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Six Reasons Rewards Don't Work

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

In my last post, I gave three of the best alternatives to rewards. I was surprised at how many people read and enjoyed it. I'm grateful to all who commented on various platforms. Some, however, still want to know what's wrong with using rewards as long as they work. I'll explore that question more deeply here.

When I talk with educational professionals and parents about why it is best not to use rewards in both academic and behavioral situations, I frequently hear the response, "But it works." Before debating whether or not rewards work, we need to understand what the word "works" really means. For example, if I went to the doctor with a sore knee, one solution that would end the pain would be to amputate my leg. There is no doubt this solution would work. But it is still the wrong answer.

What's missing is that we must look not only at the benefit of the strategy but also at the cost, and decide if the gain is worth the price. When it comes to educating and raising children, at school and at home, there is always a cost, no matter what solution is selected. Some of the costs are obvious, many are hidden, but they must be considered whenever we determine if something works. When it comes to rewards, before we examine the potential benefits, lets fully examine the costs. They are very high. Here are the highest:

1) Satiation

Satiation means that more of something is required to get the same effect. Examples are pain medication or hot water in a bath. I love a hot bath, but eventually it starts to feel cooler, and I add more hot water. Rewards are like that. Children never say, "That's way too much. Please give me less." They often say, "Is that all? I want more." Eventually, rewards like stickers, food, parties, toys or candy become expected, and their effect is greatly reduced. It is a common myth that you can start with rewards and later remove them. This happens very rarely.

2) Addiction

Satiation leads to addiction. Many children become addicted to rewards and will not work without them. When I taught seventh grade English, I frequently gave stickers to my students. One day I ran out, and informed my students that there will be no stickers for a few days. A riot ensued. "Where's my sticker?" "I want a sticker!" "I won't do anything without a sticker!!!" I discovered they had become addicted to stickers. A parent even called that night to complain that her son was upset because I didn't give him his sticker. I decided to never use them again.

Hyperbole aside, there is an addictive quality to rewards; and when children expect them, they become dependent on them.

3) Finishing

In school there is a difference between learning from your lesson and simply finishing it. Did you ever take and pass a foreign language course in high school or college? Can you speak that language now? Did you ever take a required course and passed it while learning nothing? This phenomenon is called "finishing." Bribes tend to produce "finishers" rather than "learners." Children are more interested in finishing their work and getting the reward than actually learning what the lesson is designed to teach. Finishing work is far less important than learning from the work that is finished.

4) Manipulation

We do not like it when children try to manipulate us. Yet when we manipulate them, we teach them how to be master manipulators.

Giving your wife flowers (or receiving them from your husband) illustrates this concept. If the flowers are meant to show love, it is appreciation. If they are meant to convince the recipient to do a favor for the giver, it is a manipulation. Many children, who have been manipulated throughout their lives, are very sensitive about it and react negatively to further manipulation.

Sometimes even the winners lose. Talia was a charming eighth grader who studied hard and gave thoughtful answers in class. Her teacher continually said to the class, "Why can't more of you be like Talia? She always does her work and tries hard." Other children began to tease her about being the teacher's pet. She was occasionally shunned. She began doing small annoying things, albeit mild, and stopped handing in homework to stop this persecution and to get the teacher to stop using her as an example. Many children do not like being singled out for doing well.

5) Increased Pressure

The more we tell children how good they are, the greater the fall if they cannot live up to all that praise. Pressure leads to insecurity. It is far better to build confidence from the inside by designing activities that challenge children than it is to simply reward them.

6) Bribes

Bribes reduce choices and the skill of making them. When we offer an incentive for a child to do something, then we are deciding for that child what we want him to do. Obviously, this is not generically bad. There are many times when we need to make decisions for children, especially those involving safety. But when we decide for others, we take away the ability of that person to choose, and an opportunity is lost to teach decision-making skills. One way to identify great teachers and parents is by how well they balance telling children what to do and letting them make their own choice.

Bribes are threats in disguise. Withholding rewards can be used as a threat hammer very easily. The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin: control.

So before we say, "Rewards work," let's examine the cost. For most of us, it's never worth it.

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Carlene Byron's picture

Reward satiation occurs when a reward is given each time a behavior occurs. In behavioral theory, effective rewards are more random -- they aren't like paychecks. Grades are paychecks. And like paychecks, they don't come every few minutes. They require some work over time.

But on a related subject, Harvard research is showing that at-risk students dramatically improve school performance in basic subjects (reading, math) when grades are linked to financial rewards. And while I'd love to have kids want to learn the sound of the letter A for its own sake, I'm happy to have them learn it because someone's going to pay them $25 if they get an A in reading this quarter.

I do understand the concern about learning lost when it's accumulated only for the sake of the grades: I've been re-reading college texts in my major to great advantage over the last year. But I'm not sure that the "loss" has as much to do with having "learned for the grades" as it does to simply having more context now. When I re-read "Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali" today, I'm able to consider other texts I've read since: John Hope Franklin's narratives of North African life in "From Slavery to Freedom" and even the Biblical account of Sheba's encounter with Solomon.

But the curricula we have devised for children require astonishing amounts of context that they can't possibly have -- even require them to accomplish tasks that aren't reasonably possible. The middle school social studies curriculum here in NC, for example, expects students to be able to compare and contrast the systems of government in "Asia, Africa, and Europe." To which I say: Asia where? When? Which African nations at which times in their history? Tribal Europe, imperial Europe, feudal Europe ... you get the picture. This is the oral exam for a PhD in world history, not a middle school curriculum. Why is learning lost? Because we overwhelm kids with stuff they can't possibly learn. And so they do the best they can for the tests, and then go to the mall and try to forget the bad experience of school.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Carlene. Thank you for your comment on my posting. You mention that satiation can be eliminated by intermittent reinforcement. Actually you can slow satiation down, but not stop it that way.
More importantly, I see your frustration in trying to teach so much information without the required context. Your struggle is every teacher's struggle, so what to do? A lot of policy makers might throw darts at my picture, and a lot will agree, but the answer is to teach less.
No one can cover all the material required by state curriculum design: no one. If a teacher does, then it was covered so fast that no one learned anything. So instead of going through the curriculum and seeing how far you can get, why not choose the most important parts and teach them in depth, providing age relevant context? Do you know why students do better in standardized tests when you cover less? I wonder how many readers have figured out why this is true?
Finally Your comment shows a lot of passion for learning.If you can create that same love of leaning in your students, you needn't worry. They will be lifetime learners and find all the context they need as they make their passage through life.
Best of Luck
Rick Curwin

Octavio Rodriguez's picture
Octavio Rodriguez
High School Teacher, Hoffman Estates

I have found that when I give my students to many rewards that are physical instead of other forms they tend to expect it all the time. What I mean by physical is candy. I always have so much candy that has been inspected after Halloween and since I don't want to ruin my kids teeth I tend to take three months supply of candy with me to school. I use that candy when playing review games as a price for winning the game. I also pit side vs side and the winner get candy as well as participation points. But when I run out and we play games for a simple review they will ask me after the game is done "Mr. R where is our candy" I guess I condition them to think they would get candy each and every time. I have other rewards when it comes to being able to choose their seat in the class. The person that has the highest score can change seats when ever want and bump out someone that is sitting in the seat they want. This a great incentive for the top students and always keep the competition high in the class. Over all I tend to use review games that use student feedback and immediate response to keep them engaged. I still used candy as a reward here and there and always buy a big box for those that have the top 3 scores in the class after a test.

Julie Ann McGovern's picture
Julie Ann McGovern
Teach 7th and 8th grade Language Arts in LaGrange, IL

Yes, I know the title I gave this post seems to indicate that I never use rewards. But I try to use them sparingly, and at least not consistently. In that I agree with Carlene -- rewards should be random.

But I disagree with the comparison of grades to paychecks. To me (and can I invoke the name of Alfie Kohn?), grades also serve as rewards. I teach middle school, and many students come to class knowing what grade they -- or, more likely, what grade they know their parents want to see -- and work just to get that grade. It is very tough to tap that intrinsic motivation, but I try with every group of students I get by putting them in charge of much of the class. We collaborate on nearly everything, and peer pressure often works better than I can in getting student buy-in. Students lead discussions and activities, making them proud of their contributions.

Plus, every year students work in groups on a Holocaust project they create (they read novels and participate in lit groups and other student-led activities first). The rule is that the project must address one of our four lessons of the Holocaust and have lasting impact outside the classroom: in other words, no posters allowed. In the three years I have done this, students have contacted legislators, produced fundraisers, built permanent displays, and given public presentations, among other large-scale projects. The best part? No one has ever asked how the project is graded. Which is good. The skills they learn cannot be measured and have never been graded.

Keep in mind that this project comes after six months of class. It's a long climb, but each year I feel good that I get students to do at least one thing without a carrot being dangled in front of them.

maureen russell's picture

I think that your methods of reward are misguided and archaic. Please research collaborative learning models.

Mr.Brown's picture

As a student I rarely received a sticker for behavior and as a teacher I was taught to use stickers, stamps and candy as a reward to balance negative consequences, thereby giving students a choice. Teaching a kindergarten class for 45 mins. once a week left little time to waste on inappropriate behavior so rewards were a successful tool which did not work as students grew older. To get a 5th grade boy to dance the waltz with a random 5th grade girl went way beyond a sticker system. I addressed it as a challenge and acknowledged successful dancers by their abilities and I increased the challenge by expanding the participants to other 5th and 6th grade classes, looking for the best dancers in the school.
Although I rarely received stickers in school I was challenged to behave well by a very smart teacher who turned my blurting out into a contest which challenged me, redirected me and changed me by working with me in a positive manner where I was not discliplined but helped. I used her system when I became a teacher and turned into an app years later. The intrinsic reward I gained as a child continues to benefit me today.

Mr.Brown's picture

What if every child ever taught would pay 1% of their yearly salary to the teacher(s) of their choice when they began their working careers? Would this have an effect on teacher / student relationships? Would more teachers push students to be Doctors and Lawyers? I bet no child would be left behind .

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