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combatting student absences and keeping kids healthy, some are questioning whether incentivizing perfect attendance is outdated.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


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.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
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.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

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 What's Stopping Later School Start Times That Support Teen Sleep? Bus Schedules, for One
See practical strategies for districts looking to move start times to accommodate teen sleep schedules.
5 min read
Crossing guard Pamela Lane waves at a school bus passing her intersection as she crosses students going to Bluford Elementary School on Sept. 5, 2023, in Philadelphia.
Crossing guard Pamela Lane waves at a school bus passing her intersection near Bluford Elementary School on Sept. 5, 2023, in Philadelphia.
Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP
School & District Management Opinion 'I Used to Think School Systems Were Broken': Educators Reflect
Changing your mind or evolving your thinking is not easy. Hear how these education leaders did just that.
1 min read
Used to Think
Hear how these Harvard education graduate students evolved their thinking around both their practice and work as systems leaders.
School & District Management Opinion I Teach Educators How to Change Their Minds. Here’s How
Four important lessons for how educators—school and district leaders, especially—can create opportunities for growth.
Jennifer Perry Cheatham, Erica Lim & Carmen Williams
5 min read
Video stills
The students from the Leaders of Learning class taught by Jennifer Perry Cheatham at the Harvard Graduate School of Education last year.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week
School & District Management Opinion The 4 Gifts Principals Should Give Teachers This Year (Hint: Not Another School Mug)
Instead of a staff pizza party or a school-branded mug, give them meaningful gifts that really nourish their craft.
4 min read
A Large yellow bow across the foreground of a  photo illustration group of teachers line up happily closely together along a wall
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva