Between terrible weather and life’s ups and downs, getting a child to school every day isn’t easy. In generations past, parents felt like it was their prerogative to take their children out of school — whether to tend to the farm or travel to see family. But that’s no longer the norm. American public schools have gotten serious about making sure students don’t skip school unless they’re sick.

Many parents feel that attendance in kindergarten or early elementary school is less important than in later grades, but the habits and values learned early are just as important as academic learning. Making the effort to get your child to school every day, on time, conveys the message that education is important to your family much more strongly than simply telling them “education is important!”

Avoiding negative labels like “truant” and “at risk”

If your child misses more than 15 days of school each year (including both excused and unexcused absences), they may be considered “chronically absent.” What does this mean for your child? It may alert your school that your child is “at risk” — for getting into trouble, getting poor grades, or even dropping out of school.

Even missing a few unexcused days, which means any absence that’s not health-related, such as car trouble, a parent’s work schedule, or a family trip, may compel the school to label your child “truant.” This may go on your child’s permanent record. If your child is identified as truant — even in elementary school — you and your child may be required to attend a hearing at the district to explain your child’s absence. In extreme cases of chronic truancy, parents can lose custody of their children or even go to jail!

The value of attendance for the school and the student

Why is attendance so important from the school’s perspective? School budgets may suffer when students don’t attend. In many states, school funding is based on the average daily attendance at a school. If many students enrolled at a school fail to consistently attend, the school has less money to pay for essential classroom needs.

But the focus on attendance is about a lot more than school budgets. Experts have found that school attendance — even in kindergarten — is a big predictor for a students’ school success. A 2019 report by physicians at Council on School Health published in Pediatrics states: “Chronic school absenteeism, starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, puts students at risk for poor school performance and school dropout.” An earlier 2008 study conducted by the Rodel Community Scholars at Arizona State University that tracked students from kindergarten through high school found that dropout patterns were linked with poor attendance, beginning in kindergarten. Gregory Hickman, director of the Rodel Community Scholars program and former director of the Arizona Dropout Initiative, notes they discovered that as early as kindergarten, attendance rates are different between those who go on to graduate and those who drop out. Dropouts missed an average of 124 days by eighth grade.

All of this research is just common sense. It’s difficult for the teacher and the class to build their skills and make progress together if even a few students are frequently absent. In addition to falling behind academically, students who are not in school on a regular basis are more likely to get into trouble with the law and cause problems in their communities. Even in the early grades, missing a lot of school can make students feel out-of-the-loop and like they don’t know what’s going on in class, which makes them even more reluctant to go to school. This is a vicious cycle: it’s much easier never to begin it than to fix the problem once it’s started.

Does this mean that you should force your child to go to school when they are sick or if they feel unsafe at school because of bullying or some other extreme scenario? Of course not. You know your child best. On the other hand, it’s important that your child go to school even when it’s inconvenient. Making sure your child gets to school — on time and ready to learn — will not only help their grades this year, it will help them succeed in years to come.