There has been a lot of discussion about earning credit via “seat time” (aka Carnegie units) versus “proof of mastery.” Where one insists a person attend a minimum number of class periods while the other cares not about attendance, just the ability to demonstrate knowledge however that may be done.

When it comes to early childhood programs, score 1 for seat time. Attendance matters, and it matters a lot.  What we don’t yet know is how Covid and distance learning is affecting our youngest learners, but this latest research is pointing in the direction that it is going to be dramatic. 

Community Action Project of Tulsa County, Inc. (CAP Tulsa) is a Head Start grantee in Oklahoma. We have used Reflection Sciences’ Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFSTM) to measure executive function since the spring of 2017. Members of the R&I team at CAP Tulsa presented a poster of our findings from a research project examining the relationship between attendance and Executive Function, as measured by MEFSTM, at the 2020 National Research Conference on Early Childhood.


We were initially introduced to MEFSTM as part of a pilot study that was being done with high-quality early childhood education providers interested in learning more about executive function. During this pilot, we found that MEFSTM was sensitive enough to offer a clear understanding of our program’s impact and offered insight into subpopulations of students that need additional support. We also found it to be easier to use than other measures of executive function used in the past. Because of this, we decided to replace our previous executive function measures with the MEFS AppTM in our annual evaluation of our early childhood program.

After our program efficacy study, the Research and Innovation (R&I) team decided to next explore the relationship between daily attendance and executive function. We know that kindergarten readiness is positively related to preschool attendance, especially for children who enter preschool with lower skills than their peers. It is also true that attendance has long been an important focus of Head Start programs.

We thought it would be interesting to learn 1) What is the relationship between average daily attendance and growth in executive function? And 2) What is the relationship between average daily attendance and growth in executive function by race/ethnicity of children?

The Study

To answer these questions, we studied MEFSTM assessment data from 247 children sampled from two of our schools. Students in this sample ranged in age from two-years-old to four-years-old. 52% of the preschoolers were male, 59% had a primary language of English, 31% were Hispanic or Latino, 32% were White/Caucasian, and 33% were Black children.

At one school, children were assessed by their classroom teacher, while children at the other school completed the assessment with support from members of our R&I team. All assessors received training from Reflection Sciences and were required to pass a reliability test prior to administering the assessment. All assessments were conducted in English using iPads.  Further, children were required to pass a set of trial items before beginning the initial level of assessment.  Children who passed the trial items began the assessment at the level that corresponded to their age. Children who failed to pass the trial items began the assessment one level below their age.

The Findings

In response to our research questions, we got the following results:

Question 1: What is the relationship between average daily attendance and growth in executive function?

Children with higher average daily attendance (ADA), defined as attending 90% or more of school days, scored higher and grew more in their executive function skills.

Question 2: What is the relationship between average daily attendance and growth in executive function by race/ethnicity of children?

This effect was particularly strong for Black children. On average, Black children with low ADA only grew 0.5 standard scores while Black children with high ADA grew an average of 2.9 standard scores.

Program Implications

These findings highlight the importance of focusing on regular daily attendance to support child achievement. In terms of practice and policy, CAP Tulsa emphasizes the importance of attending school every day in several ways:

  • School leadership closely monitors attendance every month. The families of children with concerning attendance receive invitations to meet with school leadership to discuss the importance of daily attendance. Further, this is an opportunity to discuss ways in which the agency and contracted service providers can support and address any needs the family may have that are hindering their ability to get to school.
  • At the agency level, the early childhood program’s leadership team receives quarterly attendance reports. Those reports are shared with school leadership to discuss particular patterns that have emerged. In addition, the reports are shared at the school and classroom level to support robust conversation about needs and possible supports.

Covid-19 and Distance Learning

These findings have taken on particular relevance as daily attendance at early childhood education and care settings has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. In many settings, attendance has shifted from in-person daily attendance in the classroom to full distance learning or a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning. Educators are developing ways to engage with the youngest students outside of the school setting amid constraints due to the pandemic and a higher dependence on technology which may not be available to all families. Future research on the relationship between attendance and executive function in a distance learning or hybrid model is needed.

Get the scientifically proven, quantitative measure of children's Executive Function with MEFSTM

About the Authors:  

Lindsay Shields is an Innovation Specialist at CAP Tulsa. Lindsay started her career at CAP Tulsa seven years ago as a three-year-old preschool teacher and in her current role she has managed pilots of a social emotional assessment and an executive function assessment.  Lindsay holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Reed College, a Master of Education in Educational Administration, Curriculum, and Supervision from the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and is currently a first year doctoral student in Early Childhood Policy at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and Human Development.


Angela Baldonado is the Senior Research and Innovation Specialist at CAP Tulsa. Angela has been with CAP Tulsa for three years and currently manages the agency’s internal evaluation of the Head Start program, as well as an evaluation of a state-level grant for early childhood providers. Angela holds a Master of Arts degree in Educational Psychology in the program area of Measurement, Statistics, and Methodological Studies from Arizona State University. Following graduation, Angela worked as a data analyst on the external evaluation of Arizona’s First Things First program which supports early childhood development, health, and education. Before joining the CAP Tulsa team, Angela worked in early childhood education as a classroom teacher and preschool director.