Attendance Works News

July 22nd, 2014

When and How We Intervene if Instability Threatens Children’s Well-Being

Last fall, Attendance Works Director Hedy Chang was invited to an extraordinary gathering at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., where experts from various fields talked all day about how instability can undermine a child’s healthy development and success in life.

Absenteeism plays an important role–both as a symptom of the instability in a child’s life and as a cause of more instability as that child misses out of the connection to school and friends. It can also be a red flag for identifying children and families who need support.

Today, the Urban Institute published a report on instability among children and a series of commentary pieces from participants in last fall’s gathering. They include insights on instability among immigrant families and military communities. They offer suggestions for changes in policy and practice that can improve the lives of these children. Chang contributed the piece reposted below:

Taking the Next Step: Identifying When and How We Intervene if Instability Threatens Children’s Well-Being

This thoughtful exploration highlights the need for researchers, practitioners and policymakers to find the answers to two important questions:

1. When does instability pose a threat to a child’s well-being?

2. What can be done to ameliorate the adverse impact?

Clearly change in circumstances is normal over the course of a life of a child and family. Some changes can even be positive. They occur because a family has a chance to move to a better school, move into bigger home, or follow a parent to a better job. As children get older, transitions to new schools naturally occur.

Even when change is not planned, anticipated, or even desired, instability can often still have a positive effect because it teaches a child and his or her family new skills and habits including resiliency, tenacity, and grit in the face of adversity.

How do we know when instability is no longer a “bump in the road” to be overcome but a major threat to a child’s well-being and the ability of their family to keep their child on a path to a better future?

Previous research examining the connection between maternal risk factors and absenteeism from school (also a form of instability) offers useful insight. In her 2008 analysis, Romero found the best predictor of chronic absence (missing 10 percent or more of school for any reason) was cumulative risk, or the presence of three or more of the following risks: poverty, teenage or single parenting, low levels of maternal education, receipt of welfare, unemployment, poor maternal health, food insecurity, and a large family size.

Drawing upon these insights, we could hypothesize that instability is most problematic when family structures are fragile and families face multiple forms of instability. When this happens, feelings of stress can become overwhelming and prevent a family from accessing sufficient resources to buffer the impact on their children’s well-being. It is worth exploring whether adverse impacts are greater for younger children.

What can we do to ameliorate the adverse impact of instability? One possibility is to become more adept at using data to identify and offer supports to students, families and neighborhoods that are at risk because of fragile family structures and multiple forms of instability.

We also need to better understand what is needed beyond just resources that address the source of such instability as being homeless or the loss of a job. For example, what would help families develop sensitive parenting skills that reduce the stress levels in their children triggered by instability? How can we ensure teachers and other service providers have the skills to help children cope and thrive despite the challenges their families face?  

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July 18th, 2014

Bright Spot: Kent County, Mich., Drills Down to Reduce Chronic Absence

This post was first published as a Bright Spot on the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading website.

When young children repeatedly miss school, this can be a sign of problems at home: Mom has lost her job. Dad has been deported. The family is living in a shelter. A parent is ill.

To address this, Michigan’s Kent County uses Kent School Services Network (KSSN), a community school initiative that places providers such as community school coordinators and behavioral health clinicians in the county’s highest-poverty schools to help students and their families succeed.

Each week, at 28 KSSN schools in seven districts — including 16 elementary or K-8 schools — providers hold attendance meetings with school staff to identify and help students with attendance issues.

“They drill down to see what else is going on, what barriers and problems exist, and how to help a family make sure that their child goes to school,” says Carol Paine-McGovern, executive director of KSSN, a member of Kent County’s grade-level reading coalition.

Decreasing chronic absenteeism — students missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason — is a key strategy to achieve KSSN’s goal of ensuring that students are at school and ready to learn.

“If kids don’t show up, they aren’t learning in class,” says Paine-McGovern. The most urban, minority and high-poverty school districts in Kent County had higher chronic absence rates and lower academic performance, a 2009 report found.

Attendance also is considered an indicator of KSSN’s success. Satisfactory attendance — students attending 95 percent or more school days — increased by 7 percent in 2012-2013 over the previous year, across schools in six KSSN districts. “It’s statistically significant. We were thrilled,” says Paine-McGovern, noting that data will soon be available for the largest district, Grand Rapids, thanks to a new data-sharing agreement.

This also means a corresponding drop in chronic absence overall of 3.2 percent. At Burton Elementary, for example, chronic absence fell from 23 percent in 2006 to 12.2 percent in 2013.

Another positive sign: The first six schools to join KSSN in 2006 — including five elementary or K-8 schools — each made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the academic performance measure from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, after three years in the network. For each school, this was a first.

KSSN’s attendance work is rooted in Kent County’s embrace — during the late 1990s federal welfare overhaul — of a dual-generation approach to combating poverty by helping adults succeed in work and children succeed in school. “It’s about building that culture of ‘showing up’ at a job or at school,” says Paine-McGovern.

Begun as a collaborative effort among schools, county health, mental health and social services, a nonprofit health system and several funders, KSSN aims to improve student achievement by creating community hubs in high-poverty schools that provide easier access to family supports and services. In many schools, providers also include a human services department worker and a nurse or health aide. Creating the network and attendance focus involved several essentials, including parent outreach; strong leadership from superintendents and principals; buy-in from other key players; regular attendance meetings; a clear attendance policy; multi-agency case management; and the blending and braiding of public and private funds.

KSSN has inspired fledgling efforts to create similar networks with an attendance focus in almost 200 Michigan schools, from Detroit to the rural Upper Peninsula, and earned support for implementation and ongoing evaluation from national funders including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, based in Michigan. Paine-McGovern points to a recent survey finding that 83 percent of responding KSSN parents reported that their child has at least one adult at school whom they can go to with a problem.

“That’s huge — the relationship piece,” she says. “Does that mean that child will continue and go on to graduate? You hope so. With this team in the school, there are more adults looking out for children and figuring out what those barriers are to attending and learning.”

For more information, contact Carol Paine-McGovern at 614-447-2480 or


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July 11th, 2014

“Dosage” in Early Ed Includes Regular Attendance

Educators and researchers talk a lot about dosage—making sure that children, especially those from low-income families, get enough exposure to learning and reading early on. Dosage drives the movement for extended school days and longer school years.

Just as critical, though, is making sure that when we offer high quality preschool or school programs, children attend regularly to get enough dosage for the program to make a difference.

That was the gist of Attendance Works Director Hedy Chang’s message when she spoke earlier this week at the National Head Start Research Conference in Washington, D.C.  Her panel with researchers explored what we’ve learned about school attendance and academic achievement from K-12 education and what research shows about the corrosive effects of chronic absence as early as preschool.

In Chicago, for instance, research showed that preschoolers with poor attendance had lower school readiness scores, said Stacy Ehrlich from the University of Chicago Consortium of Chicago School Research. In math and letter recognition, those most affected were the children who arrived at preschool with the weakest skills. These chronically absent preschoolers were five times more likely than others to be chronically absent in second grade. That persistent absenteeism set them up for academic struggles and significant difficulty with reading by the end of second grade.

The Baltimore Education Research Consortium found similar results in its 2012 study, which showed early chronic absence was a significant predictor of later attendance problems, lower test scores and more frequent retention.  It also found that students in Head Start had better attendance entering kindergarten and in the early grades and better outcomes by third grade.

The Baby Faces study by Mathematica Policy Research, the first known analysis examining the impact of attendance in Early Head Start, found a modest association between absenteeism and lower levels of language development for children ages 1 and 2.Families who left the program early typically had greater challenge with attendance while enrolled.  But Head Start programs often don’t understand how to use attendance data, said Amanda Bryans, director of Head Start’s Office of Education and Comprehensive Services. Programs are required to report on efforts to improve attendance if they fall below an 85 percent average daily attendance rate, and some assume that they are fine as long as they meet this this minimum standard. But the research shows that  average figures can mask a great deal of chronic absenteeism.

Worse, some programs address absenteeism by threatening to disenroll the student, rather than engaging the family to find out why they are struggling to get their child to preschool. “Don’t make assumptions,” Bryans said. “Go the extra mile” to find out why students can’t make it to class. Communication and home visits with the parents are key.

The panel recommended a number of next steps:

  • Report attendance data for public pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs so that parents and educators know the scope of the problem
  • Develop data systems that capture and link early childhood data to public school data systems
  • Work toward a shared understanding of how to measure attendance accurately and in timely, useful ways
  • Put data tools in the hands of practitioners as well as researchers

For more information, see the full PowerPoint presentation.

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