My Issue With Rewards

A ticket to success???

Student behaviour and discipline are well-discussed topics at schools and many schools have opted to use school-wide behaviour programs to help “solve” issues with student misbehaviour.

A few years ago, as a new principal, I made a decision to recognize the children for “making a difference” at our school.  The idea was that at our monthly assembly, all staff members would have an opportunity to publicly thank and recognize any student that he/she felt had a made a difference.  Things started out well.  Kids were excited to be recognized.  Students seemed to be doing more around the school and letting us know about it… then after recess one day Ashley (pseudonym) and another student arrived in the office:

Ashley showed up helping another student walk a the other student was crying and had an obvious scraped, bleeding knee.  Ashley was a primary student who had a number of behaviour concerns and reward/incentive programs were being implemented both at home and at school.  I was so happy that Ashley had decided to use her efforts to help another student…. but then it happened – the ‘Aha’ moment for me.  As soon as she saw me, her attention moved from the injured girl to me, she stopped helping the girl and said to me, “Mr. Wejr, I helped Susan to the office when she was hurt! Can I get one of those “Making A Difference” awards now?” (cue alarms going off in my head).  I stopped right there.  What had I done? Had I just taught this child to help another student not for the reward within the act itself but for the reward of being recognized at an assembly?  My response (not quickly thinking) was, “Yes, you will be recognized but….”  Before I could finish, she was so excited that she skipped off with no concern for what I was saying nor concern for the injured girl.

This recent story illustrates the unintended negative consequences that reward systems can have. I know that majority of teachers and schools make decisions based on what is best for kids and there is no intention of harm but are we, in fact, doing more harm than good by offering incentives for certain behaviours?

We often hear of schools that use merit tickets, gotchas, prizes, etc to encourage students to behave a certain way that has been decided by adults.  Before I go on further, I need to say that these systems work; they are successful… SHORT TERM.  These systems get students to comply to the rules that we set out but do they actually help to internalize their actions?

At Kent School, we have not used a school-wide reward system for a number of years (other than my error of implementing the “making a difference” idea); the previous principal and a number of staff members were opposed to motivating kids with incentives and “stuff” (by rewards an incentives, I mean tickets, candy, money, prizes, etc).  Instead of rewards, we provide descriptive feedback on how children could improve as well as what they have done well.  We try to praise their efforts rather than the results of their efforts.  We also honour each child for who they are rather than what they do (without awards).

I recently read a blog by a BC administrator, whom I truly respect and admire, called “Beyond Discipline or Beyond Common Sense”; the example used brought back all the concerns and questions I have on the promotion of the use of merit tickets.  In the story, he discusses how the use of tickets caused the misbehaving boy to change his behaviour and instead focus on getting caught being good.  To grow as an educators, I want people to challenge  my current opinions, so here are my concerns/thoughts/questions with the use of tickets and the school-wide behaviour system that uses rewards:

  • What is the value of a ticket?  What is the currency? Is picking up garbage worth 1 ticket and if so, then what is the going rate helping a new student make friends or leading a fundraiser for the SPCA – more tickets or the same?
  • Are we standardizing rewards for individualized behaviours? (much like we standardized grades for individualized learning)
  • How old are students when we stop rewarding with tickets?  What happens when the reward is removed?
  • Are the tickets used to remind teachers to praise?  If yes, is there another way that we can help staff to learn to praise and recognize students efforts?
  • Tickets and incentives do not teach and often those students who misbehave are lacking skills.  How were the behaviour skills learned by the students?
  • Was it the use of tickets or the feedback-based conversations with the teacher that resulted in the behaviour change?
  • Is the student proud of his tickets or proud of who he is?
  • If we are trying to “catch kids being good”, many will make sure they are “caught” (Look at me!).  What happens when we are not around? Will the positive behaviours continue?  Do we want to promote a society that behaves well ONLY under surveillance? (cue argument about speeding tickets).
  • Who has the power to decide and control what is worthy of a ticket?
  • What happens to the student who does not need the incentives to do the right thing? Does their motivation change?
  • The use of a reward/incentive helps students to become skilled at… attaining the reward.  Are they actually changing the behaviour so when the reward is removed they will continue to act in this manner?

Now, I do not intend to make this an intrinsic vs extrinsic, PBIS/non-PBIS (Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support) debate.  Motivation falls on a spectrum and I feel there is value in both (ie. praising effort as extrinsic).   Also, The PBIS system has a number of effective practices; my issue is with the behaviourist view on use of rewards.  I know many who use the rewards system in PBIS cite the research done by Judy Cameron of University of Alberta and I could make this blog even longer and cite the words and/or research written by some educators, economists, and psychologists.  Instead of this, here is a list of people that discuss  and share the problems/concerns of rewards-based programs that I encourage you to research:

  • Jean Piaget
  • Maria Montessori
  • Nel Noddings
  • Michel Foucault
  • Richard Ryan and Edward Deci – Self Determination Theory
  • Dr. Ross Greene
  • Rick Lavoie
  • Stephen Covey (thanks to @kwhobbes for this addition)
  • Barry Schwartz
  • John Hattie
  • Daniel Pink
  • Carol Dweck
  • Seth Godin
  • Barbara Coloroso

As a teacher I previously used tickets (Weej Bucks, Bobcat Bucks) to attempt to motivate students; as a principal,  I have observed and used school-wide reward programs.  I now can look back and realize the negative impact that a reliance on incentive-based systems can have.  As parents, teachers, and administrators I challenge and encourage you to reflect upon the current practices used in your schools and determine if the reward systems like this are actually needed.  What if, instead of rewards, we just did the following:

  1. Relationships: focus on trusting, caring relationships with kids
  2. Feedback: provide descriptive feedback (positive and negative) to students based on their actions – how did it make them feel? How did it make others feel? Help students to see the reward within the task itself.   Dr. Ross Greene tells us that all kids WANT to do well if they CAN.  Help teach students the skills so they can do well.
  3. Work WITH Students: include student voice in the conversation around behaviour and avoid doing things TO students.
  4. Honour: focus on the strengths, rather than deficits, of the child.  Continue to work with the child on skill development but encourage the use of strengths and passion
  5. Reflect: what is it about the task that is making this difficult?  Include students in this conversation.  Are we playing a role in making it more difficult for the student?

If we did these simple things every day with each student (obviously some would need more support than others), would there be a need for tickets and other prizes?

In my experience, the answer is no.  I have observed classes and schools that have respectful cultures that do not rely on incentives.   Do we have the perfect school in which everyone behaves respectfully all the time? No, we have some incidents of disrespect and inappropriate behaviours just like other schools but we approach each incident with a learning/growth mindset and, although it is much more difficult and it takes much longer, we continue to see long-term learning without the need for prizes.

For those who often cite the workforce or the real world to support the argument for  the use of rewards, I will leave you with an example from the “Motivational Guru” Dwight Schrute:


 

For another video that compares this to the thoughts of Alfie Kohn, please click here.

Thank you to Tom for making me think and reflect on this topic. As this is an often debated issue and this is based on my opinion, I look forward to reading your comments. This was originally posted at The Wejr Board blog; please check out the comments there for more dialogue on this topic.

24 Comments

  1. Ericka Pitman said:

    I too struggle with this as a teacher. This year I used a reward punchcard system in which students earned “punches” for homework and class participation which they could use towards a homework pass or test extra credit. Some students really bought into the idea and kept track of their punchcards and used them successfully. Other students were not engaged by the idea, or were frustrated by constantly loosing their card. This year I thought of using “dollars” instead to motivate students. I do agree that they can have a negative effect, i.e., students asking, “Can I get a punch for that?”

    I also still get students who say, “Well, you get paid for working, how come we don’t?” I might try a site, http://s2.mykidsbank.org/, that allows for online management of a “bank account” in which students can earn money to deposit. This may teach them not only to work to earn, but how to manage money. We’ll see how it goes. Great posting and reflection!

    July 25, 2011
    Reply
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Thanks for chiming in, Ericka! I have one question for you: why do you need to use incentives? You have seen the problems with it so I would encourage you to try a year without them and see what happens.

      July 26, 2011
      Reply
  2. Angela Page said:

    This is a very interesting debate. There was a ‘playground lottery’ at a previous school I taught at. The intention was to incentivise and reward students for positive behaviour in the playground during morning tea and lunch breaks, especially those who were usually more difficult to manage during these times. At school assemblies each week, a number of playground lottery tickets were drawn and the children could choose their reward (usually something fizzy and/or sugar filled – I wonder if this has changed in recent years?). Sounds great in theory.

    I found that certain children learned how to play the system and would go out of their way trying to get ‘caught’ doing the right thing, eg randomly picking up rubbish in front of me, or quickly manufacturing an inclusive game with whoever was around them whenever a teacher approached. Some would even point it out to me: “I’m playing nicely with my friends!” they would announce expectantly. But what about the ones who were doing the ‘right’ thing most of the time anyway? I noticed that week after week the so-called ‘challenging’ students were the ones we were plying with copious amounts of sugar simply because staff were pleased (or relieved) to see a temporary change in their behaviour in the playground.

    I am a big fan of intrinsic motivation but also acknowledge the place that extrinsic rewards have when used appropriately. I’m just not sure we’ve got it entirely right yet.

    July 25, 2011
    Reply
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Angela,

      Thanks for bringing out yet another example of the problems with these types of programs. They do turn into a game and certain students will become very skilled at the game. If the goal is for students to make good decisions when we are not there, then I question that value of “catching kids being good”. Some state that kids need a little boost of extrinsic so they can begin to see the value of the task and then internalize it but through my experience, along with research/thoughts from the people in the above list, when we use incentives it seems to take away from the intrinsic. Thanks for commenting!

      July 26, 2011
      Reply
  3. John Burrell said:

    I feel that rewards based on achievement simply perpetuate the perceived order that students already have of their peers. It tends to be the same student on stage at grade 12 that had been on their since they entered kindergarten. Try to be more inclusive and you have kids on stage cringing at being described as ‘best improvers’. I admit to being heavily influenced by John Hattie and here I think ‘The Power of Feedback’ provides significant guidance towards rewards that are lasting and inclusive. I am particularly impressed (from experience) with the lasting impact of feedback which develops strategies for self- correction and self-regulation. Hattie’s meta-analysis would suggest these have deeper impact than even teacher feedback and certainly more than could be accrued to a reward or ticket. Is there not a parallel here with life in general which teaches us that whilst certificates fade and medal tarnish, personal improvement is enduring? Even if I had tickets I would have them redeemed for an opportunity for student personal development.

    July 26, 2011
    Reply
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Great thoughts, John. I am a big Hattie fan and obviously a supporter of a focus on descriptive feedback. You touched on another topic of mine: awards. We have ended the awards ceremony at our school and you can see thoughts from me and many others at my page “Rethinking Awards Ceremonies:

      http://mrwejr.edublogs.org/thoughts-on-awards-ceremonies/

      Thanks for commenting and adding to the conversation!

      July 26, 2011
      Reply
      • John Burrell said:

        Chris
        Thanks for taking the time to acknowledge my comment (excellent blogging etiquette) but more particularly for directing my focus to the other sources. regards John

        July 27, 2011
        Reply
  4. […] I just read on a great blog I’ve started following called Connected Principals. The post (here) is excellent for three reasons (in order of […]

    July 26, 2011
    Reply
  5. James Brauer said:

    Boy, oh boy…did you get my mind thinking early today!

    You raised some very good points that expose possible flaws into the logic of positive behavior support programs and school-wide behavior programs. And kudos to you for referencing several educational philosophers, scholars, and practitioners that question rewards-based programs in our schools.

    I have some additional reading and thinking to do now…

    July 26, 2011
    Reply
    • Chris Wejr said:

      4 years ago, my ideas on motivating students was blown up by conversations I had with my principal as well as my professors in my masters programs. It has been an amazing journey to see the power of helping students to motivate from within. Thanks for commenting.

      July 26, 2011
      Reply
  6. Alison Webber said:

    Honestly… Rewards systems are a lot of extra work. I want my boys to want to do things because they know it’s the right thing to do. I emphasize that we are a family and that when I do things for them how does that make them feel. Wouldn’t they like to make others feel the same. I recently got two frogs and see a weird comparison with their feeding habits. There is a term called “gut loading” where you feed the crickets lots of vitamins so that when the frogs eat them they get all that nutrients. Well I gut load my boys with positivity, humor, manners and information… So hopefully when they leave they will share with people in the community and others.
    I can only imagine that by the end of next year with some of my boys having me for 20 months!!! My polite little brainiacs!!

    July 26, 2011
    Reply
    • Chris Wejr said:

      haha… interesting analogy Alison! Thanks for commenting!

      August 12, 2011
      Reply
  7. Ronda said:

    While I agree with your ideas for the most part, do you think they are relevant to all contexts? I work with students with special needs (ranging from moderate intellectual impairments through to the non-verbal ASD), and the language-richness of the ‘rapport approaches’ (which I did use while teaching mainstream) really can’t happen in my room. Tangible rewards are crucial in my classroom – they promote communication, task completion and the introduction of new skills. For the most part they are eventually faded out completely (or reduced to intermittent reinforcement) but I can’t imagine teaching in a special ed context without them (though I’d love to see someone who’s managed to do it!).

    July 27, 2011
    Reply
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Great point Ronda! From what I know of the EBS or PBS programs, they originated in special ed. I, too, would like to know more about the use of rewards with students with special needs. I know they are encouraged for students with Autism but as you know, that spectrum is so huge. I know a student with Aspergers that if you say “if you do this, you will get that” and he will figure out the game immediately and often the learning is lost. I also understand that some teachers need to use carrots for kids to behave safely; we had a child that kept running away but would turn around for an apple slice. He eventually stopped running away but I always wondered if he knew why he stopped and the danger that running actually presented. Pink describes how rewards can be acceptable for basic skills and tasks but are not effective for anything beyond that.

      I guess my question is: if we know rewards can cause problems with intrinsic motivation in students, at what point do they come acceptable in special education?

      Thank you for bringing up such a great angle for this discussion. I would also love to hear from special education teachers that have attempted to move away from rewards.

      August 12, 2011
      Reply
  8. Rewards and incentives are great, tangible ways to introduce an idea to children and get them started on making it a part of their routine (ex. incentives in reading, etc.) One of the best practices I found in rewarding is to focus not just on the results, but also on the efforts. I wrote about this in greater detail here: http://luria-learning.blogspot.com/2011/06/should-we-pay-kids-for-grades.html

    Sure enough, there are instances when I have to deal with my own “Ashleys”. One take-away I have from those cases is to express clearly the non-material rewards of what they do. (ex. “Thank you for helping your classmate out, Ashley! Not only do you earn yourself a badge, but you’ve also gained a new friend!”)

    August 7, 2011
    Reply
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Thanks for adding a comment to the other side of this argument. Paying kids and rewarding kids for doing the right thing could have huge impact to society as the grow and learn to depend on these rewards. There is research (particularly those mentioned or done by the people in the post) that state that the use of extrinsic reward actually inhibits intrinsic motivation rather than leading to people internalizing the actions. Yes, we can state that the action is not about the reward but it is often too late – the focus is on the reward.

      I used to use rewards. I never realized the effect this was having until I stopped. I encourage you to reflect and try to eliminate some rewards and see where that goes. If there is one book that sums up most of this it is Drive so I encourage you to check out the book or the RSA Animate video here:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

      Thanks for commenting!

      August 12, 2011
      Reply
  9. David Weikart who developed the High/scope Approach is another area for you to research. The approach uses the constructivists school of psycology rather than behaviour management. We use this approach in our Nusery school and Children’s Centre at Weoley Castle in south Birmingham. Take a look at our website or the High/scope website http://www.high/scope.org

    November 13, 2011
    Reply
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Thanks so much for the link… will check it out!

      November 14, 2011
      Reply
      • Chris Wejr said:

        Link is not working, can you re-post?

        November 14, 2011
        Reply
  10. Heather said:

    Thank you so much for all your research, knowledge and experience about the reward system at school. I am currently dealing with this issue myself as a parent of a 4 year old in pre-k. He is so conflicted already about why he does/ doesn’t get a reward. I can already glimpse into the future of how this will pay out as doing something just to receive the rewards and perhaps doing just the minimum. This breaks my heart as a parent and I am not sure how to counteract what he is being taught in school or if that’s even a possibility. It seems that he is already internalizing. I was wondering if you have any advice on how to talk with the school about some of the issues, his teacher, or should I just find another school that does not use PBIS? I realize this article and comments are from several years back and hope this still reaches you. I also see most of the public schools where I live implementing this system and would love to find a way to advocate for a better more intrinsic way of helping children become empathetic, self regulated etc..

    September 6, 2014
    Reply
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Hey Heather – thanks for your great questions. I think you will find that in almost every school that are some classrooms that embrace the rewards system. These are not “bad teachers” nor do they have any intent on taking away motivation. I think first and foremost you need to meet with the teacher and share your concerns. As a parent of a child that is already motivated, the big concern is that they become LESS motivated. I have heard of parents opting their child out of reward systems but this also creates a challenge of having that child that does not get the pizza or prizes for doing what the teacher wants. I think the question I would ask is “how do we create the conditions for our children to flourish long term?” Then move deeper in what that looks like and how do we get there. Two of my favourite researchers in this area are Deci and Ryan. This article may help http://mmrg.pbworks.com/f/Ryan,+Deci+00.pdf to clarify some of your concerns. In the end, if the school is embracing the rewards aspect of PBIS, it will be a significant uphill journey. There are schools out there that embrace the teaching/learning aspects of PBIS but do not use the rewards. The last thing we want our kids to do is put their hand out each time they do something well. Email me and let me know how this goes as I imagine there are number of parents and educators in the same boat. All the best!

      September 11, 2014
      Reply
  11. David said:

    I’ve worked as a sub for 13 yrs now. I was subbing at a school yesterday in which the kids at the end of class begged for “awards” slips. I told them I didn’t do that as each and everyone of them had been good students and that doing the right thing is a gift that you give to yourself and not me handing out a slip of paper. I have awarded kids for exemplary behavior e.g. a student gave another student an extra ceramics project he made because the other student had dropped and broken his. I printed up and outstanding student award and gave it to him the next class.

    November 20, 2014
    Reply

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