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combatting student absences and keeping kids healthy, some are questioning whether incentivizing perfect attendance is outdated.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.
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.”