In a recent meeting, the topic of rewarding children for good behavior came up. This can be a touchy subject. Although I have my own opinions on the subject I chose to sit back and listen as the discussion unfolded. The conversation became quite spirited: raised voices, red faces. As my colleagues argued, I reflected upon my own knowledge and experience with reward systems and young children.
Rewarding children for good behavior is giving a child something tangible (for example, stickers or small toys) for successfully completing a required task or successfully exhibiting the expected behavior in a situation. Teachers often implement a reward system in their classroom to ensure children follow the classroom rules. The reward system is often in the form of a chart. Children can collect stickers or tokens for the chart each time they behave the way the teacher wants. Children can later swap the stickers for a reward.
A classroom reward system can help a new or struggling teacher focus on children’s positive behavior instead of the negative. Working for prizes can be motivating and that motivation can help a teacher and her students feel less stressed throughout the day. In fact, as a young and inexperienced teacher I often used a reward system to make it through the day. I simply didn’t have any other tools to get the desired behavior from my 4-year-old students. The reward system worked. I began to feel as if I had some control in my classroom, the system was easy and the children seemed happy.
However, I soon found out that a reward system is only good as a short-term fix. My students became wise to my ways and they upped the ante. I soon noticed I needed to provide more and larger items to reach my desired results. Also, some children simply no longer cared about the reward. I needed to do something different and I needed to do it quickly. I needed to allow the children to feel the pleasure of a job well done. They needed an opportunity to experience choices. They needed permission to grow based upon the choices they made, not on the reward I had to offer that day.
I began by weaning them off a reward system that was based upon tangible prizes and I began to really communicate with my children. I became more intentional and consistent with my expectations. We reviewed the rules and expectations daily. We discussed what may happen if we leave puzzles on the floor. We talked about how it feels to be hit. We talked about what will happen if someone chooses to hurt a friend. We became problem-solving partners in the classroom. Instead of adding stickers to a chart I added specific praise and encouragement. I often told my children how proud their faces look when they remembered to put their work away. I told them they were being good friends by offering to work together with someone instead of keeping the blocks to themselves and I coached them through arguments. We made classroom books that included pictures of them following the rules. We showed respect for others by saying “please” and “thank you.” The children began to own their behavior and they began to experience how good it feels to do a good job, to be a good friend and make a good choice for the sake of doing it, not for the prize at the end of the day.