We try not to keep our kids home from school unless they’re really sick — if they miss a few days of material for a mere cold, they’re liable to fall behind. So goes the conventional wisdom. But now, a new study involving nearly 600,000 Danish children suggests that even recurring, less severe infections leading to repeated absences do not necessarily affect learning.
“Our findings indicate that as long as we ‘only’ have a case of less severe infections, and even though the child is definitely ill and requires medicine, the child’s cognitive development is not at risk,” said co-author on the study Ole Köhler-Forsberg of Aarhus University in Denmark, in a statement. “On the other hand, we found that children who had been admitted to hospital as a result of severe infections had a lower chance of completing 9th grade. The decisive factor is therefor the severity of the disease, but not necessarily the number of sick days.”
There are two factors at play, Köhler-Forsberg explains. On one hand, prior studies have shown that severe illnesses that involve hospitalization not only keep kids out of school — they may affect their long-term cognitive abilities. But most children never experience severe illness. Sure they have runny noses, like, daily. And they stay home from school every now and then, mainly to watch cartoons and pretend to be far sicker than they are. Köhler-Forsberg and colleagues wondered how these more routine childhood illnesses affect learning.
So the researchers scoured Danish registers on hospital admissions and prescriptions for 598,553 Danes born between 1987 and 1997, and controlled for factors such as birth weight, mental or chronic illness, and parent’s level of education. They found no correlation between the number of sick days a child took — or the number of prescriptions their parents filled on their behalf — and their ability to complete elementary and junior high school.
It’s noteworthy that the study didn’t specifically look at how days of school missed affected learning (and it’s likely that kids who miss weeks and weeks of school due to illness will fall behind, even if their illnesses are less severe). But the findings should set parents at ease. Just because you’re filling prescriptions so often the pharmacist knows your credit card number by heart doesn’t mean your kids won’t achieve academically.
“The study ought to reassure those parents who find that their young children are often sick,” Ole Köhler-Forsberg said.