Do Reward Charts Make Any Difference?

Do Reward Charts Make Any Difference?

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Are reward charts actually effective? They've been used for years, but have you considered that they might actually be damaging to your pupils development?

In this week†s School Behaviour Secrets episode, we discuss the â€~dangers†of using reward charts and how they should be used effectively to support pupils in the classroom.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

When we use reward charts, what we're doing is we're interfering with a child's natural desire to engage in positive behaviours because they are the right thing to do. But this can be really dangerous because children end up doing the right thing to get the reward rather than doing the right thing because it's the right thing. 

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets hot off the presses. Today's sponsor is Dr. Steadfast's incredible mind cream, simply rub this patented ointment directly onto the folds of your brain to transform your normal thoughts into incredible ones. It's like your normal brain only better, brain drill included with your first purchase of a 500 mil jar of mind cream. Warning, cream may cause blackouts or permanent blindness. Dr. Steadfast mind cream!

Emma Shackleton  1:26  

Okay, that introduction didn't go in the direction that I thought it would.

Simon Currigan  1:31  

And that's the voice of Emma Shackleton co host of the podcast. Hi Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:34  

Hi Simon. You feeling Okay?

Simon Currigan  1:36  

Yeah, so I've been using that mind cream all week and it hasn't affected me at all. I've got a question I've been waiting to ask you all week. Actually it's been fueled by the mind cream this week.

Emma Shackleton  1:45  

Oh Crikey. Go on then.

Simon Currigan  1:46  

All right, in the words of Owen Paul from his 80's smash hit. What is your favourite waste of time?

Emma Shackleton  1:53  

If that's my cue to sing youre my favourite waste of time, Ill spare our listeners that. My favourite waste of time is probably social media scrolling. What's yours?

Simon Currigan  2:04  

I used to have this game called merge mania on my phone. I would just spend hours just merging blocks together. I had to delete it in the end, you've got to know your own weaknesses don't you.

Emma Shackleton  2:12  

You certainly do. So go on then. What's the link with this week's episode?

Simon Currigan  2:15  

Well, it's like this. When we go into schools, we see a lot of reward charts being used to incentivise good behaviour. But the question is, when it comes to working with them with individual children, are they a waste of time? Do they actually make any difference? And that is what we're going to dig into today.

Emma Shackleton  2:34  

Sounds good, possibly controversial. But before we get to that, I've got a quick request to make of our listeners if you are enjoying school behaviour secrets, or if you find it helpful or valuable, please don't keep it to yourself. Could you let three colleagues or friends know about the podcast by using the share button on your app. 

Simon Currigan  2:54  

That said, let's grab a chopstick, pull back the neck of our jumpers, insert the instruments and scratch that back which we call behaviour. Right then, So reward charts, let's have a little think about how we use them in classrooms to support children with their individual needs and individual behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  3:13  

So let's think about how we use behaviour charts with individuals then. So typically, there used to work on a specific behaviour, I don't know, let's say reducing calling out. Each time the child manages to demonstrate that behaviour, the adult will then award them with maybe a tick or a house point or Dojo or whatever. And the way that that works is every time that the child is rewarded in that way, they get a little kick of dopamine in the reward centre of their brain. And that feels good. So the theory is that we will then be motivated to repeat that behaviour. Because the child will want another point or another tick or another Dojo or whatever it is, because they enjoy the pleasurable sensation that that brings. The potential benefits of using behaviour charts are things like the ability to track and reward positive behaviour. So if you've got a child using a chart, you're able to look back across the week and see, are there any patterns. Is it for example, that their behaviour is pretty good up until playtime but then after playtime, it goes downhill?You can also increase accountability. So when you've got a chart when you've got something specific that you're working on, the adult and the child then bring that behaviour into focus. And by achieving or not achieving rewards, you've got a good measure there of how the child is doing. It can be helpful to improve communication between teachers and parents. Sometimes people take a photocopy of the reward chart, for example, or the behaviour chart and they send it home on a Friday so that parents can also see what's happening in school. Some children really do find them motivating in the short term at least, and they can be used to support children with low level behaviour and regulation skills, as well as for things like learning specific academic skills.

Simon Currigan  5:07  

So do they always work? Well, let's have a look at some of the downsides of behaviour charts. And what are the obvious ones that stands out to me is the potential for negative effects on the child's self esteem. So if the adults sat down with them, and they're talking about working towards, you know, using a target behaviour in class, maybe putting up their hand during whole class time, instead of shouting out, if they find that they're still engaging in that shouting out and then not, say, earning ticks or stickers on that chart, they never sort of realised that end goal of working towards that sort of bigger reward when they've completed their chart. Well, that's going to have an impact on their self esteem, it's going to reinforce that they're not able to do it. And one of the problems with that is when we're using things like behaviour charts, what we're doing is, we are assuming that the child is able to engage in the behaviour that we want them to, we're assuming that there's no lack of understanding, there's no underlying issue with them accessing that target behaviour. And if there is if there's a lack of understanding if there's a missing social skill, and if there's an underlying deficit, because they may have a condition like autism or ADHD around restraining impulses, or understanding social interactions, then the behaviour chart isn't going to help the child make progress, and that's going to lead to them to become disenchanted is going to affect their self esteem. They are going to feel like failures because the assumption is baked into any reward system that you're able to engage in the behaviour to achieve the reward. So that lack of effectiveness in that it doesn't address the underlying cause of the behaviour problem, it doesn't really ever deal with the root cause of the behaviour, is a real failure of just using reward charts without thinking about what kind of support has to be in place to enable the child to access the rewards on the chart. Extrinsic rewards rather than intrinsic motivation is another issue. When we use reward charts, what we're doing is we are messing, we're interfering with the child's natural desire to engage in positive behaviours, because they are the right thing to do. And this is actually. I don't know if you've seen this in the classroom Emma? But this can be really dangerous, because children end up doing the right thing to get the reward, rather than doing the right thing, because it's the right thing. And then when the reward chart goes away, or the reward chart gets boring, or someone else comes into class, and there's a supply teacher, the child stops engaging in that positive behaviour, because now they're not getting a kickback, they're not getting a bribe for doing the right thing. And that can kind of interfere with the reason for doing it. And it interferes with the stickiness of that behaviour. 

Emma Shackleton  7:55  

Yeah, I totally agree with that often the chart loses its effectiveness after a while and it kind of wears off. And sometimes as well, you see behaviour chart set up for children. And the adults might be really enthusiastic for the first few days or the first couple of weeks. But then after a while, they're kind of lying around on a desk gathering dust somewhere, and they haven't really earned anything for a while. And once it feels like it's not priority for the adults anymore, the children quickly realise that they're not going to get that immediate reward. So they get bored and get a bit turned off by it. And when you think about it, children who are neurodiverse. So for example, children with ADHD might get really turned off by behaviour charts, because there's often sometimes a kind of secret negative side to it as well. And as soon as the chart becomes a negative behaviour management tool, it really does turn kids off, especially when that's a very public negative. So many schools now have moved away from this approach. But if you've ever seen a child do the walk of shame, to remove a point from the class chart, for example, if they actually got up and did it, rather than refusing, that's one thing, but the humiliation that goes with that having to walk across the classroom and remove a point from the board, or them getting that negative Dojo sound, when a dojo is taken away in front of the whole class, that humiliation becomes a pretty strong motivator to not want to engage with the reward system at all. Better to get no reward than risk that public humiliation of having the rewards snatched back at your next wrong move.

Simon Currigan  9:36  

And of course, a lot of kids who are neurodiverse or maybe have a background of trauma, they find school a very stressful anxiety provoking place to be and a result of that, and we've talked about this in the past. This moves you towards a state called amygdala hijack, which is where you start thinking emotionally and stop thinking logically and planning ahead and thinking about consequences of your actions and so on. A side effect of amygdala hijack is you tend to become very focused on survival in the now, you stop worrying about what happens in the future, you worry about dealing with whatever pressures are facing you at the moment, whether that's social pressure, or it's cognitive, because you're struggling with your work, whether it's about regulating your emotions, you care about the instant this moment right now. And as a result of that your behaviour is going to look to some extent it can look quite random, you're going to look very reactive, you're not going to be thinking about your reward chart. And when you look at the reward chart, at the end of the day, what you're seeing is random patterns of behaviour, because the child's in a state where they're not able to think ahead. So actually, what you're reinforcing is a random pattern of behaviour that's not building towards long term consistent implementation of positive behaviour strategies, or, you know, regulation strategies, because the reward chart isn't actually doing anything. Some days, it's appearing to work, because the child came into school and they were less anxious and less stressed. Some days, it's appearing not to work because the child came in. And they're in this high stress state and amygdala hijack. And actually, the reward chart is doing nothing either way. And it's just giving you this data that just goes up and down and doesn't mean very much at all. Plus, let's have a look at the long term effects of reward charts. Well, we know from lots and lots of research, not just in schools, but with adults in industry, that extrinsic systems, which is what reward charts are, tend to have very short term effects. And that's because they become boring very, very quickly, kids get used to the rewards. And one of two things happens there, they lose their attraction because they lose their novelty. There's something called the hedonistic treadmill, which is imagine that you're, you know, in your job, and you're earning some money, let's imagine you're earning, I don't know, let's pick a number out of the year, 35,000 pounds a year, the boss walks in, and he says, Oh, I love the work you're doing in your classroom, I am going to give you a wage increase of 2000 pounds a year, well, the first month, you open your pay packet, you see that extra money, that's very exciting and very motivating, month two, well, it's still motivating, but maybe not quite as exciting and new as it was last month, month three, yeah, you're still getting a little bit of kick of excitement. By the time you reach month four, month five, month six, it just becomes expected, you just build it into your expectation of what you should be paid to do your job. And it's the same with reward charts in schools, if a child starts to achieve rewards for engaging in certain behaviours, then over time, they start to become part of what they expect of their school life, and they just lose their attraction. It's called the hedonistic treadmill. So when we get used to something new, we sort of assimilate it and it becomes an expected part of our life, we start to want the next exciting thing or the next goal, because rewards become mundane, very, very quickly.

Emma Shackleton  13:00  

I completely agree with what you said there about the reward chart and just sometimes being data collection. Because sometimes adults fall into the trap of thinking that if they set a goal, and attach a reward to it, that will automatically change the behaviour. But actually, sometimes there isn't enough emphasis on setting the children up for success. 

Simon Currigan  13:22  


Emma Shackleton  13:23  

The reward chart just becomes a record of did they do it? Or did they not? So let's take the example of calling out if we want a child to stop calling out and we'd like them to raise their hand instead, if we haven't given them reminders, if we haven't kept the waiting time short, if we haven't built the strategies in the structures and put the emphasis on reminding the child about the target before we expect that behaviour. What tends to happen is sometimes they'll have a lucky session where they're feeling calm, and they don't call out so much. So ping, they achieve the reward. Sometimes they don't manage to control that behaviour. They haven't been reminded they haven't been supported. So we get to the end of the session, and we say right, do you get a point today for calling out? Well, no, you don't because you were calling out too often. So it tends to be after the fact and we just go in, Yes, you did, or No, you didn't. And when the reward is all in the adults control like that it can feel to the child like it's really just whether the adult is feeling generous or not whether they get it and it's not linked to the actual behaviour. And that's a real turnoff for kids as well, because especially if adults take the reward back. 

Simon Currigan  14:37  


Emma Shackleton  14:37  

I've probably said this before, but a long, long, long time ago, I was observing in a reception classroom and there was a boy with a great big shiny sticker on his jumper and you'd obviously doing something really good earlier in the day. And then he actually hit another child which is obviously a negative and unacceptable behaviour. And the adult went over and peeled the sticker off his jump and tore it up in front of him. And I was I mean, that's obviously their frustration, but I was horrified. And the message to the child is, I can take away these rewards, or I can give these rewards at my will. And it feels like it's not really in the child's control. And as we've said, already, lots of children would rather say, well stuff it then, I don't want the reward. Forget it.

Simon Currigan  15:22  

I think the analogy here as well is, if the child doesn't have the skill, if they're not able to do it, yeah, or there's an underlying cause, meaning they can't access that behaviour, it'd be kind of like taking a 17 year old out on their birthday onto the drive and saying, There's a car, I put an L plate on it 

Emma Shackleton  15:39  

Crack on, 

Simon Currigan  15:40  

Crack on, here's a reward, if you come back and you don't crash, you can have a sticker, the teenager, the young person, there hasn't had the training and support in order for the reward chart to mean anything. And I think often that's the bit that gets missed out, isn't it?

Emma Shackleton  15:52  

Absolutely. And as we've said, setting children up to be successful. So if we're going to have a chart, we make it a limited amount of time, where we're expecting to see that behaviour. And we're very, very clear about what the behaviour looks like. And we do everything within our power to support the child to be successful, so that they can earn the reward. If they never earn the reward, the chart gets boring, because they feel like they're not ever going to be rewarded anyway. And if it's very hit and miss, because they haven't been scaffolded and supported to be successful, then it also gets boring, because it feels like you're not going to give me the reward anyway, so forget it.

Simon Currigan  16:30  

I think a lot of people as well aren't aware of the research on positive reinforcement, which is, if you are going to use a chart like this, to reinforce a behaviour, that reward, that reinforcement has to come almost immediately, like within seconds to have an effect at a biological level to get that hit of dopamine, that's going to encourage the child to do that again, in the future. If they're having to build something up towards the end of the day, say then actually, what you're relying on is delayed gratification to say, I'm not going to do X now. So I can receive y later, or I am going to do this positive behaviour now, so I can get this reward later. And as we've already said, a lot of the children that need reward charts need support with their behaviour and SEMH need, they live in this high level stress state, which means they're not thinking about the future. They're about, they're all about survival now. And then you end up with this kind of mismatched approach. And everyone's scratching their heads and wondering why it doesn't work.

Emma Shackleton  17:23  

Absolutely. I mean, the promise of something really good, even if they really, really want it. If it's not going to come for hours or even days later, then you know, it misses the point, doesn't it? It's got to be that short feedback loop. So it's pretty immediate, and then that will reinforce the behaviour.

Simon Currigan  17:40  

Absolutely. So those are our thoughts on behaviour charts, yes, they can have their positive effects. Yes, they can be great for launching a child into a new behaviour that you've trained them with, but don't expect them to work in the long term. They have their strengths, but also they have their weaknesses. And I'd also say I don't know about you, Emma. But also I'd say never be dogmatic, right, use what works for the child just because I've sat there and said intrinsic is better doing the right thing, because it's the right thing is better. If you've got a child is having difficulty and needs support with their needs. And they are lapping up the reward chart and it is affecting their behaviour, then use the evidence of your eyes don't use the evidence of a dogmatic approach because really, our solutions need to be tailored around the individual needs of the individual motivations of individual children. What works for some might not work for others.

Emma Shackleton  18:32  

Oh, absolutely. We all know that there is no one size fits all. And you know, really good behaviour management is trying lots of different things, hitting upon things that work even a little bit and doing more of that. And then when that doesn't work, trying something else. It's always being dynamic and coming up with new ideas and new things. So yeah, never say never.

Simon Currigan  18:55  

Of course, knowing how to use reward systems effectively is just one part of classroom management, which is where we look at strategies that the adult uses to manage the whole class. 

Emma Shackleton  19:06  

But sometimes getting classroom management rights can feel like a dark art, especially if you've got a tricky class. And that's where the classroom management score sheet comes in.

Simon Currigan  19:17  

We've put together a checklist of 37 factors related to rewards and routines, the environment, the classroom, and more that all have an impact on classroom behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  19:28  

So if you feel that the behaviour of your class could be better, using the checklists can help to reveal where some small but mighty changes could improve the behaviour of your class for the better. And the good news is the checklist is completely free. If you haven't got yours yet, go to click on the free resources option in the menu and you'll find it near the top of the page. It's completely free. So go and get yours today. And we'll drop a link in the episode this description.

Simon Currigan  20:00  

Finally, if you've liked what you've heard today, and you don't want to miss the next episode, open up your podcast app now and tap the subscribe button subscribing is completely free and then your podcast app will automatically download each and every episode as it's released, so you never miss a thing. And after subscribing, well you'll feel as chuffed as grandpa flump. After he stretched his slumping fingers warmed up his lips and given his prize flummpit, an extra special blow.

Emma Shackleton  20:30  

That's one for the children of the 80s there Simon.

Simon Currigan  20:33  

If you don't know what that means, search on YouTube, you are in for a rare treat.

Emma Shackleton  20:38  

But before you do that, I'd like to wish everybody a successful week and to say that we look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets, bye for now.

Simon Currigan  20:47  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)