Give children rewards and they’ll soon fleece you

3 June 2009
The Times
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As a teacher, I’ve tried every bribe in the book

The news that a mother rewards her 13-year-old daughter with cigarettes when she behaves has confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a while – rewards are, at best, ineffectual and, at worst, positively damaging.

A jobless single mother, Tracy Holt, 43, of Gosport, Hampshire, is so despairing of her daughter, Sam, that she now gives her some of her own fags on the rare occasions when Sam is pleasant. Ms Holt insists that the reward “works”.

Philosophically, she’s not alone: last week, Ofsted produced a detailed report on promoting good behaviour in schools and advocated rewards such as trips to the cinema to stop disruptive pupils from being unruly.

Having taught some pretty rowdy children like Sam during my 16 years as a comprehensive teacher, I’ve tried every bribe in the school book – commendations, certificates, stickers, stars, books, popular movies, trendy music, games, colouring in, melting ice-creams, teddy bears, toys, computer games, shortened lessons, trips to leisure parks, to the sweet shop, and to the lavatory. While these are generally healthier than dishing out tobacco, they are nonetheless fraught with dangers.

The central problem is this: teachers are rarely consistent. For some – the generous, soft-hearted teachers – simply being quiet merits prizes; for others, usually the mean or the forgetful, even a PhD thesis doesn’t deserve a bean. As a young teacher, I was trigger-happy about giving out rewards. Just making an interesting comment deserved a sticker, while something difficult, such as reading a book, deserved a slew of chocolate buttons. This led to an older, sterner teacher castigating me for “reward inflation”. He wisely said: “Give them a lollipop and next they’ll want your wallet.”

I ignored his warning until a fateful lesson on the last day of term when my pupils surged in a giggling mass towards the large box of chocolates on my desk – and my bribes to avert the riot that had already happened vanished before the lesson began.

This experience, together with my reading of Kant’s moral philosophy, made me realise that rewards are ridiculous: learning and good behaviour should be ends in themselves and not a means to an end.

Bribing children to behave merely teaches them that it’s necessary to misbehave to gain a fillip for their aberrant good behaviour. It’s time the British stopped corrupting their children. Perhaps the sad example of Ms Holt and her daughter will make us all rethink rewards: as with the Holt family fags, it’s time to give them up.

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1 comment

  1. As a primary school teacher in an inner city school in London, I’m expected to ‘bribe’ my pupils with rewards. Fortunately this is something that I tend to ignore. I frequently ask my pupils if they would rather have a reward for working hard or if the effort of working hard and behaving is reward enough itself. They almost all agree with the latter. Of course those that don’t agree are those that are misbehaving because they’ve had their attitude modified by the giving of rewards – unfortunately though, not their behaviour.

    I’ve taught abroad on the continent and there are no rewards systems. Not unsurprisingly there are also very few behavioural issues. In my view rewarding is a short term gain at the expense of long term improvement. It’s about time that this was exposed – thanks for the article.

    from Kieron wise

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