Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Reward Systems: Setting Kids Up For Failure?

Do parents and teachers rely on reward systems, and do they work?

An endlessly debated educational theory (or rather educational practice) is the reward based behavioral system. Parents and teachers use them, and I have used them in a traditional classroom, and at home.


Basically, a reward based behavioral system is when adults ask children to do a task or behavior, and when the child does it, he or she is rewarded. The reward can be a sticker, or candy. I've seen parents reward a child with a Power Wheel rider for doing a task.

You can probably see the debate: can you replace the word "reward" with bribe?

A perfect example of this is a potty-training sticker chart. (A child goes potty, gets a sticker).

Elementary teachers sometimes use "blurt posters" (for students not blurting out in class).

Secondary teachers (many critics claim) use grades. Critics contend that 'A's are merely stickers for performing tasks.

And critics of the critics claim the job market uses a reward based behavioral system: performance = paycheck.

Stickers when they are little, money when they are older. 

The overall debate centers on the "squelching" of the desire to learn. Do children learn or behave a certain way to get stickers, or learn because they are curious and humans innately want to learn?

Parents and teachers use reward based systems. For instance, we recently gave Za a goal, and she met it. Here she is with her "prize":


And she reverted right back to the old pattern. Reward system fail.

Do they ever work? Many say yes - and reward systems are still used. I've seen them work. But did the child understand the purpose behind the learned behavior?

Maybe, and that is where the other side criticizes the reward based behavioral system. With the above Barbie reward, Za knew why she was to do something, and can still explain why she should and can complete her task. She chooses not to do so.

Which leads us to the question parents and teachers debate: Are children marching through life, looking for the next sticker, or are they behaving and learning because they have a desire, and believe it is the right course of action?