School Attendance Challenges Are Setting Our Kids Up For Burnout

As my feverish, snotty first grader lay on the couch begging me to send him to school (yes, you read that right), I clenched my teeth and prepared for a new parenting hurdle I had not yet faced. His motivation? A perfect attendance award. While my own parents regularly fought to get me to go to school, now I have a child who is fighting my belief that his crusty face merits a day in bed. Every child in our school this month who doesn’t miss a day will be rewarded with a special assembly. In the end, against my better judgement, I sent him.

Attendance challenges and perfect attendance awards are not new by any means. I remember watching my peers march across stage for their awards back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As school attendance rates have become linked to school rankings, we will likely see an increase in incentivized attendance. “Every day that a student misses class is a lost learning opportunity that holds our youth back,” claims a 2014 report by Oregon’s Upstream Public Health representative of the general bent in public education. There is a difference between chronic absenteeism and occasional absences, however. I have to wonder, what exactly are schools teaching our kids when they encourage perfect attendance records? And what are they rewarding?

As a millennial working mother already battling with my place in what BuzzFeed’s Ann Helen Peterson has dubbed “the burnout generation,” this elementary-age introduction to hustle culture for my kids is ludicrous.

Hustle culture, the idea that we always need to push for more and more achievement, is already burning out our generation. We are told that to be successful, we can never take a break, never unplug, never be inaccessible, never get sick. We should work remotely, work from our pocket, work on the train or at the red light. We should feel proud of these efforts. We are the first generation that has been indoctrinated to the idea of constant connectivity and productivity. Now we are transferring it to our children. Don’t skip school when your body needs it. Don’t revel in an unexpected break — the traditional snow day — but instead have an e-instruction day. There is nothing inherently wrong with rewarding achievement, but attendance challenges are a Band-Aid on a multifaceted issue.

In elementary school, attendance is completely unrelated to any decisions that the children themselves are making.

Attendance is important. I would never deny that it matters. It is linked to graduation rates, lifelong earning potential, and test scores. Our kids need to show up. Attendance, though, especially in elementary school, has very little to do with a child’s choices. Chronic absenteeism is caused by a web of issues unlikely to be helped by the promise of a pizza party. The loss of “the village” or support system affects the ability of parents with socio-economic insecurity to get their kids to school. Maybe they don’t have a car, maybe they can’t afford an overnight babysitter for a parent who works a third shift. There are many hurdles to attendance when you’re poor. It is not that these families don’t value education — they do — it is just that they have a lot of roadblocks to accessing it.

On the flip side, these parents might need to send their sick kids because they don’t have the support to stay home with them for the day. The point is that in elementary school, attendance is completely unrelated to any decisions that the children themselves are making. So rewarding it is essentially rewarding the circumstances of that child’s family.

Rewarding attendance is also ableist, essentially calling out those children without medical challenges. Two friends in my neighborhood whose children had heart transplants as infants worry about these contests. “Susie gets a pizza party for perfect attendance while my kids spends time in the ICU because she came to school sick? Hard pass,” my friend Meghan laments.


Laura agrees, because it isn’t her son’s fault that he misses more than other kids. He is immunocompromised, and why should he be punished for that? I know I am blessed with healthy kids that rarely miss school, but this is not the case for every family. An attendance challenge isn’t going to make a medically fragile child magically show up for school, but it will by proxy punish them for things out of their control.

There are ways that we can encourage kids to value showing up without rewarding the wrong things. We can teach kids the value of attendance through engaging assemblies that everyone is invited to. We can show and teach them about why being at school is a positive thing. We can adequately fund education so that teachers have the resources and energy to make school an active, engaging, and desirable place to be. We can address the mental health crisis in our schools to avoid raising another burned-out generation, as ragged and harried as our own. We can make our schools more aware of varied religious holidays, and not fault children for observing these holidays.

We can address the many, many issues related to education inequity and achievement in our schools. But we can’t do any of this with a mere pizza party and Microsoft office clip-art certificate.