Student Well-Being

Should Schools Reward Attendance? What the Experts Say

By Lydia McFarlane — July 11, 2023 7 min read
Illustration of an attendance sheet.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Perfect attendance awards encourage students to come to school, even when they are not feeling well—either mentally or physically. However, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to have shifted attitudes, with schools advocating for mental health days and encouraging students to stay home while they were sick to stop the spread of illnesses.

Attendance awards are not effective in motivating students to go to school—some even call the practice outdated—and are not equitable to students of all backgrounds. Experts interviewed by Education Week say educators need to rethink how they view attendance, and how they can combat absenteeism without involving awards.

“While we think recognition of good and improved attendance can be helpful, we advise against awarding perfect attendance for a semester or the school year, since the children who struggle the most will soon be left out,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy to reduce chronic absenteeism.

In interviews with Education Week, experts shared research and best practices they say educators need to know about using awards and other, more effective and equitable ways, to encourage attendance.

Attendance awards are not effective

Many researchers have attempted to answer the question if attendance awards are effective in the classroom and have overwhelmingly found that they are not.

Experts and leaders have previously pointed out the flaws in attendance awards and outlined how schools are sending poor messaging about attendance.

Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at Harvard University who has conducted research on school attendance. As part of a research paper published in 2018, which Rogers collaborated on, a survey of 15,000 students spanning from 6th to 12th grades across 14 West Coast school districts discovered a “demotivating effect” of attendance awards.

“Students randomly assigned to receive these attendance awards had worse attendance in the weeks after they were received compared to students who were not assigned to receive them,” Rogers said of the study. “It appears these awards convey to students that they attend school more than their classmates, so they are licensed to attend a little less.”

For this study, Rogers and his collaborators only observed the effects of traditional attendance awards, such as certificates or acknowledgment of attendance.

(The other collaborators on the research paper were Carly Robinson, senior researcher at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and the Director of Research for EdSolutions at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning; Jana Gallus, Associate Professor of Strategy and Behavioral Decision Making at the University of California Los Angeles; and Monica G. Lee, Senior Research Associate at Stanford University.)

How bad is chronic absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism is generally defined as students who miss 10 percent or more of the school year—for any reason, excused or unexcused.

Before the pandemic, about 1 in 6 students in the country—more than 7 million—were chronically absent, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

The rates of absence are much higher for students of color than for their white peers, and absenteeism is 15 percent less likely among English-speaking students than among non-English-speaking students.

Since the pandemic, the problem has become more prevalent, as the number of students who are chronically absent has significantly increased. As of the 2020-21 school year, 10.1 million students were chronically absent, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

While the latest data from the Department of Education is from the 2020-21 academic year, Attendance Works has predicted that chronic absences will continue to rise post-pandemic based on state trends.

David Conrad, a professor of education at Governors State University, agreed with this prediction based on observations he has made from teachers following the pandemic.

“Educators tell me that remote learning conditions were demotivating to students and established unproductive learning habits,” Conrad said. “Educators at all levels are still helping students learn to ‘play school’ ... meet deadlines, show up on time and ready to learn, be focused and attentive, and follow other school norms.”

What are some factors that affect attendance?

There are many extenuating circumstances in students’ lives that can lead to chronic absenteeism, making them ineligible for attendance awards such as those for perfect attendance.

Experts say homelessness or housing instability can be a large factor in chronic absenteeism. Students who are chronically ill, have caretaking responsibilities for younger siblings or older family members in multi-generational homes, or those who are working to support their households financially also may be chronically absent, according to the National Center for Homeless Education.

Additionally, climate change coupled with the housing crisis continues to displace even more people. Extreme weather events have the potential to displace entire communities, making attendance at school difficult for children affected by these events.

However, many low-income families of color have a difficult time rebuilding after a devastating weather event, according to the Climate Reality Project, a nonprofit focused on advocacy related to climate change.

What is the problem with encouraging perfect attendance?

Due to extenuating circumstances in some students’ lives, it’s certain that kids who are struggling with family issues, poor health, and other issues are excluded from attendance awards, according to experts.

Chronic absenteeism can have serious negative effects on students, including missing important educational milestones such as developing critical literacy skills, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Absenteeism can also be a better indicator of the likelihood of a student dropping out of high school than test scores.

Students who are chronically absent may feel overwhelmed at the thought of returning to school, due to an influx of information they have missed out on. Researchers and experts urge teachers to be understanding and ready to meet chronically absent students with support and resources upon their return to the classroom.

“When chronically absent students return to school, they need tutoring and academic support,” Conrad said. “But many schools punish unexcused absences by lowering grades and refusing to support make-up work. Sending truant students back to class without support may exacerbate their absenteeism when the content is too overwhelming.”

What are alternate ways to encourage attendance?

Rogers and his collaborators found that “attendance nudge letters” are one of the most effective motivators to get students back to school. These are personalized letters to households addressing a student’s repeated absences.

“The experiments found that repeated rounds of customized mailings with asset-based language showing parents precisely how many days of school their students have missed is potent and scalable,” Rogers said.

Conrad suggested a two-pronged approach to addressing chronic absenteeism. First, he suggested tailoring the core curriculum in schools to be engaging to students and relevant to their lives. If students feel seen in the classroom and are interested in what they are learning, they will be more likely to come to school. Next, Conrad suggested that adults in the school make connections with their students.

“Every student needs a connection with at least one trusting adult in the school,” he said. “This could be their teacher, coach, advisor, a formal mentor, or any other staff member. Students are more likely to attend school when they feel connected.”

Chang and Attendance Works encourage an individualized approach to addressing chronic absenteeism. This approach would include gathering data on which schools in the district, as well as which student populations are experiencing the highest levels of chronic absenteeism.

As an alternative to attendance awards, Attendance Works suggests rewarding behavior, and collaborating with students and their families to see what would be motivating to get their students in the classroom. While attendance awards may not be effective, incentives may be.

“Offer incentives—[like] gas cards, grocery cards, food baskets—that help to address common barriers to getting to school,” Chang said. “Incentives also don’t need to be costly. Consider simple things—recognition through certificates or assemblies, extra recess time, being allowed to wear street clothes vs. a uniform, lunch with your favorite school staff person, even dancing in the hallways.”

Related Tags:

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
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.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
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.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

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

Student Well-Being In Their Own Words These Students Found Mental Health Support in After-School Programs. See How
3 students discuss how after-school programs benefit their well-being.
6 min read
Vector illustration of a woman sitting indian style with her arms spread wide and a rainbow above her head.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Cellphone Headaches in Middle Schools: Why Policies Aren't Enough
Middle schoolers' developmental stage makes them uniquely vulnerable to the negative aspects of cellphones. Policies alone won't help.
6 min read
A student holds a cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
A student holds a cellphone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty