November 1, 2019

This is my first year with a school-age child and so it has prompted a re-introduction to all of the customary school traditions. Most recently, this included the school first-quarter assembly.  Prior to the assembly, my Kindergartner was telling me about the students in her class that were receiving awards for trustworthiness and fairness. Awesome, I thought! And then she told me that many of the other students were getting an award for Perfect Attendance. I took a deep breath because I knew what was coming next. 

“I’m not getting an award though, because I don’t have perfect attendance because of our trip to Alaska.” 

She was disappointed, to say the least. 

That’s right, friends.  We missed four days of school during her first month of Kindergarten to take a family vacation to Alaska.  

Just a few of the things that she learned and experienced while we were skipping those four days of school:
  • The housing and food traditions of the indigenous people (visit to the Cultural Center)
  • Icebergs and glaciers (Boat ride on the river)
  • Glaciers receding, hiking to the Harding Ice Field (Hiking 10 miles round trip).
  • How to protect yourself from possible bear attacks
  • What a killer whale looks like in the wild 
  • As well as how to decide what souvenirs to buy with $20 
  • The list goes on and on.

Pretty cool, I thought.  And 100% worthy of missing a few days of school. 

However, here are some other really good reasons that students might not have perfect attendance:
  • Temporary illness in which they are attempting  to PREVENT the spread germs to others
  • Chronic illnesses,developmental delays or mental health issues that require more in-depth treatments or hospitalizations
  • Injuries
  • Family Events (wedding, death, reunion, etc).
  • Military Deployment Preparation or Reunification 
And, finally, here are some often overlooked, but still valid reasons that a child might miss school:
  • A child is removed from their home due to abuse or neglect and is required to change schools because of a new relative or foster care placement
  • A parent has a chronic physical, mental health, or substance abuse issue and the child is given responsibilities outside of their developmental capabilities
  • The family experiences a traumatic event (fire, flood, etc) in their home environment.
  • A child attends a court hearing for their adoption finalization

And dozens of other reasons related to life outside of a child’s control. 

Here’s the thing:  at the elementary school level, a child has virtually ZERO control over their attendance record.  The decision to take a trip during school was not one that my daughter had control over. She will continue to have ZERO control over my decisions to plan awesome adventures in the future.  If I can work it out during school vacations, great. But if there is an opportunity for her to experience the big world that we live in, she’s missing school for that. FOR SURE. 

And, she has ZERO control over getting sick. In fact, she has an annoying cough right now. She is at school today, but she might have to stay home a day or so next week.  She might want to stay home, but I can force her to go. Or she might want to go and I require her to stay home. This is not a decision for a 6 year old to make.

And yet, she has her sight set on this goal instead of others that are much more worthy and within her ability to achieve during school and without my help.    

Perfect attendance awards in elementary school are essentially gold stars for parents.

Research shows that when we reward people for these types of behaviors, their inherent motivation to earn them goes down once we take the rewards away.  This is known as “overjustification theory.”  

I guess people are afraid that if we are not rewarding attendance that we are promoting truancy.  

I am not promoting truancy. 

I am promoting responsible decision making: go to school when you are well and rest when you are sick.  

I am promoting experiential learning: learn things in school AND ALSO take opportunities to supplement that learning with real-world experiences when the occasion presents itself.

I am promoting families:  connect with those in your family when important things are going on in their lives (both positive or negative).

And finally, I am promoting a trauma-informed approach to attendance: sometimes life circumstances mean that making it to school on a daily basis is literally an uphill climb.  

The idea of perfection is an illusion anyway.  This is NOT a goal for my child.  I want her to make mistakes. I want her to see what it’s like to miss a day (and figure out how to catch-up). I want her to be able to take a day to rest and recharge if that is what is best for her.  I want her to being willing to take a risk and deal with the consequences.

And I want the children whose lives are not a privileged as hers to feel like they are bright, capable and amazing children even when they miss days because their lives are incredibly sad, frustrating and challenging in ways that many of us never even try to understand. 

 Can we please start encouraging and promoting the things that matter?  

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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