Do it because…

What is the best way to motivate a child to behave well and to learn? I’ll bet none of you would vote “Use candy!” as your very first choice.

I might use treats to train a dog if I had one. I have been known to keep a jar of marshmallows around when toilet-training a 3 year old. I have revoked dessert privileges for particularly egregious 7 year old behavior, but consequences like that come with a level-headed, loving discussion. Rewards have a place. Places like state fairs, pie-eating contests, NASCAR races, and flower shows. Not schools. Nor church, for that matter.

Living in Vermont, I was blissfully unaware that children anywhere were being bribed at school. I moved to Northern Virginia for one year in 2009 and discovered that the neighborhood elementary school was using a rather elaborate and confusing token system for good behavior and academic achievement. I was dumbfounded. And outraged.

I asked individual teachers to refrain from giving my child candy at school. One teacher just gave my kid pretzels and all the other kids candy. I attended a PTA meeting where I explained that a first-grader in my daughter’s class was keeping track of her friends’ “points” and offering sticker tattoos to the first person to reach 5 points. The small group at that meeting was shocked; they had never considered that what they were doing was modeling bribery. In the end, all I could do that year was convince them to remove the food element and they moved to a token prize system instead. I was so grateful to move back to a school that just expected kids to meet the high standards of behavior and learning… and kids did.

What happens when you reward an elementary school-aged child for achievement- something they probably want to do anyway? The same thing that happens when you attempt to over-justify any kind of behavior: it destroys the intrinsic love for that thing. Important things create their own rewards. Every child subconsciously knows that only unimportant things earn prizes. Prizes are cheap, in the larger scheme.

In “Social Psychology” by David Meyers, he explains that “an unanticipated reward does not diminish intrinsic interest, because people can still attribute their actions to their own motivation.” Rewards like unexpected complements can increase intrinsic motivation, according to Meyers. But if you over-compensate someone for something they would do anyway, they begin to see their motivation for the behavior as externally motivated, and motivation decreases.

So, imagine my feelings over the last few weeks as I have dealt with candy coming home from church and school for reverence, good behavior, right answers, and all kinds of positive behaviors. How do I explain to these well-intentioned teachers that they are undermining all my hard work at home? I expect my kids to do well- not because I’m strict but because I have been very careful to teach them that learning is its own reward and that the reward for reverence is peace and that good behavior makes them feel good inside.

The last straw came today. My kindergartener came home from his second day and I asked him how his day went. He said, “Mom- guess what? I ALMOST earned a skittle for good behavior! I really want a skittle. Oh, and we learned the letter D.” Well, he can exceed the academic expectations in his sleep (today he correctly used the word “bioluminescent), but the whole skittle thing made my blood boil. Don’t you dare teach that boy to sit still for skittles. Or roll over.

After cooling off, I composed this letter which will be delivered to the principal and all my children’s teachers tomorrow. I know they are committed to raising the bar at the elementary school. Let’s hope there is a way to work this out so that all the kids can learn on a deep and lasting level with the kind of respect they deserve.

“Dear Principal ____,

Thank you so much for the great, upbeat, and exciting start to the 2013-2014 school year at _______ Elementary School! Our 3 children are excited to begin a year of challenging learning at their new school. They love their teachers already and are beginning to get to know their classmates. They feel safe, trusted, and happy. So far, so good!

One thing that we work hard on at our house is “motivational source”. We expect all 4 of our children to do their best in all their endeavors. We work hard to support their natural desire to do their personal best by praising them, loving them, setting high expectations for mutual respect, maintaining eye contact while listening to them, smiling a lot, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses. We have gotten most of them to the point where their motivation to learn and excel is now intrinsic.

However, intrinsic motivation can be undermined by over-justifying good behavior and learning using a reward system. When our children are introduced to a system where rewards such as candy, treats, competitions against other student groups, food, prizes- any tokens of any kind- are used to motivate good behavior or learning, it will decrease their internal motivation and they will only work/behave to the lowest required standard which gets a reward. They know that little rewards are offered for things that aren’t of lasting importance; important things have their own reward.

Additionally, we have seen the “token economy” used in classrooms at another school which then in turn inspired a first grade student to try using bribery to get and keep friends.

In short, we will not allow our children to receive candy, treats, food, or prizes as a reward for their good behavior and/or academic achievements. If they are not meeting the expected standards at school, please let us know so we can work with you to get them there. Birthdays and other celebrations are fine. School should be fun! And learning (and learners) should be treated with great respect.

We look forward to a great year and hope that each of the wonderful teachers at _______ Elementary will find a way to internally motivate children to the high standards of excellence which have been proposed for this academic year.”

So, how do you motivate other people? What have you observed that works?

5 thoughts on “Do it because…

  1. While I do agree that food/candy has no place as rewards at school or church (especially in light of all the childhood allergies these days), I do feel there is a place for a reward system for most children. Take for example those kids on the spectrum. “Reinforcers” are very important to keep them motivated to learn new skills and behaviors. Often they start off with a lot of reinforcers and then cut back as the skill is mastered. There definitely are behaviors that are expected and often just verbal praise for noticing a child doing an expected behavior is reward enough. My boys’ school has a currency system where they can earn an “Ocelot” when a teacher notices them doing good things and behaving in an expected way. These ocelots can then be used to “buy” things such as lunch on the stage, coaches assistant, etc. It has been very effective. They also have a “Positive Referral” system in which a child is referred to the Principal for doing outstanding work or achievement. The teacher writes up what the child did that was being recognized and they get a trip to see the Principal who congratulates them on their achievement…and sometimes they do get to pick from a “treasure box”. The key here is that they have no control over when or how they will receive the ocelot.

    I wish we were a society that just functioned on doing things just because…”it was the right thing to do” or “it made me feel good about myself” or “it’s just what is expected”. But I’m pretty sure there are many adults that work hard for that reward of a big paycheck or recognition for their work in publications or the student who works hard in school and earns a scholarship.

    I hope that you get things worked out at their school…maybe the reward for sitting still could be extra recess time!

  2. I agree in theory. But recently I’ve considered implementing a reward system at home for my 7-year-old son who whines, complains, and teases his siblings. He is an ideal student at school where many reward systems are in place. Do you think this could be making our home life harder?
    I appreciate the insights you share in your blog. Do you take requests? 🙂 I would love to read about how you motivate your family and manage a home with 4 children–chores, homework, discipline, etc. Thank you!

    • Thank you so much for your reply, Sarah!

      It’s hard to say exactly; the difference between a school rewards system and a plain old regular loving home might be making a difference. But you know I’ll back the loving home, of course, not the rewards system. So my answer is: if you have reasonable evidence that the difference is due to the two systems, do not implement a reward system at home! Challenge the school’s system (nicely).

      In my personal experience, whining, complaining, and teasing are all forms of saying, “I have needs and one of them is attention.” Seven year olds are not known to be highly self-aware, but sometimes a calm conversation about what he’s feeling can reveal what he needs. When one of those episodes of poor behavior happens, it might be worthwhile to ignore the consequence or reprimand or whatever he thinks he has coming and just see if you can understand what he really needs instead of what he’s asking for. Sometimes a child needs more trust and more responsibility. (Funny way of asking, I know.) Sometimes it’s more frequent compliments.

      So what would happen if he teases his sibling and gets time helping you make dinner, or reading together? Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to feel trusted, loved, supported, etc., with no guilt and no mention of the unwanted behavior? Not all poor behavior can be ignored, of course, but sometimes it can be helpful for him to know that you love him unconditionally.

      But the whining… we have a zero-tolerance for that. In fact, when they were each little I taught them my favorite cheer: What do you get when you whine?? Nothing!! (Said with arms raised and all happy!) So then I ask them nicely to repeat the same whiny words with their regular voice and see if their request makes sense. Often, it is a reasonable request and just needed to be heard using a reasonable voice. Even if it isn’t a reasonable request, they are more accepting of a calm, “No, dear” when they just used their calm voice. Now no one whines.

      Thank you! I’ll start thinking about the topics you raised… stay tuned.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful response. You give some helpful suggestions. I am reminded of Jane Nelsen’s book, “Positive Discipline,” and the importance of stepping up my mindfulness of my son’s needs (which lately have gotten subsumed by the toddler and baby). Thanks for helping me get back on track!

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