Hot topic, I know: should teachers give students tangible treats or rewards in the classroom? Either for correctly answering questions or good behavior? This can become a volatile conversation among educators sometimes! I’ve seen indignation, defensiveness and flushed faces when someone tries to simply discuss this. People on both sides of the fence can feel very strongly. In the context of creating a classroom where I want students to give each other a safe place and encourage each other, what do I choose in the face of this controversy?
In writing how I create an encouraging classroom, there are 6 parts.
- Creating an Encouraging Classroom
- Fostering Respect and Encouragement in the Classroom: My Journey as a Public School Teacher
- Classroom Management: Motivation Without Treats?
- Rewards in Classrooms: To Give or Not to Give? (You are currently reading this article.)
- Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom
- (Not yet completed) List of Encouraging Choices and Behaviors: Concrete Examples for Students
I have been , at different times, on both sides of this debate about rewards in classrooms. But a new element in my thinking entered after I had my own children and they started going into other peoples’ classrooms. That surely strengthened the conviction I have! Because I know how I want my children to be taught and what I want them to value. Also, while raising kids, I simply gained more life experiences that really pushed my opinion further to one side of this issue, and that occurred separate from having children.
I saw a recent facebook discussion among parents about what they thought of rewards for classroom performance. Some thoughts were shared in a very strongly-worded way, surely! But strip down the drama that can sometimes occur in any casual debate on facebook, and there were some interesting kernels of belief there.
So now, informed in part by that discussion, I am going to list a variety of reasons why some people do not prefer tangible rewards in the classroom.These are all things that have made me pause and think and believe to some degree–or at least understand from another’s point of view.
- If students are taught to perform for a reward, some will do it only for a reward.
- Don’t we want children to see learning as its own reward?
- Rewarding kids for good behavior or learning-something they should do without incentive–sends a variety of messages, among them the idea that “adults bribe us to things that are not fun. They bribe us with treats to do boring housework. Now adults bribe us for classroom performance.” Rewards can send the subtle message that the tasks rewarded must be or will soon be boring or something kids won’t like. “No one has to bribe us to ride bikes, swim or play video games or anything else worth our time.” Subtly, our goals for kids to act respectfully, learn their times tables or Bible verses is lumped, in their minds, with chores.
- What about real-world consequences? Is it fair to set students up to expect something for every right answer or day of good behavior–when they will not be rewarded for every little thing in most places in real life?
- Having to reward students–even with little treats–costs money. Do I really have the money, or want to spend it in that way?
- Treats. So what kind? Candy? My, does that open a can of worms. I personally don’t want to feed kids more sugar when the average American consumes more sugar in a day than he/she should have in a week. Ai don’t want to contribute to unhealthful trends in our society. And I don’t want my students’ positive associations with me to be bound with sugary junk. If I have a positive relationship with kids and I can choose what foods or activites they will remember positively and assocaiate with me, I want to choose things that will serve them better in life than sugar.
- Sugar is known scientifically to impede brain function. When I directed children’s ministry at a church, I strongly urged all the teachers to not give sugary treats at all or at least not until kids were dismissed for home. If we really believe we are teaching about the most important Truth known to humans, how counterproductive is it to plan lessons and give kids sugar while trying to teach them?) It seriously hurts my heart to think of giving out candy made with sugar (not to mention artificial ingredients I try to avoid for my kids). I’m not comfortable giving anyone anything I don’t feel is good for my own kids, even if others are perfectly fine with those candies. Being hypocritical about that doesn’t sit well with me.
- Some kids are allergic to some of food dyes, or gluten or corn syrup, etc. Trying to provide edible treats means having to have alternatives as well.
- In the safe anonymity of facebook group posts, I’ve seen moms say, “Please, don’t give my kids treats!” I list this separately because it’s a parent’s wish–a statement that they do not want rewards given to their kids. Maybe this trumps all my other reasons on the list.
- Using non-edible treats, like small Dollar Store type items, we can avoid the pitfalls of dietary issues, but that brings other issues. It’s more “stuff.” Junk. Clutter. Things to drive a mom nuts (if her kids have what they need and are already inundated with too much stuff in general.). Cute erasers, colorful pencils. And that’s the best of the bunch, as far as usefulness goes. It can get worse: bouncy balls, tiny toys, and a whole host of plastic gadgets that will first trip you and clutter your house, and then end up broken and/or in the trash.
- I dislike cheap toys and trinkets. I find discomfort and injustice in our modern idea that things that do not cost a lot of money are disposable; in the end, nearly all such gifts from well-meaning teachers and tutors become such gifts: forgotten, destined for trash. As a mother, this is undesirable to me-for my value system and for the values I want to pass onto my children. Is my child’s momentary pleasure at receiving a plastic trinket worth the fact that there are whole stores and warehouses of cheap merchandise that are almost directly destined for landfills or incinerators? This becomes a faith issue for me. I’m convicted of Creation care issues deeply. If the production or disposal of cheap trinkets harms our Earth or anything in the food chain, it harms us. It is very counterculture in our society to be concerned about this. I am afraid my kids are not learning very much about this from me; I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate this without offending the kind people in our lives who give my kids such things.
- Also, buying cheap toys that can dazzle kids’ eyes supports an economic system I really do not like. Ever notice why most cheap trinkets are cheap? If you ever meet anyone who’s lived in China and worked in or visited those factories, then you learn one reason why they can be so “cheap” to us: it’s because other people are shouldering the real cost. Poorer people, powerless people. Their real cost of our cheap toys is working in an unsafe work environment we never would because putting their limbs at risk daily is the best way they have of feeding their family. When I see collections of little Dollar Store quality objects for kids in US classrooms, VBS or Sunday Schools, I can no longer see just those little toys–but the images of the real men and woman half way around the world who made them. This is a human rights issue to me, a issue of faith to me, and I try to avoid supporting our society’s illusions of “cheap” toys. I saved these for last because they are heavy. They are also arguments I’ve never seen in an article on this topic. But they are weighty with me and greatly influence how I handle classroom management.
So yes, I have lot of reservations about extrinsic reward systems, both for academic performance and behavior. I am focusing intentionally on reasons I avoid tangible rewards, because I am trying to explain my practice. But I say “reservations” because I do not think all rewards are always bad in all situations. I have seen some teachers neutralize some of the above-listed concerns. For instance, one children’s program I know at a church rewards kids for saying verses and good classroom behavior by giving points for a store. Most of the items are donated and second-hand. That is but one example to my over-arching statement that many if not all criticisms of the general idea could have solutions.
Of course, the biggest argument in support of reward systems in classrooms is “because it works!” Yes, in the short-term, they really can work! To get Zach to do his homework and keep Gianna from talking to her seatmate, the promise of a lollipop or tickets to spend on a stuffed unicorn in a class store at the end of the week can be very effective. I have used such things as motivation in the past and I have seen them work. In the short term. My reservation is the long-term effects.
But I know people who can argue convincingly that even short-term reward systems can help form long-term habits. For some kids, this works. For others, the behavior and learning stops when the rewards stop. (And rewards have to grow larger and larger over time to accomplish the same results, usually.)
Many years ago, I worked for an after-school program for underprivileged youth in a city. I worked in a room where kids could come and do their homework. My job was to help with homework, and as a reward, kids could get a snack and I rewarded points for every page of homework completed. If no homework, they could do supplemental worksheets from my files. Points could earn them items from a store on the premises, filled with toys and such. It was someone’s well-intentioned idea to help remediate the literacy of a very at-risk population.
I saw how ineffective it was. Kids learned to do nothing unless there was a treat in it for them. They performed to only the lowest possible standard. I’ve seen this many times now: rewards are offered to kids who are exhibiting the most problems succeeding, and it becomes a self-defeating downward spiral. I didn’t have enough time there to figure out all the whys of a very complex problem, but it did teach me to be careful about reward systems until I fully understood the dynamics of what made them sometimes backfire. I’m still not an expert on that so I use rewards sparingly. (I was later inspired by the work of Ron Clark who worked with at-risk students and accomplished lighting those students on fire with a thirst for knowledge. My post Fostering Respect and Encouragement in the Classroom: My Journey as a Public School Teacher refers to that book and influence.
So what do I use to motivate my students? My article Classroom Management: Motivation Without Treats? describes what I do. But in short, I want to motivate my students with meaningful privileges that they earn. Some people call this real-world consequences or practical consequences, but yes, I want my students to see what their maturity and growth in self-control in the classroom can reap. Not a candy bar, but relational and social cache. Since I’m talking mostly about the middle school grades, there is nothing more developmentally appropriate–or needed. I want my studnets to notice how their choices can reap trust from others, returned kindness, pleasant interactions, encouragement, affirmations, and others’ ability to really see them as the class grows in its maturity, becoming an encouraging classroom.
Do you have any other ideas for motivating students positively and socially?
Other resources for teaching/tutoring:
OiLs lesson #1: How I Talk to My Students About Drawing on Day 1 (Masters and Journeymen level)
Basics of Drawings: Fine Arts Week 1 for Classical Conversations (Masters and Journeymen level)