Stop Rewarding for Perfect Attendance

What messages are parents and the school sending when we are rewarding coming to school 100% of days? The message is this: We want you at school no matter what it takes. 

About a year ago, I attended a graduation for an elementary school in which students received recognition and awards for perfect attendance. Granted, the two students who won received bicycles (yah for promoting a health recognition gift versus a Pizza Hut gift card), however I want to address how this simple recognition is incredibly inequitable and potentially harmful to many students. 

Students who have perfect attendance are more likely to be engaged in school and do well academically- sure! Of course. However, many students can't achieve this for valid reasons. My biggest concern for those with perfect attendance is this... how many students strive for this recognition and refuse to be absent when truly sick? How many students come to school when they legitimately need a day off? How many come to school when contagious? What messages are parents and the school sending when we are rewarding coming to school 100% of days? The message is this: We want you at school no matter what it takes. 

I understand that it also sends the message that attendance is important, however, there are other ways of doing this without 13% of students who are chronically absent feeling marginalized as a result of a parent issue, health issue, child care issue, homeless issue, addiction issue at home. Rewarding for attendance almost punishes and stigmatizes students who in many cases don't have control over their attendance!

Based on the most recent national data, about 13 percent of students miss 15 or more school days.1 Chronic absenteeism is related to a variety of issues. Chronic absenteeism is defined differently in each state, however, research suggests that missing 10 percent or more school days can affect student outcomes.2

The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children and youths as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This includes: 

  • Children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason

  • Children and youths who may be living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, shelters, or awaiting foster care placement

  • Children and youths who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings

  • Children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings, or

  • Migratory children who qualify as homeless because they are children who are living in similar circumstances listed above.

These students are more likely to be chronically absent, as you can imagine. Other criteria that increase risk of chronic absenteeism include: Students who are hungry, living through toxic divorces or have chronic illnesses. Students with unmanaged asthma, for example, are more likely to be absent. If a student does not have health insurance or is from an undocumented family they are less likely to go to a doctor. Students who have vision, hearing and oral health problems that haven't been diagnosed are more likely to be absent as well. If a school is fortunate enough to have a school nurse who implements regular screenings on some of these issues- that does increase attendance rates since these health concerns may be caught and managed. However, nationally, our school nurse situation (ratio of a school nurse to student and even a full time nurse in each school is rare) is pretty depressing. 

My suggestion is that schools consider spending the resources, time and effort, including collecting the data to inform and determine why students are chronically absent at their school, develop a school-wide strategic plan around it and implement some evidence-based strategies to create equity around attendance and presenteeism. However, consider two things: Don't reward for 100%/Perfect attendance (lower that percent) and do it in a way creates an inclusive environment, not a disparate one. 


1 U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, “2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look,” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of
Education, June 2016),

2 Robert Balfanz, Lisa Herzog, and Douglas MacIver, “Preventing Student Disengagement and Keeping Students on the Graduation Path in Urban Middle-
Grades Schools: Early Identification and Effective Interventions,” Educational Psychologist 42, no. 4 (Dec. 2007): 223–235,; and Applied Survey Research, “Attendance in Early
Elementary Grades: Associations with Student Characteristics, School Readiness, and Third Grade Outcomes,” (San Jose, Calif.: July 2011),