In 2017, a middle school in Georgia presented end-of-year awards at a school assembly. Students received beautiful glass trophies with their names engraved on them. In front of the entire school, a girl with ADHD was awarded “Most Likely to Not Pay Attention.”
Meanwhile, in Houston, Texas, a 13-year-old girl received a certificate that named her “Most Likely to Become a Terrorist.” An African American classmate was awarded “Most Likely to Blend in with White People.”
A year later, a first-grade student in Louisiana was presented with two awards: “Most Talkative” and “Class Clown,” along with a red clown nose. The boy’s grandmother described the incident as bullying.
These inappropriate awards were hurtful, embarrassing, and damaging to the students who received them.
And even when superlatives aren’t inappropriate, many award ceremonies leave most students watching from the sidelines as the same few peers are repeatedly recognized. This fosters an environment of competition and conveys the message that some students are more valuable than others.
Schools should be safe, nurturing environments where students feel comfortable taking risks, exploring their creativity, and learning from mistakes. Unfortunately, many award ceremonies have the opposite effect.
Does this mean that superlatives and end-of-year awards are always a bad idea?
Nope, not at all!
Done the right way, end-of-year awards offer benefits like:
- Communicating to students that they are special and valued
- Allowing each student to feel that they belong and have actively contributed to the class
- Demonstrating that you enjoyed spending time with your students during the school year
- Ending the year on a fun, positive note
Here’s how to host an end-of-year awards ceremony in your school or classroom that is a meaningful, fun, and a positive experience for all involved.
Give an Award to Every Student
If you choose to give end-of-year awards in your classroom, be sure to include every student. Everyone likes to be recognized and honored. The goal is to celebrate what is special and unique about each child, not to leave anyone feeling ostracized or embarrassed.
Create an inclusive, non-competitive celebration that ends the school year on a positive note.
Focus on Positive Character Traits
So, what awards should you give your students? Focus on positive character traits and qualities like:
Another idea is to give growth mindset awards, celebrating how much your students practiced, stretched their brains, and strengthened their neural connections. Award students for learning from mistakes, improving, and putting forth all their effort.
Traditionally, only students who perform in the classroom or on the athletic field receive recognition at school. Children who struggle in these areas are left feeling invisible and inadequate. And when children are denied affirmation or connection, they often seek it in unhealthy ways.
In your classroom, give every child the opportunity to shine in their own unique way. Show students that their effort, improvement, and qualities like kindness and responsibility matter too. Kids are much more than their test scores and report cards.
Evaluate Intent and Potential Impact
The first-grade teacher in Louisiana may not have had malicious intentions when she awarded her student “Class Clown” and “Most Talkative.” Regardless, her actions negatively impacted the student and his family.
As you create awards for your students, consider both intent and impact. Don’t criticize or poke fun at any student, even if it’s in a lighthearted or well-intentioned manner.
You can’t predict how the student will feel, and the child’s family may not share your sense of humor. In addition, other children may tease the student if they find the superlative funny. If there’s a possibility that an award could be interpreted as insulting, disrespectful, or mean-spirited, leave it out.
Other End-of-Year Ideas
If you decide to forego end-of-year awards altogether, there are plenty of other ways to celebrate your students and send the school year off in style.
Write a brief, personalized note for each student in your class. Tell each child what you appreciate about them, why you enjoyed having them in class, what you’ll always remember, etc.
Just like the awards, keep all notes positive and encouraging. Celebrate the positive attributes the student brought to your classroom and the growth you observed throughout the year.
Ask Students to Write Notes
Bring a shoebox or brown paper bag for each student. Instruct the students to decorate their shoebox or bag with their names and things they enjoyed or remembered from the school year.
Next, give every student a stack of index cards, one for each of their classmates. Keep a stack of index cards for yourself, too. Then ask the students to write down one nice thing they remember about each of their classmates, placing the index card in that student’s bag or shoebox.
Remind the students to keep the comments positive, providing a few examples of nice notes. You may also want to review the index cards in each child’s bag before allowing the child to read them.
You might be surprised by how thoughtful and kind your students can be! Ending the year knowing that they are noticed and appreciated by their teacher and their classmates is a special experience for many children.
Have a Showcase
If your students keep their work throughout the year, have them choose a favorite assignment or two that they’d like to display for an end-of-year showcase.
Enjoy snacks and music as your class tours the showcase and looks back on everything you’ve learned and experienced together. You can even invite parents to join in on the fun.
And finally, you can choose to just have a good, old-fashioned celebration. Play cheerful tunes, eat delicious (and nutritious) snacks, and reminisce on the school year.
Ask children to discuss their favorite memory from the school year or the most important thing they learned. Talk to your students about what a great year it was and express that you wish them all the best in the future.
Award ceremonies bring closure to a school year and end the year on a high note—for some students. Too often, many children are left feeling humiliated that they didn’t receive an award. Even worse, some schools have presented students with “awards” that are insulting and hurtful.
It’s time to do end-of-year awards differently. Make an effort to show every child that they are recognized, appreciated, and valued. Celebrate every child’s accomplishments, even if these accomplishments aren’t reflected in their test scores or report cards.
Of course, you don’t have to finish the school year with awards. Whichever way you choose to bid the school year farewell, leave every student with a sense of accomplishment and belonging. That way, they’ll look forward to next school year, rather than anticipating it with reservation, dread, or apprehension.
If you’d like the links to my end-of-year awards and activities on TeachersPayTeachers, please click here.