Is perfect attendance what we really want in school?

It’s coming up on that time of year again. Spring break is here, next comes school assemblies leading up to the end of the school year.

It’s that inevitable time of year where I see news story after news story where children are rewarded Oprah-style for their awesome record of perfect attendance:

“You get a bike and you get a bike and you get a bike.”

Yeah! It’s pretty heart-warming and exciting, right?

There are kids (and families) that blew their perfect attendance the first week of school and didn’t think twice about it, but there are some that are holding out hope that maybe this year will be their year to win the drawing for $100 or an iPad or a trip to Hawaii (I haven’t actually seen this one, but I want my kids to go to that school) or whatever their school dreams up.

I do have a question though. Is perfect attendance really the point?

You need to be at school to learn. I get that. Missing school for frivolous reasons is harmful to the student and the school. So incentives to get kids to school make sense from that standpoint. But, at what cost?

There is a tension going on right now in the minds of parents throughout our community. It might go something like this:

“He’s only coughing a little bit.  He did get a few hours sleep last night. His fever is only 101 and if I give him Tylenol maybe he won’t have fever at school.”

Does this sound right?

Has this line of thought ever happened in your house?

Do you think it really happens at other houses?

I can assure you it does. Parents say something like this all the time, “Well, he was having fever last night, but I gave him some Motrin this morning so he hopefully wouldn’t have one at school. But sure enough, he did and the nurse called me to pick him up.”

This clearly misunderstands the whole point of not wanting your child at school if he has fever. Not having fever is not the goal. Keeping your child away from others when they are sick is the goal. Whether your child’s fever is masked by medicine or not doesn’t make them less contagious.

What can we do about it?

What if we changed the goal from perfect attendance to responsible attendance?

Perfect attendance implies that you go to school no matter what.

Responsible attendance implies that you go to school when it is appropriate and don’t when it isn’t.

Perfect attendance puts your child’s classmates health at risk.

Responsible attendance puts your child’s and their classmate’s health above another goal.

I am an optimist, but not unrealistic. I’m pretty sure that we can’t change the school’s policies regarding perfect attendance awards.  Besides, how would you reward responsible attendance anyway?  But, we can make a decision to practice responsible attendance with our kids and teach them to do the same.

Justin Smith is a pediatrician who blogs at DoctorJSmith.  He can be reached on Twitter@TheDocSmitty.  This article originally appeared on Checkup Daily.

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