Teachers Should Avoid the Traps and Problems with Student Rewards

Rewards are impossible to avoid at any level of our society. Evidence shoes repeatedly that the most effective rewards come from within. Are teachers who use extrinsic rewards doing more harm than good?

Reward Problems

Who is being Rewarded?

The act of bestowing a reward on another person creates a positive feeling in the giver as well as the recipient. This reinforces the giving behavior and can lead to increased reward use. If teachers feel good about giving why not bring the whole class a cookie occasionally for no particular reason. Thus the entire class enjoys the benefit of having a kind, generous teacher and the teacher can enjoy the giving experience.

Extrinsic Motivation may Weaken Intrinsic Motivation

The reward may become the objective for students. The value of learning can be overshadowed. At least seventy studies have shown that people are less likely to continue working at something once the reward is no longer available, compared with people who were never promised rewards in the first place.”

Rewards Lose Value over Time

As time passes, rewards tend to lose their effectiveness. What was motivating a week ago is suddenly ordinary. Teachers may find that more rewards are needed to maintain a level of engagement.

Some Good Kids Don’t Get It

One must not assume that what is rewarding to one student is equally motivating to another. To find equally motivating rewards is very difficult. Some schools have resorted to the debatable tactic of using cash as a reward.

Sadly, as awards are handed out for a plethora of “achievements” at year’s end, some students have to sit and watch as others are recognized. Although some teachers may justify awards ceremonies as a proper way to reward the smart and good students, there are many students in the audience who do the best they can — for these students the ceremonies only increase the distance between them and their classmates who have an advantage in innate ability and in parents who know how to raise children.

Character and Values

Most teachers would prefer that students who do good because good is right and expected than students who must be coerced, manipulated, or bribed to be good. Rewards do little to enhance positive values. People who contribute the most prized things to society do so out of an internalized value system.

Basically, rewarding children builds an expectation for more rewards. True character has been defined as how one behaves when no one is looking. The shaping of character by artificial means produces artificial character students learn to “perform.”

The Real World

Healthy people do not grow up expecting rewards for good behavior. Adults do not expect that someone will suddenly appear and hand them five dollars when they obey a stop sign. Children who develop materialistic expectations may have more difficulty adjusting as they grow up if they are taught that good behavior is always rewarded.

Assuming the Worst About Children

The reward-based classroom assumes that children will not behave without a carrot and stick approach — I.e., they must be bribed into correct behavior. The truth is that most children are raised by parents who have shaped good behavior with love, acceptance, and offering good role models.

Solving the Dependence on Rewards

If teachers feel they must offer something to students they should never underestimated the value of “self.” The giving of one’s self through offering patience, kindness, friendliness, a sense of humor, and other positive attributes have enormous value as rewards while demonstrating good modeling behavior.

Do not single students out for rewards, but do something good for the deserving and obstinate alike. Talk periodically about character issues, and never, ever reward charitable behavior. Rather challenge students to do the right thing “just because.” Charity is its own reward or it ceases to be charity.

If schools are truly interested in the development of character they must get on with the task of expecting students to do right things because they are right. The perception that students can be disciplined or taught only when they get something tangible is a pretty negative view. Instill values in people that hard work, good acts, and helping others have intrinsic value and students will seek these things because they are intrinsically rewarding, not because there is a pay off in the material world.

Decent, successful people are influenced by the way other decent, successful made them feel. They are motivated by the validation and love of important people with positive values. Love of friends, family, and teachers are powerful rewards.

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