How we punish students with rewards

Many teachers are parents of school aged children too; we’re the ones who embarrass our offspring simply by making vaguely informed enquiries at parents’ evening. (‘How can she work towards a target grade that is actually lower than her current performance grade?’ – just one example of many strictly off-limits squirm-inducers.)

But parenthood does provide us with fascinating insight – it’s often our own  kids who stop us in our tracks; offer us a refreshingly common sense perspective on aspects of our practice that we’ve stopped thinking critically about simply because they’ve been around for so long.

I asked mine about rewards. “They’re rubbish. If you get on with your work without any fuss you never get rewarded.” This injustice isn’t one my girls get too exorcised about though, because they don’t actually want such goodies at all. “Praise from a teacher I respect means a lot to me. I really like that. House points? No thanks.” My eldest once begged for a day off school because she was at risk of having to accept a certificate for 100% attendance in assembly. “I’d rather die. It would be so embarrassing!” Oh the irony in that.

Of course, elitists will attribute this modesty to the lack of a competitive ethos in our coasting comprehensives, or to a culture of low aspiration. But they would be missing the point. Most students love good grades, they relish positive feedback, they want to do well. But they see right through rewards. 

I accept the argument that fairness doesn’t mean everyone has to be treated the same – have the same chance of being rewarded, in this example. As Jefferson rightly pointed out, ‘There’s nothing so unfair as the equal treatment of unequal people’. Some young people need more encouragement than others because they are disadvantaged. If a reward can draw in the disaffected, engage the damaged, help a child with ADHD make a super-human effort to sit still, in other words level out the playing field just a little, then surely that’s a good thing. My daughters, complaining about fairness, just need to take a broader view.

In reality, however, rewards simply don’t have this kind of seductive power. Indeed, there’s a strong body of research, neglected by policy makers, which shows that rewards actually reduce motivation and therefore do all learners a disservice. In his iconoclastic ‘Punished by Rewards’ , Alfie Kohn explains that when, in a study way back in the 1960s, children knew that they would be awarded with a certificate for playing with ‘Magic Markers’, they became less interested than they were before the reward was offered. 

According to Kohn, the total number of studies of this kind, showing how extrinsic controls actually reduce intrinsic interest, exceeds one hundred. For him,

 “This fact is so predictable that rewarding people might even be regarded a clever strategy for deliberately undermining interest in something.”


So why is this? Maybe it’s because what we do when we promise a reward for something is convey the idea that the activity isn’t worth doing for its own sake. ‘Do this and you’ll get that’ automatically devalues the ‘this’ – whether it be composing a haiku, solving a maths problem or completing a homework task. Psychological reactance theory comes into play here too – the idea that when we feel our freedom to perform an action is threatened, we experience an unpleasant feeling of ‘reactance’ that makes us want to recoil from the situation. So when rewards are experienced as controlling, they become entirely counter-productive as incentives and adolescents in particular want nothing to do with them.

It’s worth pausing to question why it is that we feel compelled to dangle goodies in front of children when learning is in fact such an instinctive thing. As any parent will attest, toddlers ask endless questions, play with language and number, experiment, engage in all manner of cognitive activity in order to make sense of the world around them. As teachers, we have an ally in every curious child who walks into our classroom.

Why the bribes then? Well perhaps behaviourism – do this and you’ll get that – is so deeply rooted in our culture that it feels natural and inevitable and therefore goes unquestioned. As Kohn points out, rewards suffuse our lives – from performance related pay in the workplace to pocket money and other treats for compliance in the home to a vast and growing array of rewards in schools – they are used to manipulate behaviour. It is the approach that teachers know best because it governed how we ourselves were managed. 

Simply raising the stakes through ever more extravagant assembly draws to elicit  “a type of behaviour that the natural force field of the moment will not produce” (Kurt Lewin) is surely a mistake. What we need is a serious debate in our schools about why the ‘force field’ of the learning moment is not strong enough to engage so many young people. A preoccupation with rewards (and sanctions) stifles that debate; it’s a distraction.

We need to return to researchers such as Willaim Glasser who argued in ‘Choice Theory in the Classroom’ that it’s because the traditional classroom environment deprives the adolescent of the need for power, or control, that we lose them as committed, independent learners. Whatever, it is clear that the single most important issue we should be addressing as educators is how to secure genuine learner buy-in, not on what prizes we need for the next raffle or whether to move from house points to Vivo Miles.

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4 thoughts on “How we punish students with rewards

  1. Reading this hit home personally, i have a 3 yr old boy who behaviour is vile quiet frankly. He can be and have witnessed lovely caring personality , we have drummed in manners which he is capable of using. But something is not right. He started talking at 2, i’ve really worked on him with that as, there is a link between frustration and not being able to communicate. I’m a single parent, dad is around but works away and sees him as much as possible but can leave up to 6 weeks between visits. He does have sensory issues, hypermobility, and i have had him tested for autisim which proved inconclusive. They found oddities and want to test further in 18 months. In the mean time i’m left with a child who is angry, refuses to listen, refuses to trust, rude (that is his default setting) vile, abusive, but changes with a click of a finger to laughing and happy and in a good mood. We have to reward for EVERYTHING. It is the only way sometimes to get him to do the most basic of things, like eat his breakfast, or get dressed. (in order for us to get him dressed by himself we had to promise a fish tank) it worked he got dressed for 2 weeks by himself and we bought a fish tank. Then he had to earn his ornaments, but of course he got bored and it ‘work, because he wasn’t doing it for himself. The reward has to be almost immediate, the fish tank was different as i took him to the pet store to remind him what he was working towards. That is the only thing that has worked long term. Everything else has to be immediate, i’m working towards 3 good things then reward. I’ve tried instilling some sort of pride. Not understanding/not caring take your pick. I’ve now referred to mental health as i’m at my wits end. We have our appointment next week. MY fear is in 2 years, if i do not get a handle on this, will be he will be stronger than me. I’m disabled myself, and have medical issues . If a diagnosis of aspergers is the end result i really would not be surprised. But sick of using rewards to get him to behave, we praise him alot for the minutest of things in the hope he likes the praise and that becomes the reward…. does not work, 😦

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  2. This sounds so difficult Natalie but you are doing the right thing looking for support from specialists. I don’t want to set myself up as an expert in child psychology. I’m not. All I would say is that we had some success with a ‘nurtured heart’ programme whan we engaged CAMHS to work with one non-compliant boy and his mum. This involved her ignoring all of his bad behaviour completely and making a huge, loving fuss over the good – verbal, not rewards. There was some improvement – but it wasn’t transformational. (Sounds like you’ve tried something like this though) The other thing I’d say is that, you’re right, the link between communication and behavioural difficulty is really well researched but often missed – people address the secondary behavioural problem rather than treating its underlying cause; language deficit. I wonder what his receptive language skills are like. Hopefully this will form part of the assessment. Whatever, I do hope you get some answers. Thank you for sharing all of this.

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    • Thanks for replying mary. I to wonder about his receptive language. Im convinced he does not understand as much as he speaks if that is possible. Doctors say he echoes way to much for a child with speech about a year ahead. We have tried ignoring the bad behaviour. We take our attention away from him which works sometimes. He changed completely when he started nursery. I mean total personality change. Just want someone to say its either a condition so not his fault, or its my fault as then we would know what to do. He has no fear of adults. In his mind he is an adult. So everything is argued. Anyway will keep trying to reward with praise and reduce rewards ….

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