When I Stopped Rewarding My Kids

It started with my attempts to get my 3-year-old daughter to clean up her toys.

Conventional wisdom told me a bribe or a threat would adequately motivate her to do this arduous and undesirable task. The carrot and the stick.

Bribes and Threats

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

I began with cookies. This worked like a charm until she decided cookies weren’t worth the work.

Discouraged, but not defeated, I tried the threat side of things and took away toys that she didn’t put away. It worked once. The next time I threatened, she decided she was done playing with those toys anyway.

Realization dawned. I couldn’t coerce her (manipulate her) into doing something she didn’t want to do. She’s three. The age of the “Threenager.” The “Terdler.” She would find a way to do what she wanted, no matter what.

I took a different approach. I turned on her favorite music. I said we were having a Clean-up Party. I told her the truth about why we clean up our toys – truths that would motivate her, not manipulate her, to put things away. For instance, when we want to play with something and it’s not cleaned up, we can’t find it and we’re sad. Or, we can get out more toys and have more room to play if the rest of our toys are put away. And finally, the honest truth that sometimes we just have to clean up.

Now, all I have to do is announce that it’s “Clean-up Time,” or “Tomorrow we’re having a clean-up day,” and she goes right along. Instead of cookies and threats, I give her small tasks (Put all your ponies and unicorns in the pony box). I give her ownership (I want to clean up my toys so I can play with them, not because mom told me to). And before you know, we have a tidy play room (at least, tidy enough).

Rewards and Punishments

After the successful break-through with my daughter, I turned to my classroom. I looked at all the ways we bribe or threaten kids to get them to do what we want them to do, mostly tasks they don’t want to do themselves. We say that it’s necessary, that it’s part of life, and compare it to working a job and getting a pay check. We talk about the necessity of doing things you don’t like or facing the punishment.

But the thing about that is we don’t really live in a world constantly guided by threats and bribes. I go to work because I like it. The fact that I get a paycheck is bonus. I clean my house because it makes me feel better that my family is living in a clean house. I don’t like it, but I also don’t need the fear of punishment hanging over my head for me to clean. I hate vacuuming more than anything in the world. But I vacuum my living room because I care about my kids. And because it’s frowned upon to let my infant son eat dog hair off the floor. Does it take me a long time to summon the motivation to vacuum? You bet. But I don’t need rewards or punishments to accomplish this task.

That was when I decided to do something drastic. I stopped rewarding my students.

My school, at the time I tried this experiment, ran a token economy. You know – little pieces of paper handed out for good behavior and then used to buy trinkets and privileges.

For years, I had been a staunch supporter of token economies like the one we used. I believed in it as much as anyone, and maybe even more. I had been running our ticket store, taking on the task of printing, cutting, and distributing the tickets, and ensuring that we implemented the program with fidelity and consistency.

Which is why it was such a huge thing for me to try this experiment. I started small. I had kindergarten recess and lunch duty, and to ‘motivate’ the kids to line up appropriately, enter the building nicely, and walk to lunch respectfully, I always had stacks of tickets. I even assigned students to hand out the tickets, as an extra motivation. One day, I just didn’t bring my tickets out to recess. One or two students asked me if they could be the Ticket Monitor, and I said, “Oh, I forgot them today.”

Over the next days, weeks, and months, an amazing thing happened. I was asked maybe half a dozen times about having tickets. Less than six kids missed them.

Another amazing thing happened – the students lined up, entered the building, did everything quietly, nicely, and respectfully only on the basis of me asking them to do so. I still gave verbal praise and encouragement. I still verbally, and gently, corrected misbehavior. But everything went just as smoothly as if I had the tickets. Probably more smoothly because I didn’t have to worry about choosing a Ticket Monitor, students being sad that they weren’t chosen, Ticket Monitors giving out the tickets to their best friends, etc.

They just did what they were asked to do. And I didn’t need extrinsic rewards.

I tried this in my classroom. I stopped giving out tickets all together. No one said a thing. I stopped using whole class points systems. In five months, two people asked about it.

At the same time, I tried this experiment from the other side. I stopped writing discipline referrals. I stopped sending kids to the office. I had already established a process in my classroom where kids could take a break if they felt like they were going to misbehave. I had a Calming Corner with a box of things to help them reset and return to class. So it was a simple step to then establish that no matter what happened, I was not going to “punish” the students in the traditional way they viewed punishment. The tipping point came when a student yelled, “Just send me to the office!” I replied calmly that, no, I was not going to send him to the office because I want all my students to stay with me.

Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay

To sum up, I stopped using those little pieces of paper that we rely on to control students.

Instead, I built an environment in which students wanted to participate. They wanted to do what I wanted them to do. I aligned my requests with things they would want to do naturally. And when my requests were something difficult, or something they would not want to do, I gave a rationale that gave them autonomy and buy-in.

My classroom kept running. Students kept behaving, in fact, they behaved better. I had fewer instances of behaviors I would previously have written up. I had more compliance, respect, and participation.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic

In education, we like to say that rewards and punishments are necessary forms of motivation. What we call motivation, though, our students perceive as control.

Rewards and punishments are a form of control, coercion, manipulation, not motivation. They are one-way transactions. They only consider the person giving the order, not the person being ordered. Even if we find the one thing that ‘motivates’ that kid to ‘behave,’ extrinsic measures are still one-way, temporary fixes. They say, “You do what I want and I will give you something for it, or else I will take away something you want.”

One-way interactions lead to dead ends. Sooner or later, students realize they are being controlled and the magic key to intrinsic motivation (the place we’re all trying to get to) disappears. This realization happens even sooner with students living in adverse circumstances who are hypersensitive to being controlled.

Research has proved for over 50 years that extrinsic motivation DOES. NOT. WORK. (See below for my list of research.) Motivating people extrinsically does not result in increased achievement and does not naturally lead to intrinsic motivation. Instead, it lowers achievement and undermines the intrinsic motivation required to accomplish something of value.

And yet, we are still running our education system on the principals of extrinsic rewards. I get it. I bought into it for a long, long time. I believed, just as many people, that extrinsic rewards were the thing. The only way to respond to kids. They need to be “recognized,” “rewarded,” because school work is hard and they wouldn’t want to do it if we weren’t holding out endless carrots on sticks.

I believed the converse of that as well. Kids who did not do the required actions, who stepped out of line, who disrupted and “made poor choices,” had to be punished. Punishment would deter them from making those choices the next time.

It all sounds good on paper. It almost sounds to good to be true. That’s because it’s not true. It doesn’t work. Hundreds of thousands of studies over decades of scientific experiments in and out of the classroom have proven that extrinsic rewards and punishments do not, in the long run, motivate students to do what we want them to do.

Intrinsic motivation is the sweet spot all of us are trying to find in our students. It flourishes when people, students, children, adults, feel autonomous, capable, and supported in their actions. Autonomy and control cannot coexist.

Let’s stop using worthless pieces of paper to “motivate” our kids.

Let’s stop treating them as if they need constant pushing and pulling to get them to achieve. Instead, let’s give them the environment and the tools and the support to achieve in their own way, on their own time, with their own intrinsic motivation. I promise that your classroom will not fall apart when you stop rewarding and punishing. Quite the opposite, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised about the way everything works just as it should.

UPDATE AS OF SEPTEMBER 8, 2019: Lest you mistake me for mother of the year (LOL), I have a hilarious update to the Clean Up situation with my preschooler. Less than a week after posting about my success with getting my strong-willed toddler to clean up her toys, we had a face down in which nothing I had previously tried worked. She simply refused to clean up. So, there I was, crawling on the floor cleaning up Legos and bracelets, laughing at myself for jinxing the good thing we had by blogging (bragging) about it, while my 20-month-old son dumped out everything I had just cleaned up. Needless to say, I did not find the intrinsic motivation to vacuum that day. The point of this confession is that while the stories in this post are true, and extrinsic motivation is still an ineffective way to respond to children, sometimes nothing works and you just have to throw in the towel and go out for tacos. So, that’s what we did.

Check back later for Part 2 of this post in which I discuss further the three elements of intrinsic motivation, and how to build an autonomous, capable, and supportive classroom.

Research & Further Reading

The best book you can read on the topic is Edward Deci’s “Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation” (1995, Penguin Books). He is the Guru of Self-Determination Theory. This book will change how you view your students, your teaching, and yourself.

A great resource for teachers, with copious research, is “Motivating Students to Learn” by Kathryn R. Wentzel and Jere E. Brophy (4th ed., 2014, Routledge). If you’re a research nerd like me, read this book just for the bibliography if nothing else.

Along the same lines as Edward Deci’s ground-breaking book, but geared more toward general life instead of teaching, is Daniel Pink’s “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” (2009, Riverhead Books). This book provides the same principals as Deci’s book, but with practical steps, tools, and ideas for your life.

And the book that will rock your world – Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes” (Brand new edition with updated research printed in 2018 by Houghton Mifflin). This book was originally published is 1993, and is more relevant and important as it was 25 years ago.

Kohn also has a book on parenting called “Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason” (2009, Simon & Schuster). While I haven’t read this one, I’m confident it has just as much amazing and challenging research and ideas on the topic as his first one, assimilated for parents instead of teachers.

The decades of articles, studies, and research can be found either in any of the books above, or at these websites:

Alfie Kohn’s Website

Home of Self-Determination Theory

And a great place to get informed about the basics of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivations is this article at Positive Psychology.com

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