The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Missing Out

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Understandably, school officials worry when students miss class frequently. But not all students are equally vulnerable to the problem of absenteeism. A team of researchers at UCLA recently completed a study of absenteeism among elementary, middle-school, and high-school students, concluding that children from single-parent homes are particularly likely not only to miss school but to develop psychological and behavioral problems often associated with absenteeism.

To identify the correlates of absenteeism and related problems, the UCLA scholars scrutinized regionally or nationally representative data for students attending elementary school, middle school, and high school. These data indicate that for students in middle school and high school, living in a single-parent home predicted “higher levels of absenteeism” than was found among peers from two-parent homes (p < 0.05). The data also indicated that for fifth-grade students, living in a single-parent home meant “an increased predicted probability of chronic absenteeism,” taking peers from two-parent homes as the baseline for comparison (p = 0.13). Among male students in middle school and high school, another issue—namely that of “conduct problems”—emerged with distinctive frequency among the offspring of single-parent rather than two-parent families (p < 0.05). This ancillary finding, however, fits within the thinking of the researchers, who suggest that “school absenteeism in secondary school . . . may inadvertently become an early step along the path of accelerating conduct problems.”

But absenteeism and disruptive behavior were not the only problems showing up with disturbing frequency among students from single-parent homes. The researchers report that students from such homes (of both genders) were significantly more likely than peers from intact families to suffer from “anxiety and depression” (p < 0.05).

That children of single parents would frequently miss class, disrupt class when they do show up, and manifest symptoms of psychological distress is hardly surprising. “A concurrent association between absenteeism and youth psychopathology is well-established,” report the researchers, who adduce evidence of “reciprocal influences” between these two problems, especially among adolescent students.

The researchers conclude their study expressing their belief that “selective and indicated prevention models targeting absenteeism could be developed that might ultimately reduce the incidence of mental health disorders.” But their own findings should compel policymakers to start looking for ways to reduce the number of children living in the single-parent households that account for a suspiciously large number of the students who are missing class, disrupting class, and developing mental illnesses. The most obvious strategy would be that of reinforcing wedlock as a social ideal.

(Jeffrey J. Wood et al., “School Attendance Problems and Youth Psychopathology: Structural Cross-Lagged Regression Models in Three Longitudinal Datasets,” Child Development 83.1 [2012]: 351-366.)