Rethink Rewards When Teaching Kids About Good Behaviour

Every parent has offered incentives: "If you're patient while I get the tyres rotated, we'll get ice cream afterwards." Or, "if you play nicely with your cousin, you can use the iPad before dinner." Teachers certainly have used behaviour rewards for time out of mind - but offering incentives for behaviour isn't necessarily the best way to build character and increase motivation.

Photo: Sunny studio via Shutterstock

According to Mind/Shift's Linda Flanagan: "A substantial body of social science research going back decades has concluded that giving rewards for certain types of behaviour is not only futile but harmful."

She discusses Daniel Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, noting that he "identifies seven drawbacks to extrinsic rewards: they cripple intrinsic motivation, limit performance, squash creativity, stifle good conduct, promote cheating, can become habit-forming, and spur a short-term mindset. Giving prizes for routine and mindless tasks can be moderately effective, Pink writes. But offering rewards for those tasks that are 'inherently interesting, creative, or noble…is a very dangerous game.'"

She goes on to describe a school that used to offer "extrinsic," or external motivations for behaviour - rubber bracelets and public assemblies calling out good comportment - but have since swapped that system for fostering a community that emphasises respect, responsibility, and work ethic.

Now it's not like no praise is ever offered - the principal says she does pull kids aside and tells them she appreciates their good efforts - but the dog-and-pony show of elaborate rewards is gone. The principal reports that the change in the school has been dramatic, particularly in how the kids have stepped up to help each other with schoolwork.

Another interesting point: This particular school is for an entirely special-ed population, and in fact the students that did the best with the new system were the kids with the highest emotional needs.

I'm working on a master's in special ed (and I'm not finished yet, so take this with a grain of salt), but a lot of what we study is how to model and teach self-control and appropriate behaviour to kids who are struggling with those skills. That's part of why the reward of food or toys for good behaviour feels off to me: For some kids, for whatever reasons, behaving well is just...really easy. For others, for whatever reasons, it's a huge challenge.

So for compliant Susie to rack up her Fort Knox of Snickers bars while disruptive Timmy once again gets a tsk-tsk (or a punishment) seems counterproductive: Susie gets rewarded for what's not that hard for her in the first place, and Timmy doesn't get instruction and modelling on how to be a productive, respectful, intrinsically motivated member of a community.

That's why I like the current model of ICT classes, in which kids who are "behaviour models" are placed with kids for whom appropriate social behaviour is a challenge. Working together and being respectful is emphasised, and the teachers give extra support to the kids who need it. Rewards make a community competitive: Susie gets a Snickers; Timmy doesn't; Joe gets to put "model citizen award" on his Harvard application and Mary gets bupkus. It turns what should be a community into a zero-sum game.

Now a lot of Flanagan's story is about teachers, not parents, but there's obviously a lot of overlap. If we're giving screen time for participating in family errands or visiting with relatives, we're not teaching our kids that participating in chores is necessary and that spending time with Aunt Linda is valuable - we're teaching them that those tasks are hoops to be jumped through to get a treat. And part of the job of teachers and parents is not just to negotiate compliance but to teach kids how to manage their daily activities - even if they're tedious or unpleasant - as easily and as cheerfully as possible.

Several of the child-development experts I've interviewed for stories on discipline and picky eating emphasise the idea of a family's culture: "In our household, we behave respectfully," (and don't hit, or say yuck at the dinner table, or what have you).

Does that mean no one ever has treats, ever? Of course not. The teachers at my kids' school plan ice-cream parties and the like, but to celebrate good work, not reward it. And they, like the principal above, make a point of quietly recognising when kids are doing a good job on something that's tough for them.


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