End of the Year Awards: Do they contribute to emotionally healthy, well-rounded students beyond academics?

June 6, 2018

This week, millions of students across the nation will receive some type of award as part of their school's end of the year awards day.  As I anticipated my grandson's 2nd grade Awards Day, I thought about children who may not receive one, just as he didn't last year.  It was traumatizing, and something he's never forgotten. So much so, he dreaded the day this year.  I thought about the child whose gift lies in the arts versus mathematics, dance versus English, or sports versus social studies. 

My hesitation was assuaged this year because each child in my grandson's class did receive something, even for perseverance, refusing to give up despite circumstance. 


That's how it's done correctly.  Or, is it?


George Couros, Innovative Teaching, Learning, and Leadership consultant, poses an interesting question in his blog, The Principal of Change, Stories of learning and leading, entitled, The Impact of Awards:

"What do we want from our students? To be good grade 2 or 3 students, or to become lifelong learners?"


The philosophy behind the question begins with a quote from Alfie Kohn, The Risk of Rewards,   "In short, good values have to be grown from the inside out. Attempts to short-circuit this process by dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards–like punishments–are unnecessary when these things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case." 


It appears reward and punishment are, in fact, the same-sided coin versus a pendulum between two opposite points.  Deci and Ryan (1985) describe the use of rewards as “control through seduction.”  Furthermore stating that "Control, whether by threats or bribes, amounts to doing things to children rather than working with them."  As punishment can prompt temporary compliance, so then can rewards. "Unfortunately, carrots turn out to be no more effective than sticks at helping children to become caring, responsible people or lifelong, self-directed learners",  adds Kohn. 

What do studies reveal? 

There are numerous; however, according to one ( Birch et al., 1984 ), "Young children were introduced to an unfamiliar beverage called kefir. Some were just asked to drink it; others were praised lavishly for doing so; a third group was promised treats if they drank enough. Those children who received either verbal or tangible rewards consumed more of the beverage than other children, as one might predict. But a week later these children found it significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas children who were offered no rewards liked it just as much as, if not more than, they had earlier."   


What happens if you substitute academics for kefir? Could it be considered the same principle?  I believe so. 


Do I personally agree with Kohn's theories? I feel that's irrelevant. Despite agreeing or disagreeing ( there are plenty on either side ), he causes one to think, and thus re-evaluate their methods. He challenges us to consider alternatives to stickers and stars. Our mind wanders beyond awards to motives aligning more with genuine familial love, encouragement, and support. 


I've never offered my grandson a reward for trying broccoli, or a star for eating a salad. Instead, I expected it the way I expect him to wash his hands before meals. I've taught him he wouldn't conclusively know what he likes unless he tried it.  Fruits and vegetables have been a part of his life since he only had four teeth, their juice and puree long before that.  Today, with his permanent ones coming in, he still loves eating them, not because he's rewarded.  But, because he enjoys them. 


Come to think of it, I've never rewarded him for anything. I've taught respect, responsibility, and encouraged gentlemanly behaviour, especially toward women and the elderly, i.e. - opening and holding a door;  I've taught kindness and compassion, especially regarding the homeless and animals; I've afforded him an allowance for doing daily chores each afternoon, such as walking/feeding the dog. I've acknowledged his efforts in a supportive versus critical way. This teaches him the value of accomplishment without expectation, while allowing him room to express performing them in his own unique method. 

My grandson was awarded "Highest Overall in Math", as well as "Best Effort in Social Studies" this year. When I asked him how he felt about receiving them, he simply said, '"It's okay, but it's not why I tried hard." Of course it wasn't, because, as last year, he was expecting nothing.  He tried hard because it's what is expected of him in everything he does, from washing his hands to eating healthy. 


Kohn poses a good question to our educators, "As a school, how would the environment feel if we had awards for the 'best' teachers on staff?   Every member of my staff makes a contribution to our school environment, just like every child does."  

The wise Dr. Seuss had it right along when he said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”


Wouldn't it be wonderful if all schools and parents celebrated each child's passion as well as academics? Especially if that passion is a character trait such as kindness, compassion, and perseverance.  Who was most willing to share? Who was kind and considerate? Who was most respectful? And, who didn't give up despite circumstance? 

Speaking from experience, I consider them just as, if not much more important in these trying times. On the contrary, they've been my lifeline to survival and what I consider success: contentment in my own efforts and accomplishments beyond any accolade or reward. 


I hope the same for my grandson one day. 







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by TamArtsy