November 9th, 2010

Incentivizing Attendance: Should We Reward Kids for Coming to School?

As part of its chronic absence initiative, New York City this week joined with Old Navy to give winter coats and $50 gift cards to the 300 students who had shown the most improved attendance in 25 pilot schools. The idea drew negative reviews from a New York-based parenting blog where a mother scoffed at the effort, saying “it hardly seems like $15,000 worth of free clothes is going to save at-risk youth.”

Sure, but what role should incentives play in getting kids to come to school? And what are the best sort of incentives to offer?

Some schools, of course, have tried giving students cash for attending school and doing well. These include the esteemed Harlem Children’s Zone and its Promise Academy Charter Schools, where high school students can earn as much as $120  a month.

Founder Geoffrey Canada explained it this way in an interview with Anderson Cooper on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last year: “People say, ‘Well Geoff, look, don’t you want kids to do it for the intrinsic value?’ Sure, I’d love them to do it for the intrinsic value. And until then, I’d love them to do it for money. I just want them to do it.”

Plenty of schools offer incentives that don’t involve money. Burton Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Mich., rewards kids with ice cream socials and their pictures on the school television after one month of perfect attendance. Gladden Middle School in Murray County, Ga., enters students with two or fewer absences per semester  in a drawing for prizes. And Creekview High School in Cherokee County, Ga., gives 10 points on each of their final exams to students who miss two or fewer days in a semester.

Our Attendance Counts handout on incentives provides these simple guidelines:

  • Incentives are most effective when part of a comprehensive approach that includes outreach to families with more significant challenges to attendance.   
  • Simple rewards—recognition from peers and the school through certificates or assemblies, extra recess time, homework passes even dancing in the hallways–go a long way toward motivating students.
  •  Student can often tell us what they consider a meaningful incentive.  
  • Interclass competition is a powerful motivator.  
  • Avoid recognizing only perfect attendance.  Students should be rewarded for improved attendance, as well.
  •  Reward timeliness not just showing up to school.  
  •  Send home information highlighting both the value of attendance and incentives and the consequences of poor attendance. 

Feel free to use our handout, giving proper credit to Attendance Counts.

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