Creating Conditions for Increased Preschool Attendance

Melissa Dahlin brings a strong background in early childhood education research, policy analysis, and technical assistance—as well as insights from her years as a preschool and Montessori teacher—to her work for Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO). As a research associate for CEELO, Melissa provides strategic technical assistance to build the capacity of state education agencies to lead sustained improvements in early learning opportunities and outcomes. She also develops research and policy resources—including the March 2016 brief, State Approaches to Family Engagement in Pre-K Programs—and co-leads a Family Engagement Community of Practice. In all of her work for CEELO, and in her volunteer work for the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, Melissa is guided by a deep commitment to ensuring that all young children and families can access the resources and support they need to thrive. In this post, originally published on the Preschool Matters...Today blog, Melissa takes a close look at the key role that effective family and community engagement plays in children’s preschool attendance.

Creating conditions in which people are more likely to change. This phrase really stuck with me when I heard it recently at a session on systems thinking at the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) Leadership Academy, led by Tracy Benson from the Waters Foundation because it applied to many of my personal and professional interactions. In particular, it resonated with CEELO’s chronic absenteeism FastFact. The connection struck me on two levels, both involving incorporating family engagement as a lever for changing chronic absenteeism into regular attendance for children in early learning settings.

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The first level involves changing the conditions for having a broader conversation around chronic absenteeism that will result in a change in how the general public views and approaches the issue. I’d been frustrated when I heard colleagues say that if we could “just get parents to care more” attendance would improve. This view (that parents don’t care) probably is generally incorrect–and even if true, does not allow for much action other than trying to change people, a daunting goal that does not translate well to actionable strategies. For instance, how well would you respond as a parent to public information ads telling you to “start caring” or “do something” about your child’s rate of absences? My guess is not well. If instead the message is “Children need to attend everyday to take full advantage of what their preschools offer and are happier when they can maintain a regular, predictable schedule?” my hunch is there would be a more positive response. Of course, if we really want to make progress, we should actually ask parents what problems they face that may be preventing regular attendance and help to provide solutions to those problems. By shifting the tone of the overarching conversation policymakers engage in–from blaming families to seeking a better understanding, and forming a partnership to improve attendance, then policies and guidance can be crafted that create conditions for practitioners to feel better equipped and empowered to address chronic absenteeism.

The second level speaks more to a practitioner level, with family engagement as the key strategy in creating a condition in which attendance patterns change for the better. How might parent responses to inquiries about chronic absences differ if they had positive relationships with the staff? When a program values creating strong family engagement opportunities, staff develop strong, positive, reciprocal, and ongoing relationships with families from the outset. These productive relationships lessen the potential for all parties perceiving blame, negative feelings, or threats when entering into conversations around children’s attendance. Programs with strong family engagement values and approaches are better prepared to work in partnership with families to identify the root cause(s) for individual cases, and craft solutions. When you understand “your” families, you’ll have a better grasp of their environmental situation and beliefs (i.e., nontraditional work schedules; distance away from the site, and transportation options to get to it; extended visits to family outside the area). But, more importantly, staff will have relationships with families that enable family and program staff to act as partners in discussing and finding suitable solutions.

Extending family engagement to include community engagement also sets up conditions that make it easier to improve chronic absenteeism. Programs with strong ties to community organizations, businesses, places of worship, and others, open up a wide range of resources and potential solutions to support families in ensuring their children can safely and consistently participate in quality programs.

Family engagement holds many benefits for yielding positive child and family outcomes, a topic that I discuss in a policy brief from CEELO. Family engagement remains one key component to address chronic absenteeism, by creating conditions in which programs are attuned to the circumstances that prevent attendance and have relationships to build solutions with families.