Helping students get to school every day in the early grades sets the stage for strong attendance in later years, and provides an opportunity to learn literacy and social skills so necessary for academic achievement. This is one reason why the results of a pilot program in public elementary schools in high-poverty communities is so promising. 

Led by Duke University researcher Philip Cook, the program was tested in five schools that are part of a mid-sized school district in North Carolina. The activities successfully reduced absences by about 10 percent among first and second grade students. As an added bonus, the teachers who led the program in their classrooms reported that the effort was not overly burdensome. 

Known as the Early Truancy Prevention Project (ETPP), the program boosted attendance by providing ways to facilitate improved communication between teachers and parents. The teachers began with universal home visits to establish a relationship between the school and the family. In addition, the teachers were given new cell phones to facilitate communication with families. The cost was less than $3,000 per classroom, according to Cook, who is professor emeritus at Duke University.

Why focus on teachers?

While teachers play a critical role in students' academic outcomes, they are often overlooked as a resource in the effort to reduce absenteeism. Cook said he and his team realized that while the teachers are well equipped to teach, they probably in some ways don’t really have what they need to help families when a student is chronically absent. “So we started to fill in what they needed.”

Unlike a typical truancy-prevention program for older students, the pilot leveraged the close relationship that students in primary grades typically develop with the teacher with whom they spend most of the day. “We thought the teacher would be the adult who was best positioned to step in if an intervention was necessary,” Cook said. “So it was just taking advantage of what is already there.”

Universal home visits and cell phones

The initial visit home visit was a low-pressure conversation with the parents. The teacher showed up not because there is a problem but because the child is in her class. “They can talk for a half an hour and one hopes it is the beginning of a more comfortable relationship,” Cook said. The visit also provides teachers with information about students' home life.  Teachers also brought along an interpreter if the parents are primarily Spanish speaking. 

“The surprise was in these early days of 2010 was to discover something that I had not imagined: there was a mechanical problem in communicating by phone,” Cook said. The teachers had their own cell phones but they didn't want to use them to communicate with families because their phone contracts would run out of minutes. There were just two or three land line phones in each school that were available to the teachers. “So, the obvious question was, why not give them a phone?” Cook asked.

Researchers did just that. Each teacher’s phone had texting capacity and a yearlong contract. 

Working with the classroom teachers and the schools’ central office, the researchers developed over time a data system so the teachers knew that their kids were beginning to accumulate absences.

“The home visit, the data and the cell phones all together ended up doing two things: It really improved the communication in immeasurable ways between teachers and parents. And it seemed also to provide teachers with the wherewithal, as the year went on, to identify the kids that were beginning to accumulate absences and to think about what could be done” to address any issues, Cook said. 

Coaching on appropriate interventions

Once the teachers had the data in hand, the researchers coached them on appropriate interventions, and how to talk with families about ways to address a child’s chronic absence.

The teachers reported that the barriers to getting to school were issues such as confusion about the bus route, or a child was suspended from the bus.  “I see this as a kind of problem solving,” Cook said. The interventions included alternatives, such as telling families who they can talk to about their child’s suspension from the bus. 

In other cases, the approach was trying to get the families to take daily attendance more seriously. In some cases, the family was keeping the child at home because they wanted the 7-year-old to take care of the 3-year-old, or the student was needed to interpret at the doctor’s office, Cook said. In these instances, the team encouraged the teachers to talk with the families about the importance of daily attendance for learning. “In the early grades, children have little autonomy, so it is ultimately up to the parents or guardians to get them to school,” Cook said.  

Building a habit of attendance

Cook, who also studies crime, said it was his research into truancy prevention and crime that led him to develop the ETPP. He was working on a prisoner reentry project in a large city when he discovered, while talking to police about a truancy and burglary reduction program, that the typical truancy program is more focused on ensuring young people aren’t “out on the town causing trouble” than it is on improved educational outcomes. 

“When I looked at the literature about truancy I was finding a very sustained focus on middle school and sometimes high school, and very little about primarily or elementary grades.  In most respects, we imagine that habits start at a young age, and school engagement can go either way in the early grades. So, I thought, starting in kindergarten or first grade, wouldn't it be a good thing if we made sure all the kids were showing up?”

For more information contact Philip Cook

Find the study: A new program to prevent primary school absenteeism: Results of a pilot study in five schools