Rewarding Children–at What Cost?

It is human nature to want to be recognized for a job well done. In contrast to how good we feel when we’re rewarded for our efforts, we certainly dislike when our behaviors or actions are neither desired nor rewarded. Have you ever wondered how rewarding children, or not rewarding children, might affect their behavior?

As a trainer for early childhood teachers, I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate discussions on rewarding children: the pros and cons, the outcomes, why we do it. Many teachers have theorized that rewarding young children can lead to positive behavior, while another teacher may have experiences of quite the opposite. In a discussion online in The New York Times, the editor talks with Alfie Kohn, keynote speaker at our last Early Childhood Conference and nationally recognized speaker on education and parenting, about how rewarding children is often only a temporary solution, and doesn’t affect behaviors in the long term. I always ask myself if I want children to expect a reward for everything, and the answer, of course, is no. Though I have as an adult been rewarded for a good deed, I don’t expect recognition every time. Positive behavior and good deeds should come easily and be what’s expected, not the reward.

Teachers should be cautious when implementing any reward system. A reward system, like many other routine interactions, sends a variety of messages to children, and families, and not always the ones that we want. Some factors you may want to consider when implementing a reward system include: is the method of reward development appropriate for children? Can you really observe and recognize the behavior of each child in your care? Are the results of children’s behavior kept confidential? Are the rewards appropriate for young children?

There’s a big difference between rewarding and positive reinforcement, which is often what we intend to do when we offer rewards. The way we communicate with children, and how we teach them to communicate in turn, can be far more powerful than offering a sticker or a special treat. Ask yourself, which strategy will provide the best learning, rewarding behaviors or using positive reinforcement? The answer might surprise you.