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How awarding perfect attendance can backfire on children: experts

This mom doesn’t want her son to get an award
ABOVE: Why she doesn’t think he should get honoured for his perfect attendance

Awards for children who never miss a day of school are commonplace in Canadian schools, but now, some experts worry it might be teaching children the wrong lesson.

Research has shown that chronic absenteeism is a predictor of poor academic performance and higher dropout rates. To mitigate those risks, some schools track students’ attendance and give out perfect attendance awards.

Although this practice may boost attendance, Nikki Martyn, program head of early childhood studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, worries about the adverse long-term effects.

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“As humans, we’re not perfect, and trying to attain that actually doesn’t do well for us because it limits us,” she told Global News.

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“It gives us this idea that we have to be in control all of the time. We can’t be vulnerable, we can’t take risks and we can’t have failures — but all of those things are important for learning.”

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In some circumstances, perfect attendance awards can actually be demotivating, as proven by a 2019 study at Harvard University.

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What are young kids taught about violence against women?

Researchers randomly chose 15,239 students in California between the grades of 6 and 12 who had perfect attendance for at least one month in the fall term. They then split them up into three groups.

The first group received a notice saying that, if they achieved perfect attendance in the next month, they would win an award. The second group received a notice saying that they’d won an award for perfect attendance in the previous month, and the third group did not receive any letters or awards.

For students who were already low-performing academically, the impact of the awards was clear: seeing their peers receive praise for never missing a day of school only made them less motivated to succeed at school than they were before.

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Martyn said perfect attendance awards can cause children to feel shame over something that could be totally out of their control.

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“Maybe they need a mental health day or they’re feeling burnt out or they’re stressed or they’re being bullied. There are many reasons why children need to skip school sometimes,” she said.

“As a society and parents and educators, we need to be able to support them. We need to teach children how to understand what they need.”

Pressure to be perfect

Incentivizing kids to never miss a day of school could encourage them to ignore their own needs in the pursuit of perfection.

“In general, we want to avoid that word ‘perfect’ for young people,” said Dr. Shimi Kang, an expert in youth mental health and founder of Dolphin Kids, an educational program that teaches children social-emotional skills.

Rates of perfectionism are on the rise in young people — particularly young girls — and it can be linked to anxiety, depression, poor body image and poor relationships, said Kang.

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Advice for parents as students balance school pressure, anxiety and mental health issues

“We know that children who have high absenteeism rates at school are … missing out on the very important social, emotional, academic learning and community, so you definitely want to encourage attendance and discourage absenteeism,” she said. “But having a focus on the record … is not exactly the right place to put the focus.”

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Kang offers a “thoughtful attendance award” as an alternative.

“I think we should award … the person who is actually brave enough to say, ‘you know what, I can’t make it today,'” she said. “That way, we’re training people who have an ability to take care of themselves.”

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This, Kang says, would better address the mental health crisis happening around the world.

“One in four people on this planet have mental health issues. Stress is the number one health epidemic identified by the World Health Organization. Stress impacts our physical body, our blood pressure, our sugar levels, our sleep, our mental health,” she said.

“It is a huge burden on society when people don’t know how to manage and take care of themselves.”

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Martyn points out that mental health discussions are happening, but not enough of them are in the classroom.

“[Awards like these are] basically telling our children that they’re not good enough,” Martyn said.

“It’s only been in the last number of years that it’s a discussion to take mental health days at work … that hasn’t translated to the classroom.”

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A symptom of a larger problem

There could be many reasons a child is chronically absent from school.

John Ippolito, an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto, believes it’s the responsibility of teachers and administrators to determine those reasons and, if possible, offer help.

In his work, Ippolito has done extensive research on the relationships between families and schools — particularly minority and marginalized families, which can often face “challenges that make regular attendance more difficult.”

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These challenges could include poverty, cultural and linguistic barriers, or a lack of safe and affordable transportation.

“These can all make it hard for kids to get to school,” he said. “[They can lead to] a communication breakdown between the home and the school.”

He recommends that schools adopt “programmatic systematic interventions” to prevent further breakdown with families.

“This can create a dialogue forum to begin to nurture open relationships between the school and the families, so that those families … who are marginalized feel much less afraid to come in and ask the school about the resources available,” he said.

Communication between teacher and student is key

Moving forward, Martyn hopes teachers and administrators will begin to foster more open communication with students and their families.

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“I’d like to suggest that we better support children so they learn resilience,” she said. “How do we support children to deal positively with adversity?”

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This can include asking students questions like “if you’re sick, what are the things you can do?” or “can you get your homework?”

Teachers should be showing kids how to “positively fight” through adversity, said Martyn.

“Not for the sake of making somebody else feel better, but fight back because it’s in our best interest, because we want to do well and we want to succeed and we like that feeling.”

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca