On Rewards

We talked quietly in the corner. His 10 year-old head hung. He knew that had been a hurtful choice, knew that it had been a series of uncharacteristically unkind choices as of late. We talked about what might be going on lately. He said he didn’t know.

I told him that sometimes teachers use rewards to help their kids make better choices. I asked him, “Do you think we need to set up some kind of reward system for you to make better choices? Or do you think you can go ahead and step up to the kinds of choices we both know you can make?”

His eyes widened, and he replied, “I know I can make better choices.”

And he did. For the rest of the year.

Truly, if he had said he needed some kind of reward system, I would have honored that. Not because I think that such extrinsic rewards are particularly effective, or that they should be applied by and large. But because it might have served as a temporary scaffold.

But for longterm motivation and behavior, I have come to question more and more the place of tangible rewards in the classroom. We’ve seen studies that indicate that rewards actually make the behavior less desirable for kids. And we have seen the remarkable impact of self-efficacy on learning as kids develop specific skills that in turn help them believe in their innate ability to achieve goals.

Even as my critical position on rewards has grown stronger over the years, I appreciate articles like this that add more nuance to the conversation:

“Some people say, “[Offering incentives for reading] should be off the table,” or “This is terrible.” I wouldn’t go that far, just because I’m always a little uncomfortable pretending that psychologists have the absolute answer to anything. My recommendation is, maybe don’t try it first.”

When I unpack statements like this a little more, it makes me think of scenarios like the conversation I described above. I once had a similar conversation with another student who did indicate that having a reward system for a brief time would be helpful to reroute the behavior. As I stated earlier, it was a temporary scaffold, and it was ultimately effective to help him bring his attention to his choices.

So, yes, I’m still wary of incentives systems that might place a child’s attention on treats & stickers over the learning & self-awareness, particularly over longterm use. But I’m working on remaining curious as I continue to learn and assess my past practices to inform my future ones.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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2 Replies to “On Rewards”

  1. Perhaps the incentive may depend on the individual and the situation. I like the way you gave this child the choice and he decided he could monitor his own behaviour. That’s a great citizen in the making.

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