“The table group with the most points will get a treat for behaving so nicely today.” Well that ought to teach every student to follow the classroom rules…or does it? Reward strategies are an everyday occurrence in our classrooms. All across the country, teachers have succumbed to using stars, stickers and smiley faces to help motivate students. More than ever, a myriad of incentive programs and systems have been created to help schools and teachers manage behavior, motivate learners and encourage engagement. There is no doubt that rewarding students may result in initial compliance or short term gains. However, Children that have grown used to expecting rewards can feel discouraged when they stop coming. In the end, this can diminish their determination and curiosity. There is evidence that in the long term, reward systems are ineffective.
There are many who believe students’ motivation can be “jump started” by giving rewards. Behaviorist, B. F. Skinner coined the term “Operant Conditioning” and claims that all behavior are shaped by rewards or punishment. Skinner believed that human beings act on a "repertoires of behaviors" that can be conditioned by the environmental consequences around them (Robinson 1). Token systems, star charts, point systems, online incentive reading programs, gotcha coupons…well the lists goes on; are all example of ways to shape students’ behavior. The common belief is that rewards can help students develop a reason to do better. Supporters claim that through the use of rewards and incentive programs, children learn to listen, to complete work and to behave appropriately.
The behaviorist theory assumes the child can and will if they want to bad enough or if the reward is big enough. However, this approach fails to address why the student is unable to be successful in the first place. Not attending to the underlying problems will often lead to chronic or prolong difficulties. When a student frequently acts out during Math, a simple and easy way to deal with the behavior might be to offer him a reward for not misbehaving. Yet this would do nothing to remedy his real problem—which is his attitude towards Math. Perhaps, he needs extra support but is too embarrassed to ask for it. When we don’t spend adequate amount of time to problem solve with the student, the area of concern will continue to worsen and the challenging behavior may increase both in frequency and in intensity.
Positive reinforcements may often produce quick and immediate results, which is the reason why they are so prevalent with parents and teachers. Parenting experts have a special buy in for this method as they can enter a house full of tantrums and ill-mannered kids and seemingly extinguish all the nasty behaviors within a one hour show, just by creating a reward chart. But, what happens when the stars and stickers are gone? As a Child and Youth Worker in the North Vancouver School District, I have seen many reward charts...