It’s been a long time since physical deterrents for bad behaviour were outlawed and in the years since then, the education system has looked towards rewards for good behaviour rather than sanctions for bad behaviour. Although schools have increasingly adopted both low and high cost incentives, there’s a lot of debate in the education world around whether or not it’s a good idea to reward good behaviour.
Those who subscribe to the theory that it’s a bad idea see it purely as a way of controlling and manipulating children’s behaviour. Whilst it works in the short-term, in the long-term, it doesn’t help children grow or help them develop better adjusted ways of behaving.
Education author Michael Linsin says that teachers will find that giving rewards in exchange for good behaviour is a mistake, which will result in more work for them in the future. By giving rewards, you’ll create a greater sense of entitlement, even though they’re merely doing something that’s expected of them. They’ll believe that they’re behaving for you, and are therefore entitled to earn a reward. Linsin argues that as soon as you’ve put a price tag on good behaviour, your students will not only expect to be rewarded, they’ll start to demand higher value rewards and more frequent ones.
Instead, he says that for real, lasting behavioural improvement, you should focus on creating a classroom that nurtures intrinsic motivation, i.e. that good behaviour is its own reward because it brings with it self-respect, confidence, and belonging.
A University of Chicago study on behavioural economics and educational incentives discovered that test performances will dramatically improve when students are offered rewards just before they are given tests and are given incentives soon afterwards. With the right kind of rewards – financial rewards for older students and trophies for younger ones – they found that the achievements lasted for as long as six months beyond what would be expected. It appears that a reward provides students with an incentive to take their tests more seriously, with the prospect of losing a reward being a stronger incentive to perform than the possibility of receiving one.
US elementary education expert Beth Lewis sees rewarding students in the same light as working for a living – without the reward of a pay packet at the end of the month, how hard would we be willing to work? Like it or not, she says, rewards make the world go round.
The rewards that Lewis uses in her classroom are based on positive reinforcement. She issues ‘Good Work Tickets’ where appropriate – the children write their names on the back of a ticket and put it in a raffle box. She has found the system works well if she allows one child to hand out the tickets, noting that they are more stricter with behaviour, and it’s often the ‘problem’ students who get the most out of monitoring their peers’ behaviour. At the end of the week, names are drawn out of the box for non-monetary rewards such as playing an educational computer game, an extra five minutes with a friend at break time, or another activity which they like doing.
Other educationalists can definitely see the advantage of using rewards with disruptive students, claiming that such rewards promote compliance and stop bad behaviour by students with ADD and ADHD who are particularly motivated by ‘social reinforcement’ – noticing when they have been good and reinforcing the behaviour orally, in writing and with rewards such as stickers, pencils and pens.
Good and bad!
Carmen Reyes is an educational author who writes on psycho education for teachers of students with behaviour problems. Giving rewards has a good short-term effect, but, to be effective in the long-term, they must not be the only component in behaviour management. She advises that teachers must also take into account each child’s perceptions, attitudes and feelings to give them the ability to develop internal self-control. Their primary aim is to teach and support self-management of behaviour.
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