Rewarding students for good behavior is a popular classroom discipline procedure. Teachers of habitually disruptive students like using rewards because, in a well-structured reward system, they have the potential of winning students’ compliance fast. Advocates of using rewards to discipline students with habitually disruptive behaviors claim that rewards promote compliance and stop misbehavior. Opponents of rewards state that rewarding students, an externally oriented procedure (the teacher regularly administers the rewards, not the student) are a way of controlling and manipulating children’s behavior that does little to change permanently the disruptive behavior. In other words, the short-term effect of stopping misbehavior does not translate into a long-term effect of helping children grow and develop better-adjusted ways of behaving. Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards states that rewards can be seen as punishment in the sense that rewards both manipulate behavior and are a form of doing things to students rather than with students. Both advocates and opponents of rewards present strong supportive arguments and I would like to bring a psycho-educational perspective to this controversy.
Assuming that the teacher has a well-structured and consistent reward system, rewarding students with habitually, and in some cases severe, disruptive behaviors can be a fast and effective way of winning compliance. My fourteen years of experience teaching emotionally disturbed/behaviorally disordered students strongly supports the conclusion that rewards are fast and effective. Nevertheless, I also understand that, if used alone and with no clear long-term goals (both for the student and for the teacher) in place, rewards are short-lived. External rewards may temporarily inhibit disruptive behaviors but they do not teach appropriate behavior and will not help children outgrow the disruptive behavior. Teachers need to be aware that rewards appeal exclusively to students’ extrinsic motivation (“I do _____ so that I can get _____”) having little or no effect in strengthening children’s intrinsic motivation (i.e. self-pride, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and a sense of accomplishment among others). Consequently, even when the teacher uses rewards consistently, a discipline system that only takes into consideration giving rewards while ignoring children’s perceptions, attitudes, and feelings may have a strong short-term effect in winning compliance, but no long-term effect in helping habitually disruptive students learn new and more productive ways of behaving. Simply put, psycho-educational teachers see rewards as one way of supporting and strengthening the more comprehensive psycho-educational program, but they never use rewards as the only and/or most important component in the behavioral management program. Primarily, teaching self-management of behavior is the long-term psycho-educational goal; rewarding behavior extrinsically while the student develops internal self-control and is able to self-manage behavior is just a supportive tool in our more comprehensive psycho-educational toolbox.
This brings us to the second point that I would like to make. At all stages of the reward program, students should be part of the decision-making process. Children have a say in what is motivating to them, and they have a choice in the kinds of rewards included. Even when we are externally manipulating the behavior, we give choices to children and make children part of the decision-making process, encouraging and inviting the child in formulating solutions. Learning to make better-adjusted behavioral choices is another long-term goal that we teach children since the beginning. Children learn to make good behavioral choices by having the opportunity to choose, not by following our directions or receiving rewards. For this reason, we explain to the child that once he or she is better equipped to self-manage behavior, we will fade the extrinsic reward system, moving the student gradually from an externally supported system into an almost exclusively internally motivated support system. The child’s self-management skills and self-awareness tell us when he is ready to make the transition. In addition, just knowing that they now require less external manipulation than at the earlier stages of intervention is extremely rewarding and motivating to students. Teachers can measure success when we find ourselves using considerable fewer rewards at the final stages of our intervention program than the amount of extrinsically motivated rewards required at the initial stages of our intervention.
If you are thinking of implementing a reward system to manage a habitually disruptive student, or already have one, the following guidelines will be helpful in increasing the system’s efficiency. With minimal variations, you can adjust these guidelines so that you can use them with a disruptive class.
- Get to know the child as an individual. Find out what the child is interested about and what motivates him or her; also, find out what the child dislikes. Directly ask the child what is reinforcing to him or her. You and the child should discuss the reinforcement.
- After discussing what is rewarding to the child, set goals with him, and help the child translate the goal into an action plan that clearly lists the sub-steps that he will need to follow to reach the goal. Link the reward system with the action plan, aiming at reinforcing the action plan.
- To set goals and develop an action plan, engage the student in a discussion about “the ways he wants to be (goal),” and how he can make that happen (action plan).
- Do not assume that the student knows how to listen, how to cooperate with other students, or how to solve social problems. Teachers need to teach those behaviors explicitly. Explain to the student, model, and then review the behavior that you expect from the child. Give the student examples of alternative behaviors that the child can use to replace the habitually disruptive behaviors. The extra time you spend earlier in the year teaching socially appropriate behaviors to habitually disruptive students will save you time and frustration in the future.
- Explicitly state what the student needs to do to earn the reward. For example, just saying, “Be nice to each other” or “Pay attention to the lesson” is not enough. You need to state what the child is going to do in behavioral terms, for example, “15 minutes seated and doing your class work will earn you a token.” The link between the child’s behavior and the reinforcement must be apparent to the child.
- Vary the reinforcement, so that the child does not get used to it, and does not feel bored by the same reward. With the student, you can develop a reinforcement menu (10-15 rewards), and to make it more appealing, include a mystery reward. When the child meets her behavior expectation, she selects one reward from the reinforcement menu.
- For bigger rewards, you can use a token system, so that each day, the child earns tokens, points, or checks that she exchanges at the end of the week or month.
- Emphasize social and privilege reinforcement (e.g. breakfast with the teacher or extra computer time) over material reinforcement (toy and prizes). Reinforcement that involves spending time with adults and doing tasks together are generally more rewarding to children than toys. Remember, when you spend time with the child, resist the temptation to discipline the child during that time. In other words, keep reinforcement time and discipline time clearly separated.
- Always keep in mind that, particularly for students with recurrent behavior problems, for behavior to be good does not need to be perfect. Reward effort and improvement; that is, notice and appreciate that the child is trying hard and is doing a little better each time.
- Teach the student self-rewards and self-reinforcement; for example, the child compliments herself for raising her hand, for waiting her turn, for using a learning strategy, or for thinking of a better approach to solve a situation. Gradually transition the student from an externally manipulated reward system to self-reward and self-reinforcement.
Brandt, R. (1995). Punished by rewards? A conversation with Alfie Kohn. Educational Leadership, 53(1), 13-16.
Think Positive to Stay Positive: Teaching Children the Benefits of Using Positive Self-Sentences
Watch Your Language! Ways of Talking and Interacting with Students that Crack the Behavior Code. To preview this book on Amazon, click here.
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