The average adult can barely remember kindergarten or first grade, but a new study from The Ohio State University finds that decisions made way back then can indeed influence one’s life in early adulthood.
The research team concluded that children who are frequently absent from school between kindergarten and eighth grade are less likely to vote, and more likely to experience financial problems and or poorer educational outcomes by the time they reach the age of 22 or 23 years old.
Many parents tend to think that missing school during these early years isn’t a very big deal for a child, but the study’s authors say their findings suggest that’s woefully inaccurate.
“There’s this misconception, especially among parents, that it doesn’t matter as much if kids miss school early on – that it only becomes important when they get to middle or high school,” says lead study author Arya Ansari, assistant professor of human sciences at OSU, in a university release. “This study shows that those early absences do matter, and in ways that many people don’t consider.”
The research team used data originally collected by the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development for their research. In total, they analyzed 648 students hailing from 10 different US cities. Each participant was tracked from birth right on through to early adulthood. Thanks to the original study, researchers had access to school attendance records for each child between kindergarten and the eighth grade.
Finally, once each participant reached 22 or 23 years old, they described how their life had turned out. More specifically, subjects were asked if they had ever been arrested, become a parent, found themselves in a tough financial/economic spot, or voted.
Ultimately, the study’s authors found no evidence of a connection between skipping school early on in life and acting in a criminal or devious manner later on. That being said, early school absenteeism was linked to political engagement, economic success/failure, and educational outcomes in early adulthood.
For instance, individuals who were frequently absent from school between kindergarten and eighth grade were 4.7% less likely to have voted in the 2012 US presidential election. Similarly, those same participants reported more economic problems, such as trouble paying bills on time.
That’s not all; those who missed primary school often were also more likely to use government-issued food stamps, less likely to have a job, and reported poorer educational outcomes (not attending college, a low high school GPA).
“Absenteeism in those early years of school has pretty far-reaching consequences,” Ansari notes. “It goes beyond just affecting your education and how well you do in high school.”
Ansari speculates that when a child frequently skips school early on, it creates habits that are hard to shake as one grows older and matures.
“If you start out being disengaged with school, you may end up being less engaged with society more broadly. You’re less likely to vote, less likely to go to college, less likely to be employed,” he says. “We believe disengagement may be one of the key mechanisms linking early school absences to poorer outcomes in early adulthood.”
Researchers also made it a point to note that all of the individuals studied for this project came from a middle-class background. So, further research should be conducted on students from lower-class families.
“If we’re seeing these negative outcomes of absenteeism in this largely middle-class sample, the associations may be even more pronounced among disadvantaged families,” he explains.
Of course, this year has brought along its own unique set of challenges and concerns thanks to COVID-19. Millions of students saw their school year cut short this Spring, but Ansari and his team say that pandemic-related absenteeism is another ball game entirely.
“These really are unprecedented times. All kids are absent. With that said, the differential access to support and resources will likely result in even greater variability in outcomes when students return to school after the pandemic,” he concludes.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.