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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

Voices: The Principal / Negative Rewards

      A 2nd grader in our school announced to his mother that his class had won a popcorn party.
      “That's wonderful!” she exclaimed. “What did your class have to do?
      He looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” he asked.
      “What special thing did you have to do to win the party?”
      “Oh,” he said. “Nobody got detention for the whole week.”
      “In other words,” the mother remarked to me later in recounting the conversation, “the kids got rewarded just for doing what they're supposed to do.”
      Rewarding children for not getting into trouble is a common practice these days. In many school districts, teachers are required to prepare discipline plans. Besides listing negative consequences of disruptive behavior (name on board, lost 10 minutes of play time), teachers are often expected to offer rewards for good behavior. While most teachers recognize the importance of verbal praise and include it at the top of their list of rewards, many also feel constrained to offer popcorn and pizza parties, toys, candy, or field trips. Free time or extra gym time are also rewards, not for exemplary behavior, but for absence of disruptions.
      A physical education teacher I know spends hours soliciting local businesses for prizes for the winners of his school intramural team playoffs. The frequency with which he seeks donations has led to some resistance on the part of the community, forcing the teacher to reach into his own pockets and come up with prizes.
      “Isn't it enough just to win?” I once asked him.
      “Oh, no,” he assured me. “The kids expect prizes. I don't think I'd have any teams if we didn't have something to give them.”
      I think we have a problem.
      Behaviors that used to be expected now deserve some kind of reward. What would we do if a child actually went beyond the minimum standards—picking up after himself without being reminded, for example, or opening a door for someone? How did we get into the situation where we're rewarding children for not doing the unacceptable?
      It is true that children today have pressures that we didn't have as children. Children today are forced to make decisions about things we didn't even know existed when we were children—and in many cases they are making them without the benefit of close and constant adult guidance. Parents too have changed. As a principal, if I have to call a parent to say, for example, that his or her child has hit another student, the first question the parent often asks is, “What did the other child do to provoke him?” If I say to a parent, “Your child was disrespectful to Mr. Jones,” the response is often, “What did Mr. Jones say to her to begin with?”
      Standards seem to have been lowered a notch. We often excuse misbehavior by refusing to allow children to take responsibility for their actions. Is every classroom filled with behavior problems? Will every child run amuck, name-calling, hitting, squirting water from the drinking fountain, unless we deposit a marble in a glass jar for every 10 minutes he or she doesn't engage in destructive behavior?
      The answer lies in a lesson that teachers should learn early on in teaching. Children will respond to our expectations. What do we tell children when we reward them for not misbehaving? That we expect them to do their best? Or that we expect that they will misbehave?
      What lesson do we teach children when we give them a tangible reward for every minor accomplishment? That a word of praise isn't enough? That another's respect for a job well done won't suffice? That the feeling you get from helping someone else isn't reward in itself?
      We must stop selling our children short and substituting material things for genuine praise, warmth, support, and respect. We also must insist on appropriate behavior as a baseline, not as a standard of excellence. Children will never learn courtesy, honesty, self-control, or responsibility for their actions if we act as if we are surprised when we see these behaviors.
      Not long ago was “Parents as Reading Partners” month, a time when we encourage parents and children to take a moment out of their day to sit and read together. Our building reading committee met to decide what to give as rewards for the children who had racked up the most minutes of reading time. We listed the usuals: baseball cards, pencils, ice cream, extra play time, stuffed animals. Finally one veteran teacher spoke up. “What could we possibly give kids that would be any better than the fact that their parents sat down and read with them?” he asked. What indeed?

      Suzanne Tingley has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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