact on pre-K attendance addresses the inner core of chronic absenteeism’s “diagnosis”–causes and intervention. There may be any number of contributing factors: health issues, lack of transportation, parental perceptions, to name a few. Fellows expressed their belief that the biggest culprit was poverty. “When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, getting your child to school on time isn’t a main priority.” Similarly, aggressive intervention isn’t always required for chronic absenteeism, unless it has reached epidemic proportions. Whatever the means, intervention should be targeted, personalized, and respectful. A uniform approach will frequently miss the mark when multiple causes are involved. One thing was agreed upon–it is better to understand and address chronic absenteeism in the early years than to wait until later when attitudes and habits are ingrained.
Failure to regularly participate in and benefit from quality early learning programs doesn’t necessarily doom children. Some children and families are unable to attend consistently for good reason, yet are resilient, rising above their circumstances. The well-intentioned concern of early educators centers on missed opportunities for young children’s development and learning. These opportunities form a foundation of future learning and engagement, the lack of which can produce significant personal and social consequences.
Many speak to the necessity of possessing a strong work ethic in adolescence and adulthood. Perhaps we’d be better served by instilling an insatiable “education ethic” from the start, and making chronic absenteeism one diagnosed obstacle that can be overcome.
–Jim Squires, NIEER Fellow