School & District Management

Are Perfect Attendance Awards Fundamentally Flawed? Some School Leaders Say Yes

By Caitlynn Peetz — December 23, 2022 4 min read
Empty classroom desk isolated on a white background with a medical mask hanging off of the back of the desk.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As educators try to strike the balance between combatting student absences and keeping kids healthy, some are questioning whether incentivizing perfect attendance is outdated.

For decades, districts have used perfect attendance awards to encourage students to be in class every day. Usually, schools offer a small prize or a bump in students’ grades for showing up on time every day, no matter what, for a set period of time—usually a month, semester, or academic year.

That often means well-intentioned parents send their sick kids to school, something that’s especially problematic since the COVID-19 global pandemic began. Now, paired with rising cases of the flu and RSV, which usually causes flu-like symptoms, health experts are doubling down on guidance that staying home when you’re not feeling well is critical to stopping the spread of illnesses.

So, schools need to shift their attendance goals from perfection to being in the classroom as much as possible, some education leaders say.

“It’s sending mixed messages if you’re telling people to stay home when they have a fever—which is really important—then the next day having an announcement that you’re offering a prize for being there every day,” said Bryan Calvert, principal of Bear Creek Elementary School in Euless, Texas.

To combat absences, make students feel valued when they’re in class

Perfect attendance awards, if used alone, were problematic in pre-pandemic days for other reasons, too, said Hedy Chang, executive director Attendance Works, a nonprofit that advocates for policies to improve students’ time at school.

The practice can be exclusionary, because one slip-up removes students from the pool of eligible recipients, and takes away the incentive to show up. A better practice is to reward students every time they get to class on time, rather than punish them when they don’t, Hedy said.

Schools could consider handing out raffle tickets for a small prize or points to spend in the school store every day, instead. This provides positive reinforcement and shows the students they are appreciated, Chang said.

“I think you don’t want to incentivize kids to run off to school when they’re sick or when they’re contagious,” Chang said. “That said, we have seen that helping kids know that they’re noticed when they show up to school and helping kids know that they’re missed when they’re not showing up to school is really important.”

It’s sending mixed messages if you’re telling people to stay home when they have a fever ... then the next day having an announcement that you’re offering a prize for being there every day.

Calvert, Bear Creek Elementary’s principal, agreed.

He said the school shifted away from perfect attendance awards several years ago, and has found success in trying to make school as welcoming and exciting as possible every day to as many students as possible..

There’s music playing when the kids show up each day, and they are greeted individually by staff members, Calvert said.

And when a student returns after missing a day or two, or shows up late to class?

“We don’t want to chastise or discipline them too much because so often, especially for these younger students, it’s out of their control,” he said. “So we tell them how glad we are that they’re there instead.”

Address root causes of absences

Ultimately, it’s up to school and district leaders to identify the root causes of students’ absences, Chang said.

Addressing those problems—whether it’s health concerns, access to transportation, aversion to go school, or parent misconceptions about how much time their kids have missed—can eliminate fundamental barriers some students face to being in school.

All students should be encouraged to come to school and feel welcomed, she said. School leaders should be clear about schedules and their expectations for attendance. Routine recognition of good attendance habits and acknowledgement of improved attendance can be encouraging, too, Chang said.

Students who are chronically absent, missing 10 percent of school days or more, should receive some extra attention. That could include family visits, individualized student success plans that include a focus on attendance, or adding attendance strategies to the students’ individualized education plans.

See Also

Student Zikirah Skinner runs towards Lisanne Brown, dressed up as a Panther, the mascot of William Dick Elementary, during a surprise visit to her North Philadelphia home.
Zikirah Skinner runs toward an educator dressed as the panther mascot from her school, William Dick Elementary, during a surprise visit to her home in north Philadelphia to celebrate high attendance.
Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Administrators can also help families connect to community resources that could help eliminate barriers to getting to school. If a student is routinely sick, or if a family is worried about health risks of sending their child to school, school leaders can connect them with community-based health resources.

If transportation is the problem, information about public transit or helping them access school bus routes could make a big difference, Chang said.

Sometimes, just showing families you care can make all the difference.

“When kids and families face real barriers and we don’t offer supports, then you’re just further having kids feel like, ‘Oh, I’m facing a struggle and I can never be part of a school community,’ and creating greater disconnection,” Chang said. “Perfect attendance awards can be counterproductive and discouraging for these students. It’s the relationships that matter.”

Related Tags:


Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Photo Essay PHOTOS: A Superintendent Who Exudes Joy in All Things
EdWeek photographer Sam Mallon reflects on her day with Richard Tomko, a 2023 Leaders to Learn From honoree.
2 min read
During a visit to the new Belleville Indoor Training Facility, Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools, speaks with Carolyn Guancione, Indoor Training Facility Support Staff, about how the space continues to transform, in Belleville, N.J., on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. The new training facility was built to facilitate and accommodate general physical activity and training for sports teams within the school system and the greater Belleville community.
Richard Tomko, the superintendent of Belleville public schools, speaks with Carolyn Gancione during a visit to the district's new indoor training facility, which is shared with the community.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
School & District Management Opinion Your School Leadership Needs More Student Voice
When one Virginia principal moved from middle school to high school, he knew he would need to find new ways of soliciting student feedback.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
3 min read
Illustration of students holding speech bubbles.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management First Latina Selected to Lead National Principals Group
Raquel Martinez is a middle school principal in Pasco, Wash.
3 min read
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Courtesy of the National Association of Secondary School Principals
School & District Management Four Things to Know From a State's Push to Switch Schools to Heat Pumps
Installing a heat pump is complex, but the payoff is well worth it, says an expert in Maine who's pushing their adoption in schools.
4 min read
Close up of a heat pump against a brick wall