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.
Pretty cool, I thought. And 100% worthy of missing a few days of school.
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.
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?
Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org
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