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. 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. 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?
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” but I have concerns and questions 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 this:
- Value of tickets – 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)
- What happens to the student who does not need the incentives to do the right thing? Does their motivation change?
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 the problems/concerns of rewards-based programs but I encourage you to research their ideas:
- Jean Piaget
- Maria Montessori
- Nel Noddings
- Michel Foucault
- Richard Ryan and Edward Deci – Self Determination Theory
- Dr. Ross Greene
- Rick Lavoie
- Barry Schwartz
- John Hattie
- Daniel Pink
- Carol Dweck
- Seth Godin
- Barbara Coloroso
As someone who previously used tickets (Weej Bucks, Bobcat Bucks) as a classroom teacher and also as a principal who has observed the negative impact that a reliance on incentive-based systems can have, I challenge and encourage you to reflect upon the current practices and determine if the rewards like this are actually needed. What if we just did the following:
- Relationships: focus on trusting, caring relationships with kids
- 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.
- Work WITH Students: include student voice in the conversation around behaviour and avoid doing things TO students.
- 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
- 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 every one 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.