Awards and Recognition Season: How to Navigate as a Parent

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It is that time of year again… awards and recognition season. The tradition that marks the end of another school year by recognizing a few for a job well done. With all the pomp and circumstance it can be a really hard time navigating awards and recognition season. (To be clear, I am not against awards and recognition season.) I just understand that for those not on the receiving end of an award or recognition, awards and recognition season can be tough.

From a teacher’s perspective (former high school teacher), I loved to rightfully recognize and celebrate the amazing work a student did in my class over the course of the semester or school year. On the other hand, for every student I was able to honor with a formal award during awards and recognition season, there would undoubtedly be at least half a dozen (or more!) students who would have been an equally worthy recipient. Teachers are limited in the number of awards they can give because they are meant to be special and select. This is not about placing blame on the process of choosing who gets recognized. It is impossible to create a process and system to faultlessly recognize the work of all deserving students. Educators do the best they can during awards and recognition season knowing full well there are several students awards and recognition season leaves behind.

Awards and recognition season tends to highlight and honor a very narrow set of accomplishments. That does not make the achievements of other accomplishments any less monumental and valuable though. I am talking here about the student who was disengaged and uninvolved who then became engaged and active in the classroom. The student who failed every reading quiz until they learned how to extract information accurately from the text and now passes their reading quiz more times than not.  The student who has many responsibilities outside of school yet did the best they could with the time they had available to dedicate to your class. These are the types of accomplishments that awards and recognition season often fail to honor. Good educators do what they can to celebrate these successes with their students during the school year, but it is not the same. 

As a parent, many of us know that part of what makes awards and recognition season special is that not everyone gets one (it’s great practice for life!). It still isn’t easy though when you see your own child disappointed when they are left out of awards and recognition season.  It is hard to navigate the discussions and emotions as a parent as you try to explain to your own child that while awards and recognition are great, they are not the only thing that matters. They cannot fully understand that in twenty years no one will be differentiated from their peers because they won the Outstanding Student Award for the entire class or the Departmental Award for U.S. History their junior year. It can be especially tough to navigate if your child places a lot of worth on these awards or they have a friend that always seems to be the recipient of such rewards. I am sure many of us can remember the classmate that seemed to always walk away from the school year with more awards and certificates to add to their collection. Or, we can remember that feeling of disappointment when at least some part of us was secretly hoping we would be the recipient of a coveted award. 

While I do not have a magic “cure-all” for handling the complexities of awards and recognition season, I do have a few tips for navigating this season and ideas to help you celebrate your student and all they have accomplished this year.

Tips for talking about awards season:

  • Help your child to understand that awards and recognition season isn’t without value but is not the only determiner of a successful year. Consider making a list of all the things that are important that the award does not recognize. For example: does the award celebrate kindness to others, being a self-advocate, or being a team player? Sometimes bringing attention to all the characteristics an award does not reflect helps students to recognize the limited scope of a particular award.
  • If a child has a friend who received an award, encourage them to celebrate their friend while also reassuring your own child you celebrate their success as well. This could be a great time to discuss that sometimes in life we can do all the right things and still not be externally praised for doing so.
  • If a student is older and is eager to receive a particular award or recognition, consider helping your student compose an email or set up a meeting with their teacher so your student can have a clear understanding of what they can do next year to improve their chances of receiving a particular award. I would also encourage you to continue to remind your student that an award does not define their worth and that for virtually all awards there is more than one student worthy of the honor. Sometimes it is truly luck of the draw who receives it.

Celebration ideas:

  • Consider making a list with your student of their accomplishments this year. Remember, school is so much more than academics. For example: If your student had a hard time getting on the bus at the beginning of the school year and now, they readily get on that bus every morning, celebrate that! If your student has taken ownership of their learning and emails or talks to their teacher on their own accord when they have a question, celebrate that! If your child was dedicated and worked hard in a class you know they do not really enjoy, celebrate that! I know it can be easy to only think of the big achievements.  Truly though, it is the small achievements over time that help our students grow and develop.
  • Is there a favorite restaurant, treat, or outing your student loves? Use this awards and recognition season to unexpectedly treat them to it to celebrate all they have accomplished this year.
  • Do you have a good working relationship with your student’s teacher or another staff member in the school? Consider asking them to respond to a quick question or two via email that you can share with your student.  For example: Can you share a time my student made a good decision in school this year?  Can you share the area you feel my student has shown the most growth this year?  It is a busy time of year for teachers. While I would not email asking for an entire narrative of your child’s successes this year, most teachers would be happy to respond with a few sentences providing insight into the way they have seen your child grow this year. This is especially true if they know your intention is to help your child recognize their accomplishments this school year.

No matter how awards and recognition season goes, I challenge you to find time to celebrate all the ways your child (and you!) has successfully completed this school year.  

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