Undermining student behaviour: the hidden danger of classroom rewards

Undermining student behaviour: the hidden danger of classroom rewards

Motivating students to do the right thing is easy... right?

We reinforce our students' good behaviour with a classroom reward. Be it a house point, a token, a dojo, or some extra free time.

But… what if it isn't that simple?

What if the very classroom rewards we use to encourage good behaviour were actually undermining the actions we want to encourage?

It sounds counter-intuitive… but it's true. In fact, classroom rewards may actually be making classroom behaviour worse.

And the latest science backs this up.  Here's how it works.

How to undermine intrinsic motivation in 1 easy step

Imagine the scene:

It's the end of a long morning and my class is due to go out onto the playground.  Becky, the child at the front of the line, could rush out and enjoy the supreme freedom of being the first child on the playground.

But she doesn't…

Instead, she patiently holds open the door and waits for the rest of the class to pass through.

What was her motivation? To be a good friend and look after her classmates.

(This is called intrinsic motivation. The reward for Becky's good deed is the sense of pride for living her beliefs and being her 'best self'.)

In short, Becky did the 'right thing' because… it was the right thing.

Wanting to encourage more of this unselfish behaviour, I wander across and award her a house point.

(This is called an extrinsic motivation – a reward to behave well that comes from the 'outside', rather than from Becky's personal desires or beliefs.)

However, without meaning to, I just subverted why Becky held open the door.

She's still motivated to do a good thing for others – hold open the door – but not because of her desire to be her best self.

Now she wants to open the door to get house points.

What happens next…

My plan worked brilliantly.  The next day, Becky rushes to hold open the door again.  Afterwards, she looks expectantly at me.  And I repeat the error.  I reward her with another house point.

In my mind, Becky is now doubly motivated to hold open the door for others!

On day 3, Becky holds open the door for the rest of class, but this time I get distracted by a student who needs help with a shoe lace.  As a result, Becky doesn't receive her house point.

She looks at me, frowns, and walks away.

On day 4, Becky changes her behaviour.  Instead of holding open the door, she runs straight out onto the playground, leaving the rest of the class for dust.

Changing the 'why'

I ask her, “Why didn't you hold open the door today?”

I used to get house points for doing that,” she replies.

Becky used to hold open the door as an act of kindness.  But now the game has changed.

No house points?  No positive behaviour.

House point inflation

“Okay,” I say to Becky, “what if I make sure I give you a house point every time you hold open the door?

She nods and her positive behaviour is restored.  Becky continues to hold open the door…

Until she doesn't.  One day, she just walks through the door and heads straight out onto the playground.

When the class return from play, I ask Becky why she didn't hold open the door.

“Dunno,” shrugs Becky.  “I'm not that bothered by one house point.”

The reward has lost it's impact.  I realise that, in order to encourage her good behaviour, I now need to up the ante.

“So… what if I offered you 2 house points?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Becky beams.  “I'll hold open the door for 2 house points.”

(She doesn't realise it yet, but Becky just negotiated her first wage increase.)

The result of the negotiation is house point inflation.  I used to pay her 1 house point to get the door opened, now it costs me 2.  (And originally, it was free!)

Science has shown this happens with nearly every system of expected classroom rewards.  The reward gets old very quickly.

That means I can pencil Becky in for another wage negotiation in a couple of weeks – by which time,  2 house points will have become stale motivation…

What went wrong

In the above story, I interfered with the 'why' driving Becky's behaviour.

  • Becky held open the door because it was 'the right thing to do' (intrinsic motivation)
  • I interfered with her motivation – meaning Becky started opening the door in return for a pay-off (extrinsic motivation)
  • Over time, that reward lost it's impact – so I had to increase her 'wages' to keep her motivation high (house point inflation)

Science shows that most extrinsic rewards have this effectparticularly with children.

2 simple ideas for encouraging intrinsic motivation

So, if we need to be wary of using rewards to encourage good behaviour, what can we do instead?

Here's 2 simple ideas:

  • Use praise (or thanks) skilfully to help children connect positive actions with their own beliefs and sense of self-satisfaction. eg. “Thanks Becky, you must feel so proud of yourself for holding the door open.  You're showing how kind and thoughtful you are.”
  • Promote attitudes in class around “we do the right thing, because it's the right thing”.  Plan for discussion around the topic and put up visual reminders around the classroom.

Share this article with your friends: