Want to Help Your Kids Succeed in School? Make Sure They Go

“Daddy, my stomach really hurts.”

My six year-old daughter put on her best sick face. “I think maybe I should stay home today.”

I looked at her skeptically. Her little brother had been sick—actually sick, with a fever—the day before, and stayed home from preschool. She’d heard that he’d gotten some extra attention and TV time. I felt her forehead: no fever.

“I think you’ll feel better once you have some breakfast and get to school,” I told her. “But if you still feel really bad later on, tell your teacher.”

She groaned dramatically, pouted her way through breakfast, and dragged her feet all the way to the bus. But I never heard from the school. She came home the same happy, tired kid she usually is.

Having a child home on a school day is tough for busy parents. Usually it means we have to call in sick, too, or scramble to find someone else to watch them. But the truth is that missing school is even worse for kids. Why? It’s simple: If kids aren’t in school, they probably aren’t learning.

Absences don’t usually get much attention, but research suggests they can be hugely damaging to a child’s success in school and beyond. One recent study, for example, found that students who were “chronically absent” in kindergarten and first grade were much less likely to read proficiently in third grade. By sixth grade, frequent absences are one of the most powerful warning signs that a student will drop out. Concerned about these patterns, the Obama administration recently announced a campaign to track and publish data about absenteeism rates in schools nationwide.

Absences are like a riptide, quietly tugging kids back.

Routine absences can create a vicious cycle in which students struggle to keep up, get frustrated, become isolated from their classmates, and lose interest in school—encouraging more absences. They can recover from one or two missed days over the course of a few months, but more frequent absences quickly take a toll.

I know what you’re thinking: There’s no way my kid is ‘chronically absent.’ He just missed a day here and there.

Consider this, though: According to Attendance Works, “chronic absence” is defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year. For most students, that’s about 18 days, or only two days per month.

You might not guess this, but the impact of excused and unexcused absences is the same. A family reunion trip carries the same cost in lost learning as staying home a week with the flu.  Missing school is missing school.

So how do you keep your child out of the absence riptide?

Start by making a habit of getting to school on time every day, beginning in kindergarten. Having a regular bedtime and morning routine, tracking absences at home, having a neighbor or family member who can get your child to school when you can’t, and only keeping your child home if she’s truly sick can all help. For more tips and practical strategies, download our Don’t Miss the Bus guide or check out other resources from organizations like Attendance Works.

Kids are going to miss a day here and there—just make sure that one doesn’t turn into another, and another. Treat every absence like a big deal. It can sometimes be a headache to get a grumpy or resistant kid to school, but it’s way easier than trying to get them back on track after they fall behind.