Every year, schools around the globe celebrate the perfect attendance of students with book tokens, certificates, and applause in assemblies. ‘Perfect attendance’ – what comes to mind goes beyond a phenomenon and takes shape as a title of honour and achievement. 

At first glance, this may seem harmless, even commendable. After all, we suppose that we would want to reward commitment and punctuality.

But those qualities aren’t exactly what lies beyond the surface of attendance-based rewards and what they imply.

Upon closer inspection, these seemingly innocuous practices reveal troubling aspects of our educational system, raising questions about fairness, equity, and the unintended consequences of such reward systems – beyond the inherently problematic nature of most school-based reward systems, of course. Attendance, however, is one ripe for critique. Perhaps now more than ever. 

Dr. Naomi C. Fisher, a renowned educator and scholar, once pointed out the pitfalls of such reward systems. She highlighted the inadvertent exclusionary nature and pressure that mandatory attendance imposes on learners who already face significant challenges. We aren’t just talking about kids with the mild flu or a day of ‘playing hooky’ either; we’re talking about children grappling with severe illnesses like leukaemia, disabilities, overwhelming anxiety, homelessness from enduring domestic violence, or the trauma of losing a parent. For these kids, attending school is no longer just a matter of willpower or commitment—it’s a Herculean task. 

Dr. Fisher talks about a recent anecdote from a concerned parent who brought this issue to light. This parent shared how her son, despite battling COVID-19, was more upset about potentially losing his 100% attendance record than his health. 

Imagine being a young child, grappling with a serious illness like COVID-19, a disease that has disrupted lives and claimed countless lives worldwide. The physical and emotional strain of dealing with such an illness is immense, and yet, for this young boy, the real source of distress wasn’t the illness itself but the fear of losing a perfect attendance record. The allure of the book tokens and the coveted certificate – deeply ingrained as these reward systems are – had overshadowed his genuine concerns about his own health and well-being.

And how deeply ingrained these reward systems are in our schools sends deeply troubling messages to our children. 

Instead of prioritising health and well-being, these reward systems place undue emphasis on attendance as a measure of success and worthiness. They inadvertently teach our children that their value and self-worth are tied to their ability to show up, regardless of the circumstances, and that their health and well-being are secondary to achieving a perfect attendance record. They are literally taught to value school at their own expense.

It’s heartbreaking to think that any young child would prioritise a perfect attendance record over their own well-being and personal growth. It’s not just problematic; it’s a sad reflection of the toxic culture that attendance-based reward systems can create in not just schooling environments, but any environment that should fundamentally nurture a child’s well-being and safety, emotional or physical. This has troubling implications for the rest of their adult life and how they are, from now on, expected to show up.

Not to mention how this emphasis on attendance over empathy and understanding can have lasting consequences on learners’ mental and emotional health, contributing to feelings of anxiety, stress, and inadequacy. Needless to say, it perpetuates a culture of competition and comparison, where they’re constantly measuring themselves against their peers and striving for unattainable standards of perfection in general. These reward systems inadvertently create a hierarchy of worthiness, where learners who can maintain perfect attendance are celebrated and rewarded, while those who face challenges or barriers to attendance are marginalised and left out.

It should also go without saying: that one of the most glaring issues with attendance-based rewards is their exclusionary nature. 

The children who are most adversely affected by these policies are often those who are already marginalised and vulnerable—learners with chronic illnesses, disabilities, mental health challenges, or those facing socioeconomic hardships. These learners are penalised for circumstances they have little say in, reinforcing systemic inequalities and perpetuating a cycle of exclusion and marginalisation. The emphasis on attendance as a measure of success can exacerbate existing inequalities and widen the achievement gap. Learners who face challenges or barriers to attendance aren’t only penalised but also denied the support and resources they need to succeed. 

When schools prioritise attendance in this way, they send a clear message to these learners: your struggles and challenges do not matter, you are not valued, and you do not belong. 

This not only undermines learners’ self-esteem and sense of belonging. It creates a toxic and divisive school environment where learners are judged and valued based on factors beyond their control – something fundamentally at odds with building belonging and inclusion. It’s clear what the implications are: instead of fostering a supportive and inclusive environment that recognises and accommodates the unique needs and challenges of every learner, these reward systems perpetuate a culture of exclusion and systemic inequity.

It bears repeating: the focus on attendance as a measure of success is deeply flawed. It prioritises attendance over engagement, equating physical presence with academic achievement. But as any educator worth their salt will tell you, we have to understand the basic truth that being physically present in class does not necessarily equate to being mentally or emotionally engaged in learning. Learners can sit in a classroom for hours, but if they’re not actively participating, asking questions, or engaging with the material, attendance becomes meaningless. And that’s what schools and systems who practise this are actively saying: by emphasising attendance over genuine engagement and understanding, we’re sending the message that compliance is more important than curiosity and that sitting quietly in a seat is a greater achievement than active participation and learning.

From an ethical standpoint, the policing of attendance raises serious concerns about privacy and autonomy – something so many children are robbed of in school settings as it is. When schools adopt a punitive approach to absenteeism, they are essentially policing students’ lives outside of school, scrutinising their health, family circumstances, and personal challenges. This invasive surveillance not only undermines learner privacy but also erodes trust and mutual respect between educators and learners out of a culture of suspicion, surveillance, and control. It’s never a positive foundation to approach learners as if they are suspects rather than learners.

So, what about the argument that these rewards encourage learners to strive for excellence? While it’s true that some may feel motivated to achieve perfect attendance, the cost of this motivation is too high. 

The mental and emotional toll on learners who already face significant challenges is immense. There is a profound lack of a culture of inclusivity and support: these reward systems reinforce existing inequalities and create a divisive environment where those factors beyond their control determine winners and losers.

So, what happens to these learners when their peers are rewarded for perfect attendance? 

They become the invisible kids in the back row, absorbing the implicit message that their struggles and challenges don’t matter, or worse, that they are somehow less worthy. In essence, the absence of a reward – never mind the punishment of absenteeism – becomes a public indictment, a visible mark of ‘failure’ that can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and isolation in an environment that already challenges a child’s precarious sense of self-worth.

Isn’t it time we take a step back and reconsider what truly matters in education? Focusing on attendance-based rewards detracts from the true purpose of education, which is to nurture intellectual growth, personal development, and lifelong learning, does it not? 

Shouldn’t we shift our focus from the superficial goal of perfect attendance to actually creating a supportive and inclusive environment that recognises and respects each learner’s unique challenges and experiences? That they don’t actually have to miss out on anything in learning? 

At the end of the day, attendance is just a number. It should have no bearing on the way a learner shows up to the plate, and again, challenges us to think about how we can be of actual service as educators to these children and their unique circumstances. At least we’re doing so at Imagine If: our approach comes from a place to create a more compassionate and equitable educational system that values each learner’s agency, dignity, and intrinsic worth, because when it comes down to it, attendance doesn’t define a student, but our approach to their education certainly does.