Rewards and Punishments

Yesterday I asked my son to take out a bag of trash.  “What will I get for doing it?” was his immediate response.

I sighed.  Somehow I knew that ‘Warm fuzzy feelings for helping out the family’ wasn’t exactly the reward he had in mind.

Which brings me to this post.  Virtually every educator I know strives to create students who are intrinsically motivated to learn and who instinctively treat others with kindness.

So why is it that so many of us fall back on extrinsic rewards and punishments that do nothing to create the type of intrinsically motivated students we desire?  It’s clear that we sabotage ourselves (in the long term) with every “table tally” system we introduce and with every promise of treats-later-for-work-now that we make.  We trade true character development for one fleeting moment of instant obedience. 

Sure, it’s easier — at least in the moment — to lob a threat or promise a reward than to actually discuss a conflict between peers in an attempt to help a student gain some empathy.  It’s faster to threaten a punishment than to actually take the time to figure out why Johnny won’t write anything at all in Writing Workshop today.  But what kind of student will emerge from a K-12 schooling that operates like that?

My challenge to you, my fellow educator, is this: ruthlessly eliminate extrinsic rewards and punishments from your classroom, and take some time (through proactive classroom discussions and reactive interventions as needed) to discuss the types of intrinsic rewards that can come from hard work and kindness to others.  The payoff — even if it comes slowly — will be worth the additional effort.

11 thoughts on “Rewards and Punishments

  1. I finally gave up on all extrinsic classroom behavior strategies in my eighth or ninth year of teaching. I came to the same realization you are describing here, that it went against what I was trying to encourage in my students. I’ve taught fourth or fifth grade only so far and next year I’m hoping to teach first or second. I feel like it will be a bigger challenge to handle this well at that level so it will be interesting. Your post will be one for me to keep in mind.

    Your post also made me think of a school-wide discussion we’re having now. We have a school-wide character education program in which we study different character traits each month (honesty, perseverance, etc.). At the end of each month students earn ribbons if they have consistently shown that character trait. Some of us feel that students (at least in the upper grades) should not be working towards these ribbons. We feel they should show respect or be trustworthy simply because that’s what they should do, not because they want a ribbon for it.

  2. I agree in theory. However, most adults are motivated by extrinsic rewards, paychecks, grades, supermarket club card points, etc. As children are just little people, it’s not always reasonable to expect them to be different.

    In first and second grade I usually use table points for about half the year and then phase them out by Christmas. There is no prize for the points, just the points. By the end of the year they’re not necessary as students are already trained as to acceptable behavior and more intrinsically motivated.

  3. Lots of new teachers use reward systems, because–initially–they seem to work and new teachers are often desperate to impose some structure and order. The problem, as Mathew notes, comes down the line when the reward rather than the behavior becomes the goal.

    The real problem is getting teachers (and school administrators) to think about this issue systemically. When kids have been fed rewards for years and years, a system which uses intrinsic controls will be very difficult to establish. It got so bad in my school that the PTA was raising money to give kids $5 for each month of good behavior. Horrifying. And most of the teachers blithely accepted the plan, claiming that it was “parent involvement.”

    1. I am speechless. Nothing will be gained by paying students for good behavior. School personnel and parents need to take the time throughout the school year to discuss the School District Code of Conduct.

      I’m not totally against giving rewards, but paying students $5.00 for good behavior? As a parent, I would not have agreed to this.

  4. I am having a problem with behavioral modification for many of the reasons listed above. I have a 16 year old student with affective needs and serious behavior problems. She has never responded to extrinsic reward in the 5 years she has been in the SPED program. Hmmmm. I have seen these methods work well, but I am more concerned with the end result which I believe will be a failure, as people rarely get a candy bar for being quiet. As a new teacher I am not sure how to get her intrinsically motiovated. I just completed my Masters in Special Ed and there are few classes that did anything other than behavior mod. The goal seems is more about controlling the student than perhaps socializing.

  5. Firstly, let me introduce my self. I am a teacher in an elementary school in Indonesia. I would like to share about how difficult to face my students here. At once I have to deal with the inconsistent education system in Indonesia. To be honest, sometimes we are in trouble to teach. Teaching the students means we have to follow what their parents required us to do. The parents are powerful than us teachers even we have an outhority and policy to do so. We are been driven by school administrators who let the parents interfere us. I haven’t got any practical solution to be free of this situation.

  6. Hey guys, thought you wouldn’t mind a behaviorist “chiming in.” First, I’m was raised by two teachers and grew up with that lifestyle; teacher conferences, back-to-school nights, difficult students, Saturday work to catch up on grading & lesson plans, problem students, etc. I’m very familiar with the demands placed on teachers.

    In my grown up life, I work with teachers, administrators and directors every day. I’m a consultant for School Districts … AND … I’m a Behavior Analyst … to the core. The concerns and statements you’ve listed here are common, and I hear them frequently. In my experience, there is a massive gap between the science of Applied Behavior Analysis and the practices of most of the people who utilize these strategies. This gap is disturbing to me. The science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is more than established, inundated with evidenced based practices, empirical validation, and replication. Yet, I hear more than anything, 1) They don’t work, and 2) my kids don’t get extrinsic rewards, I want them to be intrinsically motivated.

    ABA is very technical science and it possess a technical language. Unfortunately, many of the scientific terms and technical words utilized in ABA crossed over to the lexicon of the broader society. When this happened, the definitions were altered to a point that the lay person’s understanding of these terms are different than what the ABA scientist practitioner community understands. The confusion between “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement” is an example. The definition of the word “consequence” is usually stated as some form of a punisher by the lay person. Just understanding what a reinforcer actually is and what it does to behavior is not well understood. In fact, there is a very distinct difference between “reward” and “reinforcer”. But I see those two terms being used synonymously.

    Part of this terminology difference is with the use of “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” motivation. In the science of human behavior, we don’t utilize this term, “intrinsic motivation.” In fact, I’m not sure what it is. I THINK, when this phrase is used, you are talking about a students “desire” to engage and complete a task because they want to learn, because they value the learning experience, etc. And when you are talking about “extrinsic” motivation in regards to student work, you are talking about having to “offer” some tangible item(s) to entice him/her to engage and complete a task … Is this correct?

    Behavior is purposeful, probabilistic, and functional. All behavior serves a purpose. Just randomly offering a reward for a student to complete a task is silly. We wouldn’t do that. But, that is what the educational community does, due to a severe lack of understanding of Behavior Analysis. When the problems become apparent in the students behavior, “refusing to do a task unless he / she gets something for it.” its behaviorism that takes the blame.

    Hopefully this will elicit a discussion. With the demands placed on teachers with assessment, curriculum, inclusion, behavior problems etc., you guys need a solid understanding of human behavior that is evidenced based.

    1. I like what you have started to define in your comment. But you leave us hanging with a definition and no pragmatic advice on how to affect behavior in the classroom. I don’t believe in using rewards or bribery, but it seems to be the main source of control over student behavior in most schools. What can you suggest as a way of conforming behavior in order to teach class?

      1. Thanks for the question … a good one at that! We need to discuss what “rewards” and “bribery” actually are. First, we have to talk about how behavior is influenced. Behavior is a result of 1) what happens in the environment after it occurs, 2) the past history of that behavior occurring and what has happened historically in the environment when it did. Throw in some genetic influences and BAM … you have a unique, behaving organism.

        A “bribe” is something that is offered someone to engage in “illegal, immoral, or unethical” behavior. A “reward” is something that is presented after a behavior occurs that has no future influence on that behavior occurring again in the future. A “reinforcer” is some stimulus in the environment after a behavior occurs that DOES increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future under similar stimulus conditions. In other words, bribes are bad, rewards have no actual influence on the behavior, and reinforcement increases future occurrences of that specific behavior.

        One of the many reasons teachers jobs are incredibly difficult is that you are typically dealing with students with years of interactions (learning) in environments different than yours. Right off the bat, you run into that “conditioning” or “learning history”.

        This post is turning into a LONG posting most are not likely to read. I’ll try to get to the point! 🙂

        Teachers who manage behavioral contingencies CONSISTENTLY in their classrooms fair far better than those who don’t. Even with problematic students. Constantly ask your self, what is happening in the environment that “encourages” a specific behavior or class of behaviors to occur. It’s the consistent presence of these “events” that alter behavior. A one time administration of a “reinforcer” is not likely to result in desirable results. But if every time a student completes a task appropriately there is some contingency in the environment available, it will likely continue or increase. This can be a “natural” or “contrived” contingency. For example, verbal praise, a smile, a high-five, not getting in trouble, getting to move onto the next task, etc. What becomes challenging is that every student is different, so you have to be aware of what works for that specific student.

        I hope this helps a little, sorry for the long post. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me!

  7. The experience of my “nephew” (long story) in public school has been that the teachers have groups of desks together as a “table.” And they earn rewards as a “table.” Of course, “Mitchell” will usually act up and lose the table’s prize. Then the other kids dislike him even more than they did at the beginning of the day.

    How to get this idea across to others that some people have an easier time of things than others, I have no clue. NOT to excuse the behaviour. Just more about establishing realistic expectations, work on one thing at a time, etc.

  8. can someone give me kind of reward and punishment that build students character? because, i really confused to apply punishment when students did not do their job. for example, did not bring homework..what can i do?

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