Rewards: 2 Parent Perspectives

As a follow-up to my recent post “My Issue With Rewards”, I wanted to highlight the thoughts of two parents from my PLN on the topic of rewards.  These individuals have caused me to reflect further upon the use of extrinsic rewards/prizes both for me as a parent and as an educator.

Sheila Stewart, a parent from Ontario and @sheilaspeaking on Twitter, commented on my post:

I am not sure exactly when and where and how I first began to learn about motivational theories, but I am thankful that I did come to understand more and that I had time to consider such before I taught and before I became a parent.

My approaches with children may simply have a lot to do with my own upbringing. My parents did not use external rewards in any big way to encourage my behaviour at home or beyond. I was their 4th child, but it seemed we were all just expected to be responsible, do our share and conduct ourselves as members of a family and as members of a community. Modelling, of course, was so important.

I am also glad I studied psychology before education. It gave me further insight into human behaviour and motivation. But then probably a lot of my perspective just has to do with me being me – observing, thinking, and aiming to understand why we do what we do. I am often saddened by how entrenched “reward systems” have become in our schools and society. How can we count on future generations to just do good for themselves, others and our world, if we encourage them so much to look for “What else is in it for me right now (or at the end of the month)?”. But I recognize how hard it can be to establish different strategies and expectations in a class or school if they are different or inconsistent from what a student has become accustomed to elsewhere. I think that is often the biggest challenge to face. So great to read about others committed to staying the course though!

I think we often resort to reward systems and strategies in teaching and parenting not realizing we are doing so for short-term benefits. Having been a supply teacher in the younger grades I can understand how easy it is to use rewards, tickets, etc., to get through a short-term teaching assignment, especially with students you may not have developed relationships with yet. I still had difficulty with resorting to those kinds of methods though, so instead I focused on making activities meaningful and engaging and I encouraged cooperation from the students as the experts of their learning and as “owners” of their classroom environment.

I really hope we can focus mostly on helping kids recognize and experience the “reward” that comes with engaging in their own learning, and also with living harmoniously with others in our schools and communities. I think that is the respectful approach and an important goal.

Goran Kimovski, from Vancouver and @g_kima on Twitter, wrote a thought-provoking piece on the Cooperative Catalyst a few months ago and I felt it would be a good addition to the conversation so I have included his personal story from the post.  For the full blog from Goran, click here.

…I’d like to share a personal story. I thought long about this and I decided it is too important to make teachers and schools stop for a moment and rethink the use of incentives — thus I decided to overcome my original apprehension and write about it!

My 7-year old daughter attends grade 1 in a French Immersion program, within a local public school here in [British Columbia]. To deal with the big number of kids who are not making the effort to speak French in class, and after seeing an interesting and seemingly successful program  that the grade 3 teacher next door ‘swears by’, my daughter’s teacher decided to use classroom ‘cents’ to get all kids to speak French:

We have started a new incentive program in our class to encourage everyone to speak French.  We already earn ‘cents’ for good behaviour and work habits but now we are starting every week with 5 ‘cents’ in our special envelopes taped to our desks.  Whenever we hear someone speaking English in our class we get to ask them for a ‘cent’.  If someone hears us speaking English we must give them a ‘cent’.  Madame has also been handing out ‘cents’ to everyone when she hears them speaking French.  At the end of the week we will count up our ‘cents’ and deposit them in our bank accounts for the class store.  So far this week some of our children have earned over 11 ‘cents’ for all the French they have been speaking.

I find this damaging in many ways and have been actively trying to influence my daughter not to take part in punishing kids when she hears them speaking English — even managed to convince her to give some of her ‘cents’ away to her friends!

…I can’t help but find the use of ‘cents’ deplorable and have hard time accepting that many teachers use similar, if not the same method to motivate kids into compliance!

Admittedly, as a parent, I have fallen into the trap many times — from innocent clapping when my daughter would finally dress up after begging her for 10 minutes, to bribing her with chocolate if she eats her broccoli first. I do know better not to use bribing to get her to read a book, or to convince her to stick to color pencils instead of pastel as a way to avoid making a mess when painting at home, though!

The use of extrinsic rewards (ie. prizes and incentives given from someone using ‘power over’) is deeply embedded in our society because it works to get others to do what you want them to do…. short-term.  However, as educators we need to reflect upon the long-term consequences that these short-term rewards (and punishments) may bring about.  As an educator, and now a new parent, I continue to catch myself relying on the use of extrinsic motivation to try to create actions/behaviours in others.

The most important question we can ask around the use of rewards was stated by psychologist and research Edward Deci (via Larry Ferlazzo’s book Helping Students Motivate Themselves:

How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?

I encourage us all to reflect upon our actions and contemplate whether they actually create conditions for intrinsic motivation to grow or they create a dependence on an extrinsic reward.

Thank you to Goran and Sheila for the permission to include their thoughts on this post.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Another great bit, Chris.

    The a-ha for me is that with extrinsic rewards playing such a large role in the lives of kids beyond school, our struggle to keep them out of schools is only multiplied exponentially.

    A similar worry of mine is that as schools—at least here in the states—move closer and closer to merit pay systems for teachers, we’ll only reinforce the notion that extrinsic rewards are good for schools.

    Can we really expect systems that are required to provide extrinsic rewards for teachers to do anything different in their work with students?


    Rock right on,

    • Thanks for chiming in Bill. Merit pay is the identical situation; however we see many opposed to merit pay yet for the idea of rewards with kids.

      What we want to see in our kids, we must do as adults.

      Someone asked – would the president work harder for merit pay?

      If an educator is only working for the merit pay, we have a problem. I love Dan Pink’s point – pay people enough to get money off the table and a process for those who struggle – then the need for merit pay becomes unnecessary.
      Thanks again Bill!

  2. Interesting discussion. As a parent, I sometimes find it easier to understand an issue when it is taken to its logical conclusion. With respect to rewards, this actually happened for me when the director of education at the TDSB floated the idea of paying socially-disadvantaged kids to stay in school. At the time I wrote this in response:

    [T]his is a practice that has been tried in the US and Mexico (and to a lesser extent in Canada) with varying degrees of success. Some studies have found that financial incentives are effective, but most have found that they work best on the kids who need them least: motivated students perform better with cash incentives, unmotivated students do not. But whether the practice works or not is, in my view, completely beside the point. There are times when it is important to be clear about the values we as a society are trying to inculcate in our children. Times when we need to understand that the ends do not always justify the means. For example, it has been argued that the threat of corporal punishment in schools* deters some kids from misbehaving. A case could also be made—though I haven’t actually heard anyone make it—that Ritalin should be given to all school children, not just those diagnosed with attention disorders. After all, Ritalin is a drug that helps kids focus; if it were dispensed to all children, classroom-management problems would undoubtedly melt away. Calm classrooms full of medicated kids would likely translate into better test scores, which is something education officials seem to care very much about these days.

    But, of course, no one in education today is seriously advocating a return to the strap or medicating all children, because it is obvious that such practices violate the tenets of what we hold to be our values. So the question is, do we believe bribing children is right or wrong? In education, do we or don’t we believe that intrinsic motivation on the part of children is superior to extrinsic motivation? These are the questions we need to be asking, not simply do cash incentives work.

    Of course, paying kids to stay in school is an extreme type of reward, but it is obvious to me that the small incentives used in many schools, such as prizes, tickets, etc., are on the same continuum. So, again, the question for me is, what values are we—as parents and educators—trying to inculcate in the long run? Are incentives in keeping with these values or with our long-term goals? A cynical person could honestly answer, yes, since adults are regularly rewarded financially for certain behaviours and types of work in the “real” world. This is why the question is complicated and not amenable to simple answers.

  3. Long term vs short term…. so easy to do the short term. Very powerful analogy of the ritalin. I love what Sir Ken Robinson says about this in that we are medicating our children to do school. Interesting thought – some short term solutions can produce harmful long-term results.

    Kids figure out the rewards and do these actions when adults are looking; they also do things when adults are not looking to avoid punishments. So, so many examples of this.

    Thanks so much for adding your experience and knowledge in this area!

  4. Hi Chris,
    You have so many good posts here that I wasn’t sure which one was best to post these thoughts of mine, so here I am again…

    One of your tweets this past week got stuck in my head, and I have been thinking on it: “We cannot motivate students, we can only help create an environment in which they can motivate themselves.”

    I have been thinking about how my daughters go about what they do both at home and at school, and wondering about the impact of and interplay between the environment we create at home and the ones they have experienced at school over the years. Have I praised and encouraged them appropriately and fairly? Has it been different/better for them at school? I may never really have clarity on this, but I felt the need to do a little parenting “self-evaluation”. I asked my daughters if they could recall me ever bribing or rewarding them with trinkets or money, etc., to get them to do chores or complete things for school when they were younger. I wish I could capture their tone here, but it was kind of funny, “No…..mom…..” But I am pretty sure it wasn’t really such a statement of “suffering” or complaining, and I do know that they do understand. Recently my oldest teen arrived home from an appointment and I tried not to smile too big as she related her observations and “analysis” to me about the interactions of a parent with their child who were near her in the waiting room.

    So all I can hope is I haven’t confused them too much! 🙂 Time may tell, I guess.

    Anyways, too much thinking from one tweet, eh! 🙂

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