Skip to content

Attendance Matters: Chronic Absence in Early Childhood Education

May 16, 2024
Updated May 17, 2024

When it comes to early learning, research shows that starting when children are younger and staying longer makes a huge difference to their future outcomes – and to reap the full benefits, children need to be present.

But across the country, there’s a growing trend in educational spaces from preschool all the way through high school that is making learning more challenging: chronic absence.

What is Chronic Absence, and Why Is It a Problem?

Chronic absence, or absenteeism, means missing 10 percent or more of total school days for any reason, whether excused or unexcused (1). That equates to an average of 2 days per month, or 18 days per year.

Attendance matters, even for our youngest learners. Research shows that preschoolers who miss 10% or more of the school year arrive at kindergarten with lower levels of school readiness (2), and are 5x more likely to be chronically absent in second grade (3). Chronic absence is an early warning sign that children are likely to be off track for learning to ready by third grade, and a strong indicator of later absenteeism and problems in academic success, like achieving in middle school or even graduating from high school (4).

Chronic absence is especially challenging for children living in disinvested communities. Children living in low-income communities are 4x more likely to be chronically absent in kindergarten compared to their higher income peers (5).

Chronic Absence Before vs. During the Pandemic

Before the pandemic, about 15% of U.S. public school K-12 students were chronically absent. By the 2021-22 school year, that number had exploded to 26% – more than 1 in 4 students, or nearly 14.7 million children (6).

Absenteeism has increased across demographic groups, according to research from the American Enterprise Institute (7). Students are missing more school in districts big and small, across income and race (8), with two-thirds of students attending a school with high or extreme levels of chronic absence (where 1 in 5 students is chronically absent) – and the trend isn’t exclusive to K-12, either.

Recent data from Educare show the same trends from K-12 data nationally are being mirrored in early education. When examining patterns of attendance and absenteeism for more than 3,000 children and families in 24 Early/Head Start programs in the Educare Network before the pandemic (2018-19) and during the pandemic (2021-22), we found:

  • Chronic absenteeism rose significantly from before the pandemic to during the pandemic. There was a higher percentage of chronically absent Educare children during the pandemic (84%) compared to before the pandemic (55%) (9).
  • Rates of chronic absence differed by race/ethnicity before and during the pandemic. Black children had the highest rates of chronic absence before the pandemic – and while chronic absence was still the highest among Black students during the pandemic, rates were consistently high across all racial-ethnic groups (9).

Factors Contributing to Chronic Absence

So, what leads to chronic absence? The answer is complicated, with a myriad of factors affecting children’s attendance – or lack thereof – at school.

  • Health. Chronic or acute illnesses logically impact whether a child goes to school. However, this becomes particularly confusing for students, families and educators during a time of unclear, rapidly shifting health guidance and practices – like when, why and for how long to exclude children exhibiting symptoms from programs during the pandemic. Trauma and mental health are also concerns; an estimated more than 280,000 young people in the U.S. lost one or both parents to the pandemic, with about 350,000 losing a primary or secondary caregiver, including a grandparent (10). K-12 schools have also seen an increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services at school since the start of the pandemic (10).
  • Transportation. Families’ access to transportation can make or break attendance, from reduced bus routes and driver shortages to cost barriers of bus passes, availability of ride shares, predictability of schedules, and more. (For more on this issue, see our comments on the Office of Head Start’s recent proposed changes to the Head Start Program Performance Standards.)
  • Family engagement and support. A study by Learning Heroes found that schools with higher levels of family engagement had significantly lower increases in chronic absence during the pandemic, with an even greater impact for families with low incomes. Overall, stronger relationships, a warm and welcoming school climate and increased connection between schools and families can help reduce chronic absence.
  • Housing instability. Families experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity face additional challenges with systems, infrastructure and access to needed supports, which can in turn impact children’s attendance at school.
  • Climate change. Research shows that climate change detrimentally and disproportionately affects infants and young children, particularly those in historically disinvested or marginalized communities. Extreme weather and climate events not only directly impact families’ resiliency, physical and mental health and overall well-being, but climate change overall also has significant, widespread and long-term impacts on systems like food, health care, housing and transportation. These systems-level breakdowns can in turn affect families’ stability, access to basic needs, and capacity to support their children to fully participate in school or early learning programming.

Family responsibilities, lack of access to technology, teacher absences due to burnout or child care challenges – all these and more act as barriers to children’s attendance in early childhood and K-12 education programs.

What’s Next: How to Increase and Improve Attendance

Chronic absence not only has many contributing factors, but it’s also highly affected by local contexts – which means there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing the problem. A coordinated, comprehensive, family- and community-centered equitable approach is needed to address attendance and absenteeism issues. We need to understand and create solutions that address the root causes and underlying conditions leading to absenteeism, and build strong routines and habits through the support of early care and education programs, providers and families (9).

Ideas to Improve Attendance and Address Chronic Absence

At home:

  • Partner with families to understand what’s top of mind for them and what barriers could be getting in the way of children’s regular attendance
  • Build strong relationships with families to create a strong school-home connection
  • Use existing tools to involve, engage and empower families around attendance (messaging, surveys and incentives)
  • Provide individualized support to families of students, including case management or family navigator support
  • Talk with caregivers about the benefits of consistent attendance during enrollment and orientation into the program
  • Encourage caregivers to be proactive about attendance by creating a plan for daily drop off and pick up
  • Support caregivers in understanding the potential impacts of upcoming climate events (e.g., heat waves, natural disasters) on the health and safety of their families and their access to basic needs

At school:

  • Expand access to health supports like school nurses and school-based health services (6)
  • Establish a consistent system of recognition and support around positive attendance, and develop an incentive system for improving attendance
  • Build a culture of positive attendance (reflection, wristbands, student tracking of attendance)
  • Identify and implement improvements to arrival and dismissal (morning meetings, drop-off/pick-up procedures, safe routes to school)
  • Adopt Nudge letter process for students who have missed 10% of days
  • Implement positive communications (text, email, social media, phone call) when students are present
  • Utilize prior year attendance data to develop preventative outreach (wake-up calls, check-in/check-out)

In the community:

  • Develop consistent messaging across communities (6)
  • Explore funding streams for supports (alarm clocks, gas cards, cell phone chargers, washing machines)
  • Review program family data and community data to understand how the transportation, housing and health systems in your community may potentially impact families in your community
  • Work to create program policies that meet your community’s individual needs and to support system changes on a community level to better support families’ access to areas that often create barriers to attendance
  • Connect families with disaster preparedness training opportunities and resources like and help them identify resources such as emergency health care, housing/shelters (e.g., cooling centers), and food resources that help families with infants and young children
  • Advocate with local governments to ensure the above resources cater to the specific needs of infants and young children to help promote resiliency


5. Ready, D. D. (2010). Socioeconomic disadvantage, school attendance, and early cognitive development: The differential effects of school exposure. Sociology of Education, 83(4), 271-286.