As school is entering the final week in the surrounding districts of my town, I can’t help but think about the long list of children who will end their year crestfallen and disappointed as they walk out of the inevitable awards assemblies. As a parent and a teacher there was nothing so conflicting to me as this seemingly sacred tradition that schools inflicted upon children every year. Typically, the reason given for these mindless ceremonies is the belief that it somehow motivates children to excellence. Before I go any further, lest you think this is sour grapes, my children got the awards. This inevitably put me in an awkward position of responding positively to this tradition that I so despised.
Why am I opposed to these meaningless ceremonies? Stop and think about who gets the awards. It is the same children every year, perhaps sprinkled with a few surprises now and then. It is typically the children who have parents who are highly invested in their learning and in their lives in general. One of the things that we know from research is that parent involvement is a huge factor related to success in school. This is not something that a child can control.I will never forget the face of a child in my neighborhood after a second grade awards assembly. This child showed up, hand in hand with her mom for the awards ceremony. It was no secret that this family was going through a messy divorce. As I watched them walk to their seats, the eager anticipation on the child’s face prompted me to whisper a prayer that she would be recognized. Her name was never called. With crestfallen face and a quivering lip, she left the assembly with her mom. My heart broke for her. I could only imagine how difficult the year had been for her. She deserved an award simply for getting out of bed each morning and getting herself to school.Many of the awards that are given are arbitrary and difficult to define. For example, a common practice is to give “good citizen” or “outstanding student” awards. How do you define a “good citizen” in a way that is meaningful to young children? What does an outstanding student look like? How many times can you make a mistake, get in conflict with another child and not be a “good citizen?” And when we recognize the “outstanding students” the young children left sitting in the chairs automatically interpret it as “I’m not outstanding.” If a young child’s success in school was purely driven by his own initiative, effort and “smarts” it would be one thing. But success in school in the early years is largely related to factors beyond the child’s control.Every child deserves to be celebrated—not rewarded. Instead of meaningless awards assemblies, why don’t schools end the year with a “celebration of learning.” Every child has accomplished and learned something during the school year for which they feel an element of pride. This doesn’t mean that I believe very child should get a trophy or a piece of paper called a “certificate” to take home. Let the child identify something they accomplished that is meaningful to them and celebrate it. Invite the parents, let the children create a display, read a poem, sing a song, demonstrate a science experiment or do whatever is appropriate to demonstrate what they have learned.For one kindergartener it may simply be writing his name without adult help. For another kindergartener it might be writing and illustrating a simple story. The playing field is not even when children come to school. Both of these abilities need to be celebrated.Celebrating children’s accomplishments isn’t the same as giving everyone a trophy—another practice that I loth. Trophies are handed out by adults for reasons that are often meaningless to a child. My daughter was very ill one year and missed most of the school year. She got the trophy for “missing the most days of school.” She brought it home and immediately threw it in the trash. In first grade she won the “outstanding student of the year” award. Years later in a random conversation around the dinner table she recalled the time that she was standing on the stage with the principal. “What was that all about?” she asked. We got a good laugh that she won the so called top award for the year and didn’t even know it.Celebrations of learning allow children to identify and celebrate things that are meaningful to them. This is the kind of recognition that can truly build a sense of personal confidence and competence. Are awards assemblies inappropriate at all ages? I don’t know. I speak from the perspective of an early childhood educator. Perhaps they have a place in high school but I have my doubts. Learning at all ages is largely influenced by many factors outside the child’s control. But I do know that it is appropriate to celebrate all children, regardless of age, for meaningful reasons.