Why don't some kids learn from rewards and consequences

Why don't some kids learn from rewards and consequences

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Teaching pupils with high levels of SEMH (or behavioural) needs? Sometimes, it can feel like they're stuck in a cycle of damaging behaviour - and just never learn from the systems of rewards and consequences we use to motivate them.

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Download other FREE behaviour resources for use in school: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/resources.php

Understanding the reasons for this can be key to unlocking your students' success. So in today's episode, we explore the 4 key factors holding them back - and explain why some pupils don't (or can't) learn from rewards and consequences in school.

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Show notes / transcription

Emma Shackleton  0:00  

 A reason why some children just don't learn by using rewards and consequence is perhaps they are experiencing high levels of stress or high levels of anxiety. High stress affects our ability to lock away memories and learn associations. So if our memory is impeded, we're not going to recall that when we do a particular behaviour, a reward or a consequence comes. If we literally can't remember that connection, using the rewards and the consequences isn't going to change behaviour.

Simon Currigan  0:34  

Hi there, Simon Currigan here and welcome to another fact packed episode of school behaviour secrets. This podcast has almost been running for a year now, and one, I'd love to project the image of a slick experienced podcast host. It's only just sunk in that if I speak closer to the microphone, it improves the sound quality. True fact. I'm joined here today by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:33  

Hi, Simon 

Simon Currigan  1:34  

This is going to surprise you. But I've got another question for you today.

Emma Shackleton  1:37  

Go on. What's your question?

Simon Currigan  1:38  

According to a recent survey, how many people do you think fail to stick to a diet?

Emma Shackleton  1:44  

I think this varies depending on the time of year. So maybe diets go better in like the first week of a new year or on a Monday. Overall, I think diets are pretty miserable. And there'll be a fairly high fail rate, 80% fall off the waggon and have a doughnut.

Simon Currigan  2:03  

Okay, so it's worse than that the actual number amazingly is 95%. That leaves only 5% who manage to stay with their diet for the intended time and hitting their weight loss targets. And I know from another survey, that most people who go on a diet gain weight within about two or three months of finishing the diet

Emma Shackleton  2:22  

Oh dear, a really good friend of mine actually often says that she's been on a diet for about 30 years, and she's heavier now than she's ever been. Anyway, where are we going with all this diet talk? You're making me hungry.

Simon Currigan  2:32  

Well, in today's episode, we're going to look at why some children don't learn from rewards and consequences and systems of rewards and consequences are often related to working towards a goal in the future sticking with a behaviour and the reward comes later a bit like dieting or other forms of lifestyle change.

Emma Shackleton  2:50  

Ah, I see that makes sense. But before we get into that, I've got a quick request to make. If you are listening to this right now, please can you open your podcast app, and use the Share button to share this episode with a couple of friends or colleagues who you think will find this information useful. That means they and the children in their care can get the help and support they need to make progress in their classrooms too.

Simon Currigan  3:15  

Sounds good. So that means it's time to grab our sponge and bucket, head straight down to the pig farm and start wiping down that filthy swine we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  3:25  

One of the issues with rewards and consequences is that the consequence is too far away in time from the behaviour. If you think about it, when we're using rewards or consequences. There's something called a feedback loop. A great example of this comes from Skinner's box, Skinner was a behaviourist in the 1930s and 40s. And he used rats in cages where there was a button for food to drop down.

Simon Currigan  3:53  

What Skinner was interested in, was can the rat learn that when it's hungry, if it presses the button, then it can get food through that mechanism. And the feedback loop is the length of time from pressing the button to getting the food. So if you press the button, and the food drops down immediately, you've got a very short feedback loop. It doesn't take any time at all to get the feedback. And if you press the button and have to wait a while, you've got a long feedback loop.

Emma Shackleton  4:19  

So when the feedback and the behaviour are close together in time, the rat learns quickly that the behaviour in this case pressing the button when it's hungry, results in feedback or reinforcement, and that's getting the food.

Simon Currigan  4:34  

If pressing the button and receiving the food are too far apart. Learning happens more slowly or it doesn't happen at all. And this is what you see with things like diet and exercise programmes. The reality is if you skip a doughnut here or there, or you start a new food programme or you start an exercise programme, you're not going to get instant feedback. The feedback you're going to get is going to be months down the line and that kind of process has a very long feedback loop, which is why we talked about the survey at the start. Because engaging in something like weight loss, you forego things now, you're not having the food you like you're lowering your calorie intake. But it takes time to see the results. The feedback loop is very long.

Emma Shackleton  5:19  

That's just reminded me actually of a sign that's written in that nice fancy curly script in the gym that I go to. So along a huge wall, it says "summer bodies are made in the winter", it took me a while to work out what that means. I get it now, It's about putting the effort in now. But you're not going to see the rewards for a little while. So that's a really long feedback loop.

Simon Currigan  5:40  

That's right. I'd be lovely if you could do crunches on Monday and Tuesday and have like ripped abs on Wednesday, but you just don't get that instant feedback. Do you?

Emma Shackleton  5:46  

No, definitely not. And humans are the same, aren't they? So the shorter the feedback loop, the more likely the feedback is to reinforce the behaviour, too long a feedback loop and the behaviour and the reward just don't get strongly connected.

Simon Currigan  6:02  

So the thing to remember here is rewards and consequences are both forms of feedback when we use positive reinforcement, things like stickers and praise and certificates. They're designed to increase a positive behaviour. Whereas when we use consequences as punishments, they're designed to decrease a behaviour. So another example of Skinner's work was, he had a button and the floor of the cage was electrified, when the rat push the button, the floor would suddenly buzz. And he was interested to see if the rat would learn to avoid pressing the button. So that's a punishment.

Emma Shackleton  6:34  

So either way, whether it's rewards or consequences, the feedback has to happen as close to now as possible. If the feedback happens, hours or days later, the child really doesn't associate the consequence with the behaviour.

Simon Currigan  6:49  

You'll know this, you know, you've got this wrong. If you've got a child set in detention, say days after the event, and you talk to them about, you know, why are you in detention this week, and they genuinely can't remember why they're there, that tells you that the feedback loop you're using is too long, to effectively influence their behaviour. And the same is true with rewards. If the child doesn't connect the reward with the behaviour, if they're going to their heads office three days later, after they did a piece of neat work, they're not really going to link those two ideas together.

Emma Shackleton  7:17  

Okay, so another reason why some children don't learn from using rewards and consequences to manage behaviour is perhaps they've got an underlying condition such as ADHD. So some conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attachment, or foetal alcohol spectrum disorder make it really difficult for students to link actions with consequences. And the reason for that is their executive functioning skills, such as sequencing, processing, and memory making are likely to be impeded as a result of their condition. So if their memory isn't working properly, or their sequencing isn't working properly, linking the reward and the consequence is going to be nigh on impossible. So the rewards and consequences don't have the desired effect of changing behaviour. 

Simon Currigan  8:08  

Yes, the way their brains are wired makes it literally harder for them to learn that when I do A, it leads to B and that can be positive or negative. You know, when I work hard, I get a sticker when I give a compliment to a classmate, it improves my relationship with them. On the negative side, it could be when I shout out, you know, I lose some playtime the way their brains work, it makes it much harder for them to make those connections. And obviously, as we've already spoken about, if you're reinforcing these ideas with long feedback loops, either positive or negative ones, for the kids who make it hard to make these associations between doing A and leading to B if you're reinforcing that with a long feedback loop, it's going to be even harder for them to learn.

Emma Shackleton  8:52  

Yeah, so children with those conditions literally find it more difficult to connect the two events together. And also if you've got foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, it might be that some parts of that circuitry are literally missing, or they're walled off, or they're connected up in the wrong place, as foetal alcohol can lead to areas of damage across the brain that look a bit like Swiss cheese under brain imaging scanners.

Simon Currigan  9:18  

So just as some kids need to over learn phonics or over learn mathematical concepts like addition and division, other children may need to over learn and behaviour expectations over learn behaviour routines, and by practising those routines over and over and keeping on learning them helps them maintain those ideas in their head. In the long term. They won't learn those expectations and routines as quickly as the other children. 

I'd just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in that Inner Circle programme, the Inner Circle to a one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos, resources and behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole classroom, setting out your classroom environment for success, resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an Inner Circle subscription on or off whenever you need to. With no minimum contract Plus, you can now get your first seven days of Inner Circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers that you've been looking for today with Inner Circle visit www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk and click on the Inner Circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information.

Emma Shackleton  11:05  

Another reason why some children just don't learn by using rewards and consequence is perhaps they are experiencing high levels of stress or high levels of anxiety. We've already spoken at length in a recent episode about how stress affects pupil behaviour. But high stress also affects our ability to lock away memories and learn associations. So if our memory is impeded, we're not going to recall that when we do a particular behaviour, a reward or a consequence comes. If we literally can't remember that connection, using the rewards and the consequences isn't going to change behaviour. 

Simon Currigan  11:47  

And dont forget the prefrontal cortex deals with goal directed behaviour. So maybe you've set up a system where the child works towards putting their hand up and waiting for permission to join in at whole class time. And they're building stickers or tokens to work to a reward. Well, if that child's experiencing high stress, then our brain stops listening to the prefrontal cortex, it loses its impact in decision making, the prefrontal cortex goes offline, the more stressed we become. So to you know, achieve success and reward chart, we might be asking the students to use a part of their brain looking forward and thinking about my goals that actually under stress isn't working particularly well. So they're going to find it more difficult to engage with those systems.

Emma Shackleton  12:30  

So if you've got a student who finds the classroom environment stressful, because of let's say, sensory stress, or they feel anxious when they're around lots of people, so social anxiety, or maybe they have difficulty coping with transitions, then that makes it much harder for them to learn and follow expectations, or to be influenced or care about long term goals like behaviour targets,

Simon Currigan  12:58  

Yeah, they're going to use emotional behaviours, or they're going to engage in automatic behaviours that have worked for them in the past.

Emma Shackleton  13:04  

And stress leads people as we know, to think about just the present moment, they live in the now and a reward or consequence that's going to happen later, at the end of the day, or at the end of the week. Well, that might as well happen in the year 2099. It's too far away to influence their thinking and behaviour. Now,

Simon Currigan  13:25  

Another reason why some children find it hard to learn from rewards and consequences is the adult isn't consistent enough with the process. We have to think about are we implementing either the reward or the consequence that's been promised to the child with 100% consistency or as near to 100% as we can get? Because often, learning from rewards particularly involves an element of delayed gratification.

Emma Shackleton  13:52  

Delayed gratification essentially means if I behave in a certain way, now, my reward will come later. So if I behave well, in class, I'll earn some activity time at the end of the week as a reward. For example, if I try not to shout out on the carpet, at the end of the lesson, I'll get a sticker. An extreme example of delayed gratification is if you spent 18 years studying, your reward will be a better paid job in the future.

Simon Currigan  14:20  

Religion takes this to the extreme end, if I behave well throughout my entire life. I will get my reward in the next one. There was a really interesting experiment done at Stanford University that looked at children's ability to delay gratification, they took bunches of sort of four, five and six year olds, and they sat them in a room with a researcher and they put a marshmallow out and they said to the child, that marshmallow is yours. I can take that home at the end of the day after the experiment, but I'm just going to pop out just for three or four or five minutes. I've just got something to organise or deal with. If you can wait and not eat the marshmallow now, when I come back, I will give you a second marshmallow, they were interested to see how many kids just stuff the marshmallow quickly. And how many kids would wait for the researcher to return, delay gratification to get the second marshmallow. What they found was fascinating. They repeated the study around the world. And in general, two thirds of the kids took the marshmallow now and didn't worry about the reward. At a later date, only 1/3 of children thought ahead, and they delay gratification, they denied themselves the pleasure of eating the marshmallow now, so they could get two marshmallows in the future.

Emma Shackleton  15:35  

When the researchers followed up, they find some interesting things. If the children didn't believe that the reward was coming, the kids didn't bother to delay the gratification. So they did the test once, the adult promised them a marshmallow but didn't deliver, the trust was broken. So basically, the children just took the marshmallow the first opportunity they got because they didn't believe it would come later. 

Simon Currigan  15:59  

The implication here is if as adults, we don't follow through on our promises, children are much less likely to delay their gratification and work towards rewards, or I guess to modify their behaviour to avoid consequences.

Emma Shackleton  16:12  

Because why would you, it's highly unlikely the good thing that you're working for, or the bad thing that you want to avoid is actually going to appear.

Simon Currigan  16:22  

And by the way to bring this back to stress, which we spoke about a couple of episodes ago, if you placed the child under stress, they were again, much less likely to delay gratification because delay gratification is a function of you guessed it, the prefrontal cortex and under stress, the prefrontal cortex ceases to influence our behaviour as effectively. So the kids just took the marshmallow now without thinking about the future. 

Emma Shackleton  16:46  

So that's it, four reasons why some children just don't learn from rewards and consequences. Number one, the feedback loop is too long. So there's too much time between the child's action and the reward or consequence being given as feedback.

Simon Currigan  17:02  

The child has an underlying condition that makes it much harder for them to link action and reaction,

Emma Shackleton  17:07  

They experience high amounts of stress or anxiety in the classroom environment.

Simon Currigan  17:12  

And the adult isn't consistent with the way they use rewards or consequences, making the children less likely to engage in delayed gratification.

Emma Shackleton  17:20  

If you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you're not sure why they're acting that way. We've got a free download that can help. It's called the SEN handbook, and it will help you to link behaviours that you've seen in the classroom with possible causes like autism and ADHD. The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis. Of course, we're not qualified to do that. But if we link behaviours that we see to possible causes quickly, it means that we can get the right help and get some early intervention strategies into place. It's a free download, go to the website www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk , click on Free Resources near the top and we'll also put a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  18:05  

Remember to subscribe to the show to make sure you hear each episode as it's released. Super easy, it only takes 10 seconds open your podcast app now click the subscribe button or the Follow button as it was called in Apple podcasts because they like to do everything differently. And your podcast app will automatically download every single episode for you so you never miss a thing. And to celebrate. Now I'm proud of this one. I recommend that you grab some knicker elastic and a bag of kettle chips. Simply tie the elastic around your head and insert the chips are one by one to create a glorious crown of crisps, a celebration of fried potato if you will. Not only will it create a talking point that will attract new friends in the street. The grease from the chips will also gently condition your hair

Emma Shackleton  18:49  

Wow. If you've got a colleague or friend who's struggling with people behaviour and would benefit from knowing what we've covered today, including how to make a crown of crisps, then don't keep this episode to yourself. Use the Share button in your podcast app to let your friends or colleagues know about this episode. So their classes and students can benefit as well. That wraps up everything for today. I hope you have an excellent week and we look forward to seeing you on the next episode of school behaviour secrets. Bye

Simon Currigan  19:18  


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