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The Influence of Maternal & Family Risk on Chronic Absenteeism in Early Schooling

Authors: Mariajosé Romero and Young-Sun Lee
Publication Date: January 2008

This is an excerpt from the full report.

This analysis is part of Pathways to Early School Success, a project central to NCCP’s larger goal to promote strategies that improve the social, emotional and physical health of low-income children in the U.S.

An extensive body of research in the past two decades has established the detrimental impact of poverty and economic hardship on children’s development and wellbeing. We have learned that exposure to economic and other risks arising from the sociodemographic characteristics of parents and families, the patterns of intra-family interaction and communication, as well as from the poor quality of the environment in the home, the neighborhood and the broader community negatively impacts on children’s cognitive development, socioemotional functioning, and school performance. Risk factors commonly examined include: poverty; food insecurity; low parental education; low maternal IQ; parental unemployment; single parent status; teen parenthood; use of social assistance; poor parental physical and mental health; large family size; living in rented housing; overcrowding and poor housing conditions; homelessness; child maltreatment; non-stimulating home environment; little parental responsiveness, teaching and interaction; over-reliance in harsh discipline techniques; little contact with the father; parent involvement with the justice system; stressful life events; and quality of the child care environment.

Recent research has moved from descriptive studies of the relation between exposure to risk and child outcomes, to attempts to understand the mechanisms by which poverty and economic hardship compromise children’s development and wellbeing, as well as to determine whether this effect depends on the timing and duration of risk exposure. It has become clear that risks in the child’s physical and socio-psychological environment tend to co-occur and, in many instances, are correlates of or contextual factors associated to poverty, often mediating its effect on child outcomes. Indeed, poverty negatively affects every aspect of children’s lives. The literature has identified the lack of competence-promoting parenting practices, specifically, little maternal sensitivity, empathy, and affectionate and nurturing behaviors, together with low quality of the home environment and the parent-child interaction, as factors that mediate the harmful effect of poverty on children’s self-regulation and social development, behavior problems, language and vocabulary, and school achievement.

Relatively little attention has been paid, however, to the role of the schooling experience in the educational trajectories and outcomes of children exposed to risk. In fact, most of the research has focused on children prior to entering formal schooling. Thus we do not know whether risk exposure influences in any way the patterns of attendance and engagement in early schooling that are known to negatively affect learning and performance.

Building on previous analyses that revealed a significant level of absenteeism in the early school years, especially among low-income children, and confirmed its detrimental effects on school success, this second report in this series explores how maternal and family risks impact early school absenteeism. Using data from a nationally representative sample of kindergartners from across various incomes and race/ethnicity groups – the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (Kindergarten Cohort)7, NCCP examines the prevalence of risk factors known to threaten young children’s healthy development and early school success. These include: poverty, teenage and/or single parenting, low levels of maternal education, receipt of welfare, unemployment, poor maternal health, food insecurity, and large family size – that is, four or more children at home. It also assesses the cumulative impact of early exposure to multiple risk factors, building on a large body of research showing that the more demographic and psycho-social risks children encounter, the more likely they are to experience poor developmental and school outcomes.

This report shows that maternal and family risks are associated with greater absenteeism and that the cumulative exposure to risk best predicts chronic absenteeism in early schooling. Kindergartners in contact with three or more risks missed, on average, three or more days than their peers not facing any risks. But as children progress through the elementary grades, the impact of cumulative risk on school attendance lessens, only to rise again in the fifth grade. This report also reveals that it is the most vulnerable children – that is, those who are poor or racial/ethnic minorities or suffer from poor health – who have the greatest exposure to cumulative risk.