It depends on whom you ask.
- Parker Barry
Ask any parent or teacher how they feel about graduation ceremonies for young kids, and they’ll likely give one variation of these two responses: “They’re adorable!” or “They’re absurd.”
At this time of year, many preschools, elementary schools and middle schools across the U.S. celebrate the end of the school year with a graduation. The trend of formal cap-and-gown celebrations has grown, while extra events such as field trips, dances and awards ceremonies have grown more elaborate. (Think: eighth graders arriving at dances in limousines, trips to major theme parks, and awards ceremonies giving kids subject-specific awards and even scholarships.)
Clearly, graduation for little kids is big business. Just Google “kindergarten graduation cards and diplomas” and hundreds of options appear. The Kinderkraft® graduation line by Jostens (created for preschool, kindergarten and elementary students) has doubled in sales in recent years.
Proponents of graduation ceremonies say they bring schools and families together to build community, support kids as they move into higher levels of academics and celebrate students’ achievements.
Those who oppose the practice say that graduations for young kids (especially events that involve awards) teach kids to look to external judgment for the value of their efforts to learn, demotivate students academically, and create a culture of competition in the classroom.
What do kids think about it?
So what do the people at center stage —the kids — think about graduations and other end-of-school celebrations? Here’s what they told Toca Magazine:
- Maddie, age 4: Maddie’s teacher in her pre-K class in Wisconsin recently called the class together for an end- of-year wrap-up. “We talked about what we learned this year, like oceans, and what we’re going to do next year,” Maddie recalled. She said she’s excited about going to the same school the next year, but she didn’t remember what her teacher said would happen. (“She lives day to day,” said her grandpa.) The parochial school Maddie attends also holds an end-of-year prayer service for all students in every grade and a picnic for kids, teachers, parents and grandparents — but no cap-and-gown ceremony. When asked if she knows what graduation is, Maddie said, “Not really.”
- Layla, age 6: Layla’s moving up from kindergarten to first grade, and she’s happy about the way her class is celebrating the end of the year. “We’re going for a walk down to the park and eating pizza,” she said. Her mom said Layla’s Florida public school is also holding a cap-and-gown ceremony with diplomas (but Layla didn’t mention that). Layla said her favorite part of kindergarten has been playing on the playground. Looking forward, she said she’s not sure if that much playtime will be part of first grade: “We have to do a lot of work there, a lot of writing.”
- Caleb, age 13: Caleb’s moving onto high school in the fall. His Nebraska school celebrated eighth-grade graduation with a party, a dance and an awards ceremony. “We all met down in the gym where we could do whatever we wanted, from basketball to four square to volleyball or just walking around and talking … Then we had a DJ and pizza and pop at the back. I liked how they gave us freedom to really do whatever we wanted.” He said he’s excited about high school: “Graduating from eighth-grade isn’t a huge deal for me, other than the fact that it made me realize how quickly time has gone. I feel like it’s celebrating more of the future and the fact of becoming a high schooler than it is making it through middle school.”
The perils of public praise
According to child psychologist Louise Porter, Ph.D., formal graduation ceremonies for young kids may contribute to a need in kids for constant validation.
“It sets up a dynamic as if they have to keep earning your respect,” Porter said.
Also, it’s not ideal for young kids to begin relying on outside signals to judge the worth of their academic work, rather than learning to self-assess how hard they’ve worked (or not). Do they feel like they’ve put solid effort into learning? Then it’s an accomplishment. Indeed, numerous studies have indicated that outside rewards or praise for academic performance can dampen kids’ motivation to learn just as much as punishment can. In one study cited in the classic book Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, students who had been rewarded for good grades subsequently got lower grades.
Porter acknowledges the natural desire to recognize the hard work of teachers, parents and students at the end of the school year in some way. Kids and adults want affirmation. Yet what adults plan to include in a graduation ceremony may or may not be developmentally appropriate for young kids. Porter suggests eliminating any awards ceremonies in the Pre-K through eighth-grade levels. She said public academic awards harm the high achievers as much as they do the kids who don’t receive an award. High achievers begin to avoid risk-taking as they learn to fear of failure and chase rewards, while kids who don’t receive awards are subject to what education reformer John Holt called “ceremonies of humiliation.”
“Nothing good comes of using public praise,” Porter said.
Many ways to celebrate
Some schools celebrate the end of the school year in alternative ways. One elementary school hosts a “Clap Out” for fifth graders, in which all other students line the hallways to celebrate the fifth graders as they walk out of the school for the last time. The principal stands at the door and shakes each kid’s hand. Another school brings in high school seniors dressed in cap and gown to walk through the halls and high five the kids, setting an example of what’s to come if they continue working hard. Other schools hold informal, party-like events for parents, kids and teachers to socialize and reminisce.
One way to decide how to celebrate the end of a school year for young kids may be this simple: Ask them. They’ll let you know how they want to celebrate. A kid-endorsed event just may include dressing up in cap and gown, it will most likely include lots of play — and maybe some pizza, too.