As parents, it’s exciting to celebrate your child’s accomplishments! We want to see our children recognized for how wonderful they are and how hard they work. That’s the idea many of us have for perfect attendance awards–it’s a way to set a “simple” goal for a child (show up to school) and gives them an opportunity to earn some recognition. 

While the goal of them may be to motivate students to consistently come to school–and therefore hopefully learn to value education–the reality of perfect attendance awards is that they don’t work! And, actually, they can cause more harm than good for students–both those who win them and those who don’t.


So what are the problems with perfect attendance awards? Here are a few: 


They are extrinsic motivators:

While it sounds like getting a child to want to show up to school everyday would be a great way to teach them to value their education, we can see that that’s not actually what’s happening. Instead of cultivating a love of learning within them, or developing some other sort of intrinsic motivator, perfect attendance awards teach them to go to school in the hopes of getting something out of it. 

They’re ableist:

Perfect attendance policies favor children without disabilities or chronic health conditions. While “just showing up” to school can sound like a simple task for an able-bodied child without any long term health conditions, it’s not a feasible goal for a child with chronic illness. It forces students who are sick or injured (or the parents of a sick or injured child) to choose between the external pressure to be at school every single day and their own physical and mental wellbeing. It also sends the message to any disabled or chronically ill students that it doesn’t matter how much effort they put into their school work at home or school, they’ve already fallen short of expectations by not being able to physically show up everyday. Pushing students to go to school when sick or injured etc is not only unaccessible to some kids it is downright dangerous for others, as ignoring the need for rest and care could exacerbate whatever condition they’re managing. 

They send a message that it’s “All or Nothing”

Which is not the message we want to send our kids! Nothing in life is all or nothing–a little effort is always better than none at all. Doing the dishes every other day is better than never doing the dishes at all, right? So why are we telling our kids that to be good students, they have to show up every day without exception?

It ignores the “why” of student absences: 

There are lots of reasons that have nothing to do with not valuing education that students miss school. And in fact, it often has nothing to do with the students themselves! Parents are often the ones in charge of whether a kid goes to school or not. Other reasons they might be forced to miss school can be health (as we’ve touched on), financial complications, familial obligations/emergencies, lack of transportation, etc. To really get better attendance you can’t just tell the students “show up anyway” you have to look at why kids aren’t able to get to school. It’s not just laziness! 

Showing up isn’t 100% of the battle:

This study on perfect attendance awards revealed something interesting: students who got the awards felt like they were being recognized for going above and beyond instead of just being awarded for showing up, which meant that they felt they could ease back on their school work and academic performance actually declined after getting the award. It’s important to remember that showing up everyday doesn’t necessarily mean they will engage with the material or understand it better. It doesn’t even guarantee they will pay attention–just that they will be there.

So what can you do instead, if you want to encourage a love and excitement for learning that will make them want to go to school?

The idea that kids should get excited about going to school or learning something new is good–and we want to encourage that! But clearly we need to find something more effective than perfect attendance, which appears to be not only unfair, but actively doing the opposite of its intention. 

Show them what learning looks like outside of school: 

There are opportunities for learning everywhere. We’re all learning constantly all day every day! Take your child to local museums and cultural centers to help engage that more academic style learning. Or watch educational movies or read educational books with them! But there are other, more casual ways to foster that love of learning outside of school. Have them join you as you engage in your hobbies–you can teach them something new and fun. Or have them help you make dinner! Teach them new skills in the kitchen. These kinds of natural learning activities help to take learning out of the ““school/homework only” zone and into real life and makes it fun so they want to do it. 

Encourage their curiosity:

Kids are almost incessantly curious about everything! When they start asking questions (if you have the time, we know being a parent is busy!) don’t just answer them for yourself. Take them on a journey to discover the answers for themselves. You can help them look things up online or make it a bigger activity and take them to the local library to find lots of books on the subject and explore those! When they associate learning with “finding new interesting things that I like” they will be much more excited about it. 

Explore the values you think the award represents:

Do you like the idea of perfect attendance awards because they symbolize responsibility? How can you cultivate that in your child without forcing them to neglect their own needs? 

If you need help supporting your child, you’re not alone! Our clinicians can help you come up with a plan to deal with them that’s specific to your situation.