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Perfect attendance awards are not so perfect

It’s understandable that schools would desire to award students with perfect attendance when applicable.

Many schools struggle with student attendance, and a reward for never skipping a day can seem like a good incentive to keep students in class.

However, I am of the opinion that perfect attendance awards do significantly more harm than good. I will tell you why.

Students will go to great lengths when given an incentive to not miss a single day of school, especially when being pressured by a perfectionist parent. In an effort to keep from missing a day, many students are thrown into school by Mom or Dad even after being diagnosed with a viral illness.

Others will hide that they’re sick and sadly tell themselves they can make it through the day, despite feeling awful. Those students go on to infect many of their peers, leading to an overall drop in attendance when those children stay home.

Not only do attendance awards promote the spread of disease from child to child, they also set an unhealthy and abnormal standard for students when they develop into adults and enter the workforce.

It is unrealistic to convince children through perfect attendance awards early on in life that they will be able to get through every school day no matter what obstacle is thrown at them. These children go on to be the same people that come to work sneezing and coughing all over the office. Others might force themselves to get on with the day even when being faced with an emotional dilemma that inhibits their productivity.

I’m not saying schools don’t sometimes take into consideration illness and loss when determining a student’s attendance record. Nor am I saying that workers should use any hint of a runny nose to take a sick day.

But we can’t raise a new generation of dedicated workers if those workers can’t make the decision of “I’m feeling so bad that it will inhibit my ability to do my job, and I may be putting my co-workers at risk by being around them today.”

An article published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education also warns attendance rewards can backfire. A study done by Harvard Ph.D. candidate Carly Robinson explored whether such awards actually have an impact on attendance.

The study split middle and high school students into three groups. One group received a letter informing them that they would earn an award if they achieved perfect attendance the next month. Another group received a letter letting them know that they had won a perfect attendance award for their attendance record the previous month, and the award was attached to the letter. The control group received no letters or awards.

What Robinson found was students who received a retrospective award missed 8.3% more days of school than the control group. Students that received the award ended up thinking they were attending school more than their classmates and used the reward as a reason to cut themselves some slack.

Students offered the chance to earn a future award missed no fewer days and had little improvement on their attendance. What’s more is that struggling students that received a retrospective award missed one-third more days on average the following month than the high-achieving students who also received the award.

What does all of this mean?

It means we need to reconsider why we give students an award for perfect attendance. Is perfection really achievable? Is it something to strive for? Or should we encourage children to be able to try their best and still identify when a break is needed?

A snapshot of Robinson’s findings can be located at https://tinyurl.com/attendancestudy.

Alexa Massey is a staff reporter for The Farmville Herald and Farmville Newsmedia LLC. Her email address is Alexa.Massey@FarmvilleHerald.com.