Preventing Chronic Absenteeism through Early Childhood Education

Halfway through the Fall 2011 session, attendance in TYO's morning Core Program for four- and five-year-olds continues to enjoy high and stable attendance rates.  This has profound implications for the children's later academic success, and it is due to the efforts of parents and children alike.

Pre-school and Chronic Absenteeism 

In September 2008, a report by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) highlighted the serious problem of chronic absence among students in U.S. elementary schools.  In the report, chronic absence refers to students missing ten percent of school days for excused or unexcused reasons.  Unsurprisingly, chronic absence—even in the earliest years—had dramatic impacts on children’s later academic performance. The study also found that “the greater the number of absences in kindergarten, the greater the number of absences in first grade.” Thus, chronically missing kindergarten or preschool classes gets a child off to a poor educational start.

One of NCCP’s primary recommendations for reducing chronic absence among children and youth is to offer them quality pre-school or center-based programs.  As Sara Mead writes in a piece for the New America Foundation, children who attend such programs “are less likely to be chronically absent than those cared for by family members, in part because early education experiences get families and children used to the routine of going to school before they get to kindergarten, and also because high-quality early education equips youngsters with social and cognitive skills that make schooling a more positive experience for them.” Thus, regular attendance in pre-school settings like TYO’s Core Child Program sets the foundation for successful school experiences.

Parents’ Influence on Attendance

Several mothers of Core Program children understand the importance of this pre-academic experience for their children.  In a recent meeting with 17 new mothers from Khellet Al-Amood, Suhad Jabi, TYO’s Psychosocial Program Manager, asked them why they considered the Core Program important for their children. Five of the mothers explained that they were hoping to help their younger children avoid the difficult school experiences of their older children.  They reported watching their first children struggle in fast-paced classrooms while their peers who had attended pre-school succeeded. Pre-school programs require tuition in Palestine, making it impossible for these mothers to give their children the support they needed for success in school. They knew that sending their children to TYO could help prepare them for the challenges of the formal educational system.

While some mothers are aware of the important link between early childhood education and later school performance, many are not. Usually, for overburdened mothers with many children, sending at least one child to a safe, nurturing space for a few hours each day helps them immensely. When children are absent from the core program, it is often because these parents—due to a lack of appreciation for the real value of early childhood education—allow logistical difficulties to block their children’s attendance.  Most TYO mothers have several other children to care for, and some of them report that walking their children to the TYO bus stop is a burdensome daily chore. Likewise, other mothers have explained that they worry about sending their children to TYO during the winter, when the children can get soaked during the walk to and from the TYO bus.  Of course, TYO makes every effort to mitigate these logistical difficulties by putting bus stops in the most central location possible for each camp, providing bus monitors to watch the children as they travel to and from the center, and making sure the kids can get warm and dry on rainy days.

Children’s Influence on Attendance

In addition to TYO’s efforts, the children’s own engagement in the Core Program helps to override the logistic challenges of attending TYO. The NCCP report notes that “children who exhibited less mature socioemotional functioning in the classroom…had higher absenteeism rates than those with greater socioemotional maturity.”  Students who “complained about school or were upset to go to school” had higher rates of absenteeism as well. Due to TYO’s explicit focus on meeting their psychosocial needs, the children in the Core Program overwhelmingly love coming to the center, leading to low levels of absenteeism.

TYO offers children a structured and creative space in which they feel both safe and stimulated. They love playing in TYO’s gym area, especially during the winter, when the weather would otherwise trap them indoors in small rooms without room to run around.  They come alive while singing and dancing as a group, creating art projects, watching puppet shows, and stretching their imaginations during free play. The space, snacks, field trips, teachers, and peers make the children advocates for their own attendance at TYO.

Thus, TYO’s morning Core Program, as the sole pre-school experience for many children from Nablus’s disadvantaged neighborhoods and refugee camps, serves as an important ounce of prevention for chronic absenteeism and poor school performance later in their lives. Parents, children, and TYO all agree on the importance of regular attendance in the program. Together, they are laying the foundation for a smooth transition to formal school and later success in the classroom.