Too often, when a child is chronically absent in the early grades, we hear the refrain, “the parents just don’t care.” But an innovative survey of parents whose elementary school children are missing 10 or days a year reveals a far more complex picture.
The Ad Council and the California Attorney General’s Office recently released results of the survey on parental attitudes toward absenteeism and a toolkit for helping teachers and schools deliver the right messages on attendance. You can find the Ad Council research, and the toolkit, “In School and On Track,” by clicking here.
Through interviews and surveys with a diverse mix of low-income families in California, researchers from the Ad Council found that parents want the best for their children, including success in school and a college education. But many simply don’t understand the connection between attendance and achievement, especially in the early grades. And they don’t know what constitutes good attendance.
The survey found:
- Parents consider absenteeism a bigger deal in high school than elementary school. In fact the parents surveyed were twice as likely to worry about the effect of absences in high school, compared to those in the early grades.
- Parents often don’t know how many days their children miss. Although all the parents involved in the survey had children missing 10 or more days. only 30 percent said their children missed that much school. At the same time, 60 percent said their children missed two days a month, which adds up to about 18 days a year, what we consider chronic absence
- Parents are willing to track absences and take other steps to improve attendance. Once parents were given clear information about the negative impact of absences, nine out of 10 said they intend to monitor absences in the coming school year to ensure their children succeed in school. Nine out of 10 said they would limit unnecessary absences, reach out to teachers for missed homework and talk to their children about the importance of attendance. Eight in 10 pledged to shorten vacations so that children wouldn’t miss school.
- Teachers are the most trusted messengers for talking about attendance, but it doesn’t always come up. A full 72 percent of parents said they trust teachers most to discuss their child’s attendance. But only 42 percent reported that a school official, including a teacher, contacted them personally about attendance in the past 6 months.
The Ad Council survey also tested four messages and found that parents responded best to two of them:
- Early absences can affect later achievement, since students can miss some of the key building blocks for learning.
- Absences add up more quickly than you realize, given that just two days a month can mean 18 absences a year.
Parents were less persuaded by the notion that all absences are equal, i.e. an excused absence is just as damaging as unexcused one. They also didn’t buy the notion that early absences set bad attendance habits, contributing to truancy later.
The survey findings suggest that it’s more effective to highlight the consequences of absences rather than offer general encouragement to attend school. Families may think their student is attending school regularly if they show up 9 out of 10 days. But, we know that is missing 10 percent of school.
Given these findings, the Ad Council developed a top 10 list of considerations when talking to parents about attendance. These include:
- Approach the issue of absences out of concern, rather than compliance. Make parents feel supported, rather than guilty and in trouble.
- Refer to absences by month, rather than by year. Point out that just “2 days missed per month” has consequences, instead of “18 days missed per year.”
- Use simple, easy-to-understand language. Avoid complicated statistics, hyperboles, or metaphors.
- Be realistic about what you are asking parents to do. Avoid implying that parents should send children to school when they’re sick.
- Frame the discussion around “absences” rather than “attendance.” Talking about “attendance” validates what parents already believe they do; talking about “absence” focuses their attention on what they’re missing.
- Describe how elementary school builds a foundation for future success. Help parents understand that learning is sequential—an absence is a missed opportunity to learn something their child will need in order to understand more difficult material later.
- Give parents specific reasons why absences matter, rather than making vague statements. Say things like…
“You cannot make up for too many absences with homework or take-home assignments.”
“Too many absences will allow them to fall behind in reading, writing and math.”
“Too many absences now can actually make them less likely to graduate high school.”
- Connect parents to the class curriculum to help them understand what their child may be missing. Say things like…
“We are learning to identify numerators and denominators this week. Please make sure your child does not miss school because his/her understanding of this lesson will make him better prepared for next week’s lesson on adding fractions with common denominators.”
- Communicate with parents readily using text messaging to discuss absences. Make sure parents, of which the vast majority prefer to communicate with the school using text messages, are aware of the absence while also inviting them to a phone call. If you’re considering this approach, take into account these tips for texting parents.