Can We Ditch The School Awards Programs Already?

by Christine Burke
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When I was in kindergarten, my teacher had an awards ceremony at the end of the school year. She gathered us in a circle and proceeded to hand out award “medals”: construction paper apples with yarn necklaces. As she announced each award, in the beginning, my classmates and I clapped with glee. Each child would dutifully stand up to receive his or her medal and take a picture with the teacher.

But then the crying started.

First it was one child who was upset that he did not get the “Best Coloring” award. “But I always color in the lines!” he wailed.

Then a little girl was unhappy because her friend got the “Good Citizen” award, and she was convinced that a miscarriage of justice had occurred because she held the classroom door open daily.

When my name was called, I was excited to learn that I was the recipient of the “Biggest Heart” award. My award was extra special too: Instead of a regular apple shape, mine was in, you guessed it, the shape of a heart. My excitement was short-lived, however: A little boy announced loudly, “She cut in line yesterday!” While he wasn’t wrong, my 5-year-old self wasn’t convinced that such an infraction made me ineligible for my esteemed award.

Now that I’m a parent, I think about my kindergarten awards ceremony often, particularly when I’m sitting in one of the many, many awards ceremonies at my kids’ schools. As I listen to the litany of names read for participation in every club, society, and activity, I wonder if all of the pomp and circumstance is really necessary. And since our middle school has over 800 children, our year-end awards ceremony lasts upwards of three hours, which feels like an eternity for everyone.

I asked my son about his feelings regarding his recent awards ceremony, specifically if he changed his behavior at school in hopes of earning a community award or if he he studied harder in hopes of earning an award for academic achievement. He rolled his eyes and said, “Nope. I don’t care if they give me a piece of paper that says I did a good job.” He went on to say that, while he appreciated being told by a teacher that he’d done a good job on a project, he didn’t need to sit in a room for hours just to receive a piece of paper announcing his achievements.

His comments left me thinking: What if schools were to do away with awards ceremonies altogether?

Before you start yelling about how kids need motivation and the whole “not every kid gets a trophy” thing (I know you already are), hear me out.

Research — yes, actual science — has shown that awards deter kids from wanting to excel in school. According to Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, “a key takeaway here is that awards aren’t bad just because the losers are disappointed; everyone (including the winners) ultimately lose when schooling is turned into a scramble to defeat one’s peers.”

What if, instead of singling out the same kids year after year — because, let’s face it, the same 10 or 12 kids are most often the ones on the stage, racking up the trophy swag — we simply held events in our schools that celebrated every child’s unique talent or gift? Schools could hold “All-Star Evenings” where every student showcases their talents, whether in art, music, technology, or academics to parents. Rather than subject students to the humiliation of not hearing their name called during an assembly, every child would have an opportunity to show the world that they are more than their test scores or the grades on their report cards.

Not only would these events be an opportunity for every child in the school to shine in their own way, parents would never again have to sit in a stuffy auditorium, listening for their kid’s name and hoping to get a grainy shot of them getting a trophy from 30 rows back. And I know the parents with kids in the second half of the alphabet are with me on this point.

Children should be encouraged to excel in school based on genuine sources of motivation — mastery, autonomy, and purpose — not the chase of an award or accolade at the end of the task. By teaching our kids that they will receive an award for a job well done, we are telling them that the award means more than the mastery of the actual skill or lesson. And for many children, school successes are measured in small victories and not in high scores on tests or standardized exams.

Of course, I’m not saying that we need to get rid of systems that measure our children’s success in school. We do need some objective methods in place to help determine progression, skills assessment, and placement in classrooms. Report cards, tests, and other tools used to objectively measure a child’s performance in school are necessary for various reasons. But the awards ceremonies based on those test results and scores? Yeah, not really necessary. Our kids are more than a letter grade, more than a test score, and certainly more than an award.