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Six Reasons Rewards Don't Work

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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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.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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

Jim Berman's picture
Jim Berman
Chef Instructor working with 10th, 11th & 12th graders; Wilmington, DE

I think public praise, reinforced with, sometimes, a token of recognition goes a long way to instill pride. Promptly handled, at least with a high school bunch, makes for a dignified way to recognize skill in a particular area. Additionally, a proportional gesture keeps the reins taunt on creating an avalanche of empty 'high fives'. Can it be overused? Sure. And students can certainly see through bribes. There is a fine line between genuine and empty.

Bethany Cooper's picture

I currently teach in South Korea where the use of rewards and threats is extensive. Working in this context and observing the use of rewards taken to the extreme, I began to clearly recognize the consequences of such an approach. I appreciate that some of my hunches were articulated here! Addiction, finishing, and increased pressure are the obvious consequences I see.

I work hard to reduce the number of rewards in my classroom, but I do work with a co-teacher and it is not possible to eliminate them altogether. My main challenge is developing strategies to inspire students to learn without rewards within the context of a reward-heavy system.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

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.

If you truly believe that, Dr. Curwin, then you need to extend that belief to scrutinize this sickening push to use video games and cell phones in the classroom environment.

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

And in the back, near my desk in the back, I said, is not a globe. It's "The Globe of Happiness." After you push the northern hemisphere up you will see that inside The Globe of Happiness, in the southern hemisphere, is a whole bunch of candy that I discovered is real expensive to buy. Do good deeds. Say good things. Work hard, I said, and you'll get candy, and lots of it.

All eyes were now on The Globe of Happiness. Four of five of them, especially Spike, were already lurched forward, ready to leap out of their desks for an inspection.

I walked back there and lifted the northern hemisphere on a globe on a stand with wheels that's actually a bar. The southern hemisphere holds ice for adults who drink cocktails.

Three kids, at that special moment in the early history of The Cozy Room of Learning, said that I was their favorite teacher. Spike said he'd catch a bullet for me anytime, and at this school, he said, it could be any day.

I think bribing kids with wads of Snickers, Butterfingers, Smarties, Twix, Milk Duds, Milky Ways, Blow Pops, Gobstoppers, and Chupa Chups, Twizzlers, Swedish Fish, Dum Dum Pops, M&M's, Sour Patch Kids, Tootsie Rolls, and bubble gum cigarettes, to do and say nice things is fine because it works.


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

Hi todd,

I sense a bit of desperation in you because rather than talk about a very complex issue, you choose to denigrate a highly respected and accomplished educator, who you should have studied in college. I'm sure you would not tolerate your students behaving in a similar fashion.

I do understand. Being a new teacher teaching autistic children is an overwhelming responsibility and every day is difficult. It's logical to support anything that "works," and gets you through the day. I felt the same way when I taught severely emotionally disturbed 7th grade children. I even had to deal with a suicide attempt right in my classroom when a child hung himself in my closet. I was able to find him before he died, but he had severe brain damage for the reminder of his life. I think about him often and hope somehow he is living a decent life.

Did you know that teachers of autistic children do not go to heaven. They go to a place even better. I teach my students that, because of the wonderful and difficult work of these heroes.

While there are overwhelming reasons not to use rewards on most students, the most important to me is that it removes the ability to make choices free of manipulation, and live a responsible life. However, I also teach that if students are not able to live independently, to marry, raise children, or hold a job requiring decision making, Then rewards are a helpful tool because they can do no harm. If your students fall into that category, as many autistic children do, then I agree with the use of rewards.
Francis Fuller of the University of Houston did a critical study on the progression of teachers through their development. Teachers in stage one, years 1-3 are more concerned with self (their need to succeed) and how they are viewed by students. After three years there is a gradual trend to stop looking at self and start looking at students. It's like learning to drive a shift car, you can't look at the road until you master the clutch and shifter. I predict things will change for you as you move through these predictable stages.

Thank you for taking on such an important and under appreciated task and I hope you learn that denigration of a source is contrary to the goals of educators

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation

It's always good to see articulate and respectful disagreements here. It's another thing when people start down the path of name-calling and petty swipes. If you all want to continue in this discussion, please keep it civil. If you don't, I'll delete. Thanks in advance.

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Anytime scientists poll teachers on what makes them so happy to perform the most dangerous work on Earth, I think the scientists are always amazed that being paid a load more money is not at the top of the list. What's at the top of the list of any profession is being recognized by your superiors for the good job you do.

I think that crazy notion goes for students, too, especially when they're trying to figure out the whacky meanings of the short stories of J.D. Salinger, especially a story he published way back in the last millennium, "Just Before the War with the Eskimos."

When I asked Clutch what he thinks is the real reason Ginnie and Selena bicker like a couple of crows ... he got the answer right. I tossed a beautifully wrapped piece of Godiva chocolate at his head. I've never seen him smile so wide, but I had to look away when he started gnawing on it.

When I asked Peetie why he thinks Eric reached into his bathroom trash can to pull back out a dang razor blade ... well ... Peetie pretty much got it right. He got a Godiva chocolate thrown at his head, too.

I had nine chocolates left, and the class discussion deliciousness that teachers dream about went on for so long all the chocolates got eaten. I scrambled around in a couple of drawers. I found a paper clip and a nail.

Clutch answered correctly the question of why do you think Franklin seems like such a dandy. Clutch caught the paper clip I lobbed at him and observed it in his hand, with wide open-eyed delight, as if it were his first Varsity chili dog with onions.

Then came Kells. About why do you think Selena kept that dead chicken for so long, he told us what he thought. It wasn't correct. It was way far from correct, but he tried and he had been listening hard all week and I appreciate that. I tossed the heavy, four inch-long nail at him.

Kells missed it.

The nail clanked around on the top of his desk and then it fell onto the floor. Kells juked out of his desk after it. A dang nail. You would have thought he was chasing after a winning Powerball ticket.


Toni's picture

You know what - these ideas, Dr. Curwin, are so limited to rewards with catchall physical items. No, that is not going to always work. There are so many other things that are rewarding that do work. Yes, the reward of dreary cookie cutter possessions only goes so far and leads to the want for more "stuff" especially if the "stuff" is boring and can only be made better by having an increased amount of it. But you are leaving out the rewards of free time, social interaction, rest, general fun and also, the reward that lies in seeing one's work and how it has been put to good use. If you are going to use stuff as reward, the best physical items that work for that are functional that "keep on giving" and offer solutions to life obstacles like a bicycle or a car, shoes even, whatever is it may be that is personal to what the individual's needs are. This is the problem with classrooms, the catchall ideas that have done away with individuality. So yeah kids are going to get sick of stickers and candy. Candy will work for some things but will only go so far, not to say candy isn't appreciated either. I love candy. So do most normal people. But the problem also lies in that, the physical items not being fully understood and appreciated - but that comes with time and learning. For instance the show "How It's Made" is one of my faves and shows how that tube of toothpaste ends up in your bathroom and gives you a greater appreciation for where it came from and how you came to have it. Learning those kinds of things are a process and should be tackled with much patience and individualized always. This is why I'd like to see the shift away from classrooms to family oriented education the way things were done in the past. Classrooms don't work as well. What happened to this idea?

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

After she passed out a five page handout, our school psychologist with three degrees at the end of her name was the first to speak. She said she's been reading a lot of research about how it's bad to tell children they did a good job on something.

My common sense detector went off so loud I looked around the conference room to see if I was disturbing anybody. Our psychologist said it was recent research, but I looked at the first page of the handout and it was dated September, 2001. That's pretty much a whole long time ago. The kids are five days away and it's already insane around here--and it's even in writing.

The handout, by an eminent expert on education and parenting, said that there are five reasons why you need to stop saying "Good job!" Alfie believes you're manipulating children when you say Good job! He also believes you're creating praise junkies and that you're stealing a child's pleasure. Alfie says kids will lose interest in whatever they're doing when you say Good job! And finally, while my BS detector was about to explode, Alfie says praising kids will eventually barf on their will to continue to achieve. The whole time we're going through this recent research I was handing Miss Kentucky to my left, and Coach Hank to my right, little stickers I had brought with me to the meeting for giggles. The stickers said "You did well!" and "Great job!" and "Way to go!" and "Keep up the good work!" I had even brought a bunch of scratch-and-sniff Thanksgiving stickers that smelled like cinnamon and apple pie. Miss Kentucky said they smelled like her childhood ... in Kentucky.

Everybody kept looking at us. They were wondering why we were giggling so much while we were talking about ancient research, newly embraced by our school psychologist with a PhD. While I'm smacking my gum I'm thinking, We're supposed to help these kids ... right?


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