Compass: Even the youngest students need to show up every day

We all know that habits formed early tend to stick with us. The longer you practice a habit, the more ingrained it becomes. The same goes for bad habits, of course. The longer we've had it, the harder it is to break.

That's one of the myriad reasons children's earliest years are so important. The habits they learn early are likely to stay with them for life. While the data is far from complete, a growing body of research suggests that among the important good habits learned early is showing up for school.

Showing up is a learned habit. We learn to show up for appointments. We learn to show up for school. We learn to show up for work.

A teacher can't teach to an empty chair. A child can't learn that day's lessons if he's not in class. September is Attendance Awareness Month, designated to focus public attention on chronic school absenteeism.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of days in school - about 18 days for the school year or just one day every two weeks. That might not sound like much but studies around the country are building a compelling link between chronic absence and poor academic performance.

Long before they start grade school, children learn to show up. They learn it the way they learn everything: through repetition. For children, routine is important. Young children find comfort in the routines and predictability of their day.

People tend to think consistent attendance at preschool and kindergarten doesn't matter, that it's only an issue in the higher grades. That's not true. Studies in several states and nationally suggest chronic absenteeism in the earliest years -- in preschool and kindergarten -- is a predictor for more and continued problems later.

In Chicago, 80 percent of the children who were chronically absent in kindergarten had been chronically absent in preschool. An Oregon study found that children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade had the lowest levels of attendance five years later.

Study after study confirms the value of high-quality early childhood education for developing the cognitive, social and emotional skills that children need to succeed in kindergarten. Unless children attend on a regular basis, they're unlikely to fully benefit.

There's no magic bullet to tackle chronic absenteeism. But clearly the first step is to get a handle on just how much of a problem it is here in Alaska. That requires data. We need to know what data is already out there and where the gaps are.

Learning to show up starts early and it starts at home. But it doesn't end there. Whether we're parents, teachers, child care providers or interested members of the community, we all need to ensure our children have the best and make the most of their learning opportunities. The future of Alaska truly depends on it.

Abbe Hensley is executive director of Best Beginnings. Debi Baldwin is director of the Child Development Division, RurAL CAP.