Elementary school 521.
(photo credit: Sherihan Abdel-Rahman)
Nothing is more important to Israel’s future than the education of our
We must use the best techniques available to both advance
academic progress and improve behavioral choices.
That’s why it is so
disturbing and frightening to see us revert back to discredited and disproven
fairy tales as models for educating our youth.
One of the worst of these
harmful techniques is making a comeback throughout Israeli schools: the use of
rewards, token economies and positive reinforcement systems. The two arguments
in favor of this technique have been shattered many times.
The first is
that the world is based on rewards. Salary is a reward. Not so. Adults have
choice in deciding what work they get paid for; children have no choice in what
they are manipulated into doing by rewards.
This is a major difference.
Furthermore, no one gets more money for doing what they are supposed to do in
performance or social areas. Salary is a straightforward arrangement. The worker
can accept it or do something else. Not so with children in school.
second argument is that it works. But does it? The true test of any intervention
is what a child does when no one is watching. Children who have been taught
through reward systems do not make the best choices when there is no one
watching to give them something for doing good. If the values children learn are
based on getting something rather than being something, they become
self-centered children with a sense of entitlement. Children deserve
They deserve to understand sharing, compassion and doing the
right thing because it’s the right thing to do. All values that are alien to
What does “it works” really mean? For example, if I
went to the doctor with a sore knee, one solution to end the pain would be to
amputate my leg. There is no doubt this solution would work. But it is still the
wrong answer. What’s missing is that we not only must look at the benefit of the
strategy but also the cost, and decide if the gain is worth the price. Lets look
at the price of reward systems.
Satiation: Satiation means more of
something is required to get the same effect. Examples are pain medication or
hot water in a bath. I love a hot bath, but eventually it starts to feel cooler
and I add more hot water. Rewards are like that. Children never say, “That’s way
too much. Please give me less.” They often say, “Is that all? I want more.”
Eventually rewards like stickers, food, parties, toys or candy become expected
and their effect is greatly reduced. It is a common myth that you can start with
rewards and later remove them. This happens very rarely.
Satiation leads to addiction. Many children become addicted to rewards and will
not work without them. When I taught seventh-grade English, I frequently gave
stickers to my students. One day I ran out, and informed my students that there
would be no stickers for a few days. A riot ensued. “Where’s my sticker?” “I
want a sticker!” “I won’t do anything without a sticker!!!” I discovered they
had become addicted to stickers. A parent even called that night to complain
that her son was upset because I didn’t give him his sticker. I decided to never
use them again.
Hyperbole aside, there is an addictive quality to
rewards; and when children expect them, they become dependent on
Finishing: In school there is a difference between learning from
your lesson and simply finishing it. Did you ever take a required course and
pass it while learning nothing? This phenomenon is called
Bribes tend to produce “finishers” rather than “learners.”
Children are more interested in finishing their work and getting the reward than
actually learning what the lesson is designed to teach.
do not like it when children try to manipulate us. Yet, when we manipulate them,
we teach them how to be master manipulators. For example, giving your wife
flowers (or receiving them from your husband) illustrates this concept. If the
flowers are meant to show love, it is appreciation, a positive social value. If
they are meant to convince the recipient to do a favor for the giver, it is
Bribes reduce choices and the skill of making
When we offer a child an incentive to do something, we are deciding
for that child what we want him to do. Obviously, this is not generically bad.
There are many times when we need to make decisions for children, especially
those involving safety. But when we decide for others, we take away the ability
of that person to choose and an opportunity is lost to teach decision making
skills. One way to identify great teachers and parents is by how well they
balance telling children what to do and letting them make their own
Increased pressure: The more we tell children how good they are,
the greater the fall if they cannot live up to all that praise. Pressure leads
to insecurity. It is far better to build confidence from the inside by designing
activities that challenge children than to simply reward them. Bribes are
threats in disguise.
Withholding rewards can be used as a threat hammer
very easily. The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same
It is time to stop using reward systems and replace them
once again with teaching positive social values.
It is not as easy to
teach right from wrong without gimmicks, but doing things the right way has
always been harder than fairy tales filled with false promise.
are too important to choose easy over better.Dr. Richard Curwin is the
director of the master’s program in behavior disorder at David Yellin College in
Jerusalem and the author of 20 books related to motivation and behavior.
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