Why I believe awards shouldn't be given in the first years of school

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

I'm calling it. Awards in the first years of school should not be a thing.

Last week my youngest child's school held a 'Kindergarten Graduation' (Kindergarten is the first year of school in NSW) which we couldn't attend.

We were relatively unconcerned about missing it. Having two older kids means we've been around the traps long enough to know what matters - and what doesn't - and we've been there for just about every other event throughout the year.

It wasn't until I caught up with a friend afterwards that I learned about the awards that were given to the five and six-year-olds that day. She said that more than a third of the small class received awards for things like 'academic achievement' and 'critical thinking' and 'citizenship,' among others, that would fly way over the heads of most kids that age.

She also told me about her son's sense of devastation at not getting one. In his six-year-old mind, not getting an award correlated with not being 'good,' not being 'smart' and 'not trying hard enough.'

I empathised with my friend and felt extremely sad that the awards had impacted her child's self-worth, and said that I hadn't noticed any particular effect on my child. 

Then the realisation struck me.

My kid - also not the receiver of an award - had made us all family awards the evening before. My husband and I were awarded 'first place,' one sibling 'second place' and the other 'third place.' You can join the dots on which sibling they fight most with.

My child was also drawing the same straight line to awards being equated with a person's value, whether it was him or the teacher giving them out.

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It turns out I'm onto something. I approached Dr Louise Porter, a Brisbane Child Psychologist to comment on these observations and whether our kids' wellbeing is compromised by awards.

"These 'ceremonies of humiliation' (in Alfie Kohn's words) are awful at any age, but worse in primary school," she said.

"They teach children that those who happen to be academic are 'better than' others, which not only harms individuals' self-esteem but also creates a hierarchy within the classroom, within which bullying of the devalued is more possible."

In her book, A comprehensive guide to classroom management, Dr Porter advises trainee teachers, "...emphasis on social comparison generates differences in perceptions of individuals' abilities, with winning adding to students' prestige. Ability becomes salient, with status differentials developing between classmates."

And the ramifications are plenty, amplified even, for those who most need to be supported in their learning.

"This competitive climate is damaging to all, but most especially to those who already feel incompetent. Rather than motivating them to do better next time, it induces anxiety for many and this emotion, while noxious in itself, also impairs learning."

A five or six-year-old is too young to be processing such complex, sophisticated themes. In addition, these kids have had a huge year with new rules, new social groups and a more restrictive day than they might have been used to at daycare or home.

As is the way of these things, I'm sure some people will think this is a case of sour grapes, but none of my children have ever been the award-getters. I've had a lot of time to focus on my kids' attributes rather than whether they're top of the class or not.

And what of the notion that this is just real life, that everyone has to learn what the world is really like?

I don't accept that this is necessary for our very youngest school students. Children this young don't need to be wise to the ways of the world. And the ones worthy of such accolades will generally go through their schooling being publicly congratulated for many years to come.

Give up the pointless award ceremonies in the first year of school. Give them a graduation certificate and save the hard lessons for later when many children are developmentally more likely to be able to process these societal realities and themes of status, hierarchy and self-worth.

In the words of Dr Porter, "Imposing a competitive climate on children is an ethical issue. Very few adults would persist at a game at which they constantly lost; yet we impose losing on some students every day of their school lives – and yet expect them to remain engaged and hopeful."

Just let them be little.