Nothing says love and respect like a little public shaming
October 25, 2019 4:54 AM   Subscribe

My child's middle school (5th-8th grade) has a thing where they have an ice cream party 3 times a year and if you haven't been tardy/absent more than 5 times in that period or had any disciplinary infractions.

Child who is a very empathetic 5th grader noticed that only 2 of her classmates did not get to attend and speculates that they feel left out. This led to a conversation debating if it's fair to punish/ostracize further the kids who at that age might not have a lot of control over whether they get to school on time.

Before I write a letter to the principal I wanted to get some other opinions about this practice and whether it's acceptable.
posted by MadMadam to Human Relations (44 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
They may try to say it’s not punishing the kids who have been absent but rather rewarding those who have attended well. So be ready for that.

But it’s bullshit. And also probably bad for public health. I wonder how many kids come to school sick and spread germs when they should be home, because they want the damn ice cream.

I say you fight this on public health grounds as well as unfairness/bad psychology.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:59 AM on October 25, 2019 [46 favorites]

I was one of the kids left out of these kinds of events. It was definitely isolating. The other kids often asked nosy questions about it. The school also had them for classrooms where every student returned signed report card ‘on time.’ My siblings and I were the ONLY KIDS in the whole damn school who didn’t have ours signed. Our classrooms got to have their damn pizza parties and we were sent to the office. This was after much to and fro in my class about how it wasn’t fair to them to lose a pizza party because of one kid (pointed stares in my direction). Omfg the shame still makes my ears burn and it’s been 30 years. I’m so sad this is still happening to kids, if you want me to include a note for your letter I will.
posted by bilabial at 5:22 AM on October 25, 2019 [90 favorites]

I have some thoughts about this from a school governor (UK) point of view. My school doesn't have awards or celebrations for children with 100% attendance, and I'm ok with this as I think if we did, children with health conditions or from poorer families would be disadvantaged. It's possible that awards might breach SEND legislation here for that reason. However, the children consistently tell us that they think there should be awards or celebrations - including children whose attendance is not great, although they may be peer-pressured in to holding the majority opinion.

If we do start doing something along these lines, I'd like it to focus on children whose attendance has improved, or who manage to attend despite challenges. This is more work for the school of course than a blanket children with xx% of attendance come to the party.

We also have staff who think that it sends the wrong message to reward attendance, as the reward is the child's attainment and progress. That leans towards the joyless side I think.

I did have a look at the research around increasing attendance last year, and as far as I could see there weren't any initiatives or interventions which were proven to work long-term, at least in the UK context. So a question for the principal might be whether the ice-cream parties are evidence-based and whether they can track the school's own data from before the parties were introduced and see improvement. You could also ask whether they think there is an attendance problem at the school and, if so, what else they are doing to address it - hopefully the parties are part of a wider attendance strategy.
posted by paduasoy at 5:31 AM on October 25, 2019 [19 favorites]

I was a volunteer teacher for a first period class at a high school where most kids walked to school, so theoretically most students had control over being on time. On an average day, a third of the students would arrive in the first ten minutes, a third would arrive intermittently throughout the rest of the 30 minutes, and a third would not show up (so there were many students who might show up once a week). We also had attendance incentives (raffle tickets). What was crazy was that the students were specifically chosen by the school to be in our class because of their above average attendance, compared to the rest of the students in the school. Overall it was obviously extremely difficult to teach.

I'm not super involved in education but I do get a sense that there's often a one-size fits all approach towards various practices. It doesn't sound like your school has a problem with attendance, but some schools do. So solutions that might seem reasonable for the latter might not be for the former.
posted by chernoffhoeffding at 5:35 AM on October 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

OHHH boy! What an awful policy (reward?!) *I'm HOPING this is unexcused absence/lateness? Like, if they have a parent's note it doesn't count? Or is it ANY absence/lateness??*

There was a brief period in my mess of a private school where we got detention if we were late more than 3 times in 6th a school that didn't have a bus. My abusive (and mentally ill) parent often made me late, because at 11 I couldn't drive myself to school. And I got punished for it. Awful. One of the worst feelings I remember. (They also tried to make a policy limiting bathroom usage. Great for a kid with IBS and a small bladder. I came home sobbing and the policy was revised.)

Some points of note and possible wording.

This policy may reward students for punctuality. However, in doing so it punishes students for very minor infractions of school decorum. It disproportionately affects and disenfranchises already vulnerable student groups, such as those struggling with poverty or income inequality, physical and mental disabilities, chronic illness, biological needs, parenting and household issues, and travel issues. It excludes students who may not have control over these factors. Students should not live in fear of being excluded from school rewards based on needing to use the restroom or staying home ill. *If a doctor's note is required, do mention that it isn't accessable to everyone due to insurance, money, time, travel, etc. Socially punishing children with poor time management will only make them resentful of time-manage systems rather than setting them up for success by finding solutions to teach and train students with empathy, as the school system should do.

And good on you for raising a sensitive kid who cares and realizing that this is a problem. Uhg. It gives me a stomach ache to think about. It's likely a response to a few "problematic" students, but in many cases, those students are really the ones who are struggling and need support.

If you couldn't tell, I find these type of policies extremely unacceptable. There are other, supportive, ways to manage this. Though I think they are very common (given my experience and all the stories I've heard, especially from menstruating people, who risked bleeding through clothing because there wasn't enough time between classes to visit a bathroom.)
posted by Crystalinne at 5:42 AM on October 25, 2019 [21 favorites]

I agree it’s bs. My best friend in elementary school used to get in trouble for being late - the thing is, she had no control over it. It was all her mom. And even that, her dad had died the year before and so I’m sure her mom was trying to deal with her grief, deal with the kids grief, and newly be a single mom.

We also used to reward perfect attendance at my church’s Sunday school. Eventually they put a stop to it because kids who had divorced parents only showed up every other week and no one wanted to automatically put them out of the running for an award. That’s shitty! This is obviously a little different than a school situation but similar home-life factors can come into play at school.

Wholeheartedly agree with all the other reasons listed above as well. Have a party, but don’t exclude kids who have been absent or late.
posted by sillysally at 5:47 AM on October 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

I always thought these kinds of things were odd because as you said, the kids have little to no control to make it to school on time. If they are holding these sorts of reward parties the parents need to be informed by the school, not the student, because they are the intended party to shame, and remind, since they are the factor that determines attendance and on time arrival to first period.

If the kids are late to other periods, that's another story, as they may be dawdling in between classes and that's on them.

As a parent of two teenagers here is my thinking -- it's only three times a year. Sometimes the left out kid might not care too much, sometimes they will. Sometimes my kid will be left out of things and suffer little injustices. That's how it goes and I pick and choose what I complain about. However, it might not hurt to send a friendly email to the principal if you feel strongly about it. My thinking is if there are parties all students should be included.
posted by loveandhappiness at 5:55 AM on October 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, these awards need to die. At those ages, there's like 10% kids who demand to go to school every day, 10% who actively avoid school, and 80% in the middle who are just doing what they're told, and sometimes that means that the adults in their lives can't get them to school for any number of reasons. Quit punishing those kids.
posted by Etrigan at 6:09 AM on October 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

Reasons attendance awards are bad:

1. Kids might come to school with what they think is just a cold, but then, whoops! it turns out it was the pre-rash stage of measles.

2. It punishes kids with chronic illnesses/Disabilities

3. It punishes kids with abusive or unreliable parents.
posted by Murderbot at 6:12 AM on October 25, 2019 [41 favorites]

This practice also has the effect of discriminating against students who observe minority religions, such as Islam, Judaism, etc., in addition to kids with illnesses, disabilities, and unreliable parents. Absences for religious observances aren't excused in every district.
posted by marfa, texas at 6:15 AM on October 25, 2019 [38 favorites]

Yeah, this is super unpleasant and unfair. Here is a suggestion you might propose as a compromise. A league I am a member of has a policy that strongly discourages missing your match and forfeiting. ("Don't Forfeit! Don't Cheat!" is the common refrain). The homepage of the league features a prominent box that displays the league's "Target Forfeit Percentage" and the "Current Forfeit Percentage".

Maybe the school can set a school-wide "Target Attendance Percentage" and have a school-wide party if the school meets the goal?

Even so, it's a bad look to punish kids for something that may not be in their control, and I'd rather see the ice-cream money spent on investigating the causes of absence and tardiness and then trying to address those root causes.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:37 AM on October 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

I was a kid with severe asthma, I missed on average between 20 and 30 school days a year (which is alot!) There was no way I'd ever have anything like this. And, it was frustrating, though my schools did try to focus on exceptional cases (no absences ever! Type stuff) but it definately made me feel different that there was something at school that was just outright unobtainable.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:02 AM on October 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

Of all the things that could be changed, this is a good one. A policy that rewards people for not being absent is good, but shaming kids who for any reason are late five times is terrible. The school gets paid for attendance of students and so loses money when tardiness occurs. But they are spending on a group who probably do not need a reward.

Unfortunately, the school is probably not equipped to spending its funding (which is probably much more than the relatively inexpensive reward of ice cream) to find pathways that may help kids who have been late 5 time or disciplined.

This is a school board issue. However, your son should frame the issue first by seeing what would happen if he were late five times. Would they do anything for your son or for you or would he only get no ice cream? That he did the experiment will be extremely worth it, because the school and its scrutiny board would have no ground to say he doesn't understand the process in place.
posted by parmanparman at 7:24 AM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'd also mention that this is shaming intended to reach into adulthood, so that at work you never use your sick time, personal time, whatever, in order to be seen as exceptional. It's rude and stupid.
posted by agregoli at 7:32 AM on October 25, 2019 [35 favorites]

Yeah, I was often late to my first high school back in the day because the person responsible for bringing me to school (when I wasn't taking a 1.5-hour bus journey across town instead) was profoundly unreliable. This wouldn't have been any fun for me.
posted by praemunire at 8:13 AM on October 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is part of a whole kettle of snakes, leading to the inevitable conclusion that a kid's success or failure or attendance or engagement is largely dependent on their home circumstances - financial, emotional, geological, and maybe we should put off the awards until they have a little more control over their lives.
posted by turkeybrain at 8:19 AM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

AND! As my partner and I discuss the possibility of having children! This has come up because he travels for work to sometimes very interesting places. A rule like this would mean that a kid who got to spend two weeks in Europe or Asia visiting historic sites would miss out on a pizza party. I mean, as an adult this seems like an immensely fair trade but to a 9 year old who loves kid party food? I understand that most schools don’t want to encourage these kinds of trips, but I think that’s a shame even if it may not bolster your already very strong case.
posted by bilabial at 8:55 AM on October 25, 2019

Two of my kids would have said something like, "Well that sucks for little Johnny to not get ice cream, but I will have the chocolate, thank you very much." My other child who was very sensitive to their classmates would have said, "I am not having ice cream unless we all get ice cream."

Middle school seems to me to be an age with a lot of varying levels of maturity. I would write the note, and I would also support my child if they wanted to organize a protest or write a letter of their own.
posted by AugustWest at 9:01 AM on October 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

My husband is a counselor in an elementary school with a wide range of socioeconomic family situations. He is actively working to remove these kinds of rewards because it disproportionately punishes disadvantaged kids, kids from unstable home situations, and kids with health issues. Kids can’t control if their if their family has reliable transportation, if their parent gets them to school and they certainly can’t will their own health issues away.
posted by chuke at 9:10 AM on October 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

This was something that was stressful and disappointing to me in elementary school, because I was a pretty sick kid. I really didn't want to have a cold, or bronchitis, or pneumonia, or strep, or bronchitis again, or that 4th cold of the year, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was disturbed by how unfair rewards were for perfect attendance, because those kids were already benefitting by being healthy and not being in the doctor's office with their stressed out mom all the time.

Parents make the decision to take kids out of school (absent) so why are the kids penalized for that? If my parents thought it was better for me to be home when I was ill, who is the school to treat that as illegitimate?

I have a bit of an oppositional personality though, so by junior high I had developed my life-long attitude of "fuck your attendance record and fuck you." It's served me well as an adult with a chronic health condition - I will use my sick days and not feel bad about it.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 9:16 AM on October 25, 2019 [17 favorites]

I grew up in a chaotic household where I was usually late to school through no fault of my own. If all of those kids who seemed to have normal, loving parents, who lived in clean houses and wore clean clothes, who could even allow friends into their houses, who didn’t have to make sure no one found out how they lived, got ice cream and pizza as a reward for their incredible good luck, I think I would have become immensely bitter and angry.
posted by FencingGal at 10:31 AM on October 25, 2019 [11 favorites]

It's nonsense and Very American(tm). None of our Canadian schools ever had anything like this, but I suspect it's a side-effect of a school funding model where budgets are set based on butts in seats.

Honestly, don't write your principal about this, write to your school board and your state legislators. Don't hate the player, hate the game, etc.
posted by GuyZero at 10:42 AM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was a chronically ill kid.

Prioritizing attendance over performance or effort is one of a whole list of issues that eventually caused me to drop out of school and get my GED. I knew it was budget-based, and I knew it was bullshit.

Just in case they tell you that excused absences won't count: That's not good enough. If you're chronically ill, you just want to be treated like normal. You don't want to be allowed to go to a party because they made an exception for you. You want them to include you from the start, not treat you as some kind of special case. You are probably sick and tired of fighting policies that weren't designed with you in mind.

Anything that punishes kids for things outside of their control is unjust and will just alienate them from school. A kid is having trouble making it? You reach out to them, you don't fucking ostracize them from fun school activities. You let them know that even if things are tough, there is someone out there that understand, that has their backs, that will fucking treat them fairly even when the world is unfair.

Seriously, fuck this whole party situation. It's outdated, punitive, and is definitely not "acceptable" to anyone with half an ounce of empathy for kids who are having trouble.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:04 AM on October 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

A policy that rewards people for not being absent is good

A policy that rewards adult employees for not being absent is good. A policy that rewards grade-school children for not being absent is beyond useless, as those children have no control whatsoever over their attendance level. They do not choose to be present, nor on time; they don't choose to be late or absent. They are learning that it's reasonable for rewards and penalties to be based on what someone else does, because they've had the good or bad fortune to be stuck living with those other people.

This is an attempt to reward or punish children in order to influence their parents' actions, and it is terrible.

Also, rewarding attendance among people who are still learning how hygiene works is a terrific way to spread flu epidemics.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:25 AM on October 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I hate this. It discriminates against children who are ill, WTF? and is that even legal? so much lateness is parental, but sure, shame the kids. Thank you for responding.
posted by theora55 at 11:37 AM on October 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

One solution to propose is that it be a group award - if we collectively reach 80% on time (or whatever) we’ll all party, or else we all won’t. It’s important in that kind of system that exact names/individual stats not be shared so no one child can be blamed if the group misses the goal by a very small margin.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:19 PM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

...and just to clarify, on a whole-school basis for the same reason as the stats - no one child gets fingered for a failure.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:21 PM on October 25, 2019

A policy that rewards people for not being absent is good

A policy that rewards adult employees for not being absent is good.

A policy that rewards adult employees for not being absent results in presenteeism and people coming to work while sick and spreading their germs to everyone else instead of sensibly staying home to recover.
posted by Lexica at 12:35 PM on October 25, 2019 [26 favorites]

Here's a book: Punished by Rewards

Even for the kids who do get the party, it's not good policy. Do you want to teach them that the only reason to show up and/or be on time is because someone will give them a reward?
posted by amtho at 2:30 PM on October 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

We have nothing like this that I’ve heard of in Australia but if we did, I’d be in the opposite camp, instead of giving ice cream to kids who were at school, I’d give ice cream to parents who have the presence of mind to keep their sick kids at home so they don’t infect everyone else. We’ve had the worst flu season on record and it’s largely due to parents who keep sending their ill children in. Kids with lice and hand foot and mouth, I’m looking at you too. Keep your poor sick children home, for their sake and everyone else’s. Give them ice cream there.
posted by Jubey at 2:31 PM on October 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

The parties are 3x/year? Until this matter is resolved (principal, school board, however many steps it's going to take to abolish the policy), maybe your child and a like-minded friend could invite the two shut-out kids as their guests.

(Where do the kids whose attendance/disciplinary records aren't cutting the mustard go during the ice cream parties? Everyone else heads to the cafeteria, and they stay in the classroom or the school library? Everyone else piles on the bus to the local ice-cream shop, and they stay at the school? Everyone else stays in the classroom, and they're made to leave? Please don't say everyone stays in the same group, wherever, so that the disqualified can watch their classmates enjoy ice cream... )
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:47 PM on October 25, 2019

> Before I write a letter to the principal I wanted to get some other opinions about this practice and whether it's acceptable

I wrote a similar letter to my kid's principal and got their policy of rewarding 100% attendance changed. So, yeah, this practice is not acceptable. Fight to change it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:24 PM on October 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

One solution to propose is that it be a group award

This is still rewarding or punishing children for things their parents do. Children do not decide to get to school on time or not; that's outside of their control until fairly late in the education cycle (and even later, these days - some schools don't allow kids to arrive on their own).

Rewards for "no disciplinary infractions" may be reasonable. May not, because the kids most likely to have "discipline problems" are likely to be disadvantaged in various ways, which is why they clash with authority. But that's a separate issue: the base concept of "you get rewarded for following the rules" is not, in itself, biased.

But "you get rewarded based on your parents actions" is not improved by "you get rewarded based on the majority of all parents actions."

(And yeah, as noted, rewarding employees for showing up has problems, too. But presumably, adults are able to consider the value of the reward vs the detriment of prolonging their own illness or handing it off to others. Children aren't even allowed to make that decision.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:33 PM on October 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’m still thinking about this.

Lots of child feeding experts will tell you that food should not be a reward or a punishment. I would put this in the category of using food as a reward, but I’m also not a feeding expert, so I could be wrong. Probably would not hurt to look into it and include anything that suggests this is bad from as many angles as possible.

Seriously. I am so sad that this is still happening.

And for folks wondering, if it was a whole school party, we went to the office. If it was an in class party sometimes we stayed in the classroom and worked on worksheets, or went to another classroom and worked on worksheets. I can remember crying and saying over and over again ‘it’s not my fault,’ one of the times this happened.
posted by bilabial at 4:37 PM on October 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

An elementary school near me has a sign outside where they list the day‘s attendance percentage. To me, that indicates to the community that it is important without shaming individuals.

Perhaps in your letter you could suggest that since children rely on parents for things like this that the party could be for the parents instead. Parents whose children are late too often can be sent to sit in the office.

I’m being sarcastic, of course - but the above makes about as much sense as the current policy. Good job on raising such a thoughtful kiddo.
posted by hilaryjade at 6:40 PM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, this doesn't sit well with me. I was a pretty sickly child in grade school - I would be hospitalized at least a few times each school year with symptoms very similar to cyclic vomiting syndrome. (This was until fifth grade - it only happened once that school year, and then never again.) I definitely would have been one of the kids not invited to the party, and I know how upset I would have been. Trust me, I would much rather have been in school than in the hospital being pumped full of IV fluids!
posted by SisterHavana at 8:11 PM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

FUCK THAT NOISE this infuriates me given my kid’s bus is A MINIMUM 18 min late every single day. It has been an hour late, usually 20 min or so. BULLSHIT.
posted by tristeza at 8:57 PM on October 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

I find the policy unacceptable because it disproportionately affects kids who have difficult home situations and/or chronic (or even acute!) health issues. It's also kind of strange that they even have ice cream parties at all, because the current best practice in school health policy is to move away (or even forbid) food or exercise as punishment or praise. (i.e. running laps for mouthing off or ice cream parties).
posted by Stewriffic at 4:57 AM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ask your kid if other kids also feel bad for those left out. You may sway the whole dang middle school into forming an inclusive non parent dictated reward program, one that teaches kids more about the principal of responsibility rather than the lack of it.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 6:20 AM on October 26, 2019

I wonder if attendance policies could be replaced with a school responsibility program, more about students being able to identify things and skills that lead to classroom success (which being on time for can be a part of!) and not rewarding them on the ability to complete those tasks perfectly? This would be a great place and letting kids know a about school programs (free breakfast, school pantry, homework programs, whatever)

There is the move at the high school college level about those skills classes for success (with a quick Google college success siminar came up). Instead what if a reward was given to each classroom when they complete the moduel or something?

I realize I'm asking the world here! But it's something that has been deemed valuable enough in the higher education level to exist so I'm not sure why it wouldn't work with a younger group. It could theoretically allow students to identify barriers to success in a way that doesn't punish them for it. I couldn't ever talk about how domestic violence, or my moms disability or my health issues impacted my school performance, it was just my performance and my homework and always my fault (ugh, not true) so I couldn't reach out to try and solve those issues anyway.

I knew my mom was disabled a and my dad abusive in school but there wasn't a way to vocalize how that impacted my school experience? It wasn't until I was an adult living on my own I realized how much harder things were for me.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:58 PM on October 26, 2019

I didn't read everything yet but I had to chime in because the following JUST happened to my friends son: She got a call that he was absent (robo call) from school that day. He is in high school. She texted him for confirmation that he was, indeed, in school. Complicated story short: he was 10 minutes late because HIS BUS WAS LATE. So there were 22 students, all marked "absent", because their bus ran late. When my friend spoke to someone at the school, the woman had the nerve to say "Well I guess this is an excused absence." NO, you twit, HE WASN'T ABSENT AT ALL.

Rant over. I am so done with the shaming that goes on in schools that claim that bullying won't be tolerated (yeah, right), from things like this pizza party to excluding kids from events due to money owed for lunches.
posted by annieb at 4:48 PM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

My wife helps run a Saturday heritage language school and they have had perfect attendance prizes forever. I always say to her that the prizes should be scrapped because you end up with kids who are sick coming and making everyone else sick but the prize persists. It definitely works as a motivational tool because my daughter will decide to miss birthday parties so that she can go to the school and get the prize at the end of the year.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:22 AM on October 28, 2019

Agree with everyone else that this is a terrible policy that, among other things, has the potential to encourage sick kids to come to school and get everyone else sick. I think saying something is a good idea.

I also think that it sounds like you've got a pretty great kid there.
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:56 AM on October 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Coming from a school perspective:

Many schools are now in systems where the school itself and the administrators and sometimes even teachers get ranked and rated bases on measures like student attendance.

(Yep, this is problematic for ALL the reasons listed in the thread. We can thank the 'reformers').

It may be helpful to bring this above the head of school. In fact, they may thank you. Being it to the school board and the elected officials at every level who value metics and accountability over professionalism and support.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:02 PM on November 5, 2019

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