Rewards and Punishments

I’m always surprised and disappointed when educators I respect support the use of rewards and punishments to control student behaviour.

Whenever I feel like my students are “misbehaving” or not behaving as expected or agreed, it’s usually because I’m “misbehaving” or not behaving as expected or agreed. Sound odd? Perhaps, but think about this for a minute. When something goes wrong, i.e. not according to plan, it’s usually because the kids have responded in unexpected ways to what I’m teaching or presenting to them. Unless I’m prepared to handle these contingencies I can lose focus of the lesson and the children. I find that the best way to deal with these “disruptions” isn’t to control behaviour through carrots and sticks but rather to take a deep breath and think about what may be causing the problem. Often the cause has to do with one or more of the following: how I’ve presented the lesson (it’s confusing, not challenging enough or too difficult, not relevant to what they’re ready or interested in learning), something is buzzing among the children that I’m not aware of, sometimes they just need a shift (same ‘ole, same ‘ole mentality has kicked in), or everyone is tired, including me.

Children respond to us and we, in turn, need to respond to them. Instead of looking inwardly (at ourselves), we look outwardly (to our students) and react by imposing discipline charts, or tokens that must be earned/taken away depending on the behaviour of the students. Yes, the behaviour may improve for a while but so did behaviour improve when children were taught procedures and the lessons were inviting and relevant to them. Behaviour improved when the children were taught, through modeling and identifying noteworthy examples, the value of respecting and treating each other with kindness. Behaviour improved when, as adults, we took the time to examine what was not working and took teaching steps to change it. Using tokens or rewards and punishments only sends children the message that they need to be controlled by someone else rather than teaching them how to regulate their behaviour depending on the circumstances. I tell my students that it’s when I’m not around that doing “the right thing” counts.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with me? Why? What are your thoughts on rewards and punishments?

10 thoughts on “Rewards and Punishments

  1. I think it is always good to consider the full picture, rather than trying to go with the quickest, easiest answer that may not be the best for the long term.


  2. You open a line of thought that will stay with me all day. Certainly I experience this at test time, say–when all my students don't do well on an exam, I immediately wonder how my teaching was lacking, or how I could have taught it more completely. I seem to skip over the fact that maybe many did poorly because they made choices to lead them to this consequence (too many shifts at work, not enough study time, no studying at all!). I think, in my case, that the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes.

    Interesting post–thanks.
    Elizabeth E.


  3. I like the way you weave these two aspects of punishment and reward together. Creative.
    My school has a great number of students with discipline issues and like academic issues, both need a thorough examination of what lies beneath. As well as what is the point of view of the person labeling something a problem.


  4. I think you are right about rewards and punishment. When do children learn the value of intrinsic motivation and the satisfaction of a job well done if we are always giving them “something”? It's hard to assess your own behaviors to know that you are the cause of the misbehavior. You have expressed it so clearly. Good job, pushing my thinking!


  5. I agree that we as teachers need to look inwardly at ourselves for why students behave the way they do. Thanks for posting because it is a reminder that I need to look at myself to see what I need to do better. I don't use charts or tokens, but I try to use praise. My only question is how do I help students who consistently want to yell out all of the time?


  6. Mrs. V,
    Yes, that was one of the things I was trying to say: we do need to consider all aspects when something we do doesn't work, rather than put the blame on students. Quick fixes tend to control situations temporarily; I try to look for more permanent solutions that help develop children's intrinsic motivation.


  7. Hi Elizabeth,
    Yes, I agree that children need to be held responsible for their choices at the same time that we examine our own decisions that may have influenced a particular outcome. I always tell the children that learning in the classroom is a two-way street. I have the responsibility to teach and they have the responsibility to learn. I can't make them learn. I can only create the environment and the experiences that will engage and capture their curiosity so that they end up wanting to find out more to extend their learning.


  8. Becky,
    The point of view of the person labelling something as a problem is critical, in my opinion. Often the labelling turns into blaming and whining – been there, done that. I want something different that will help me teach better so that my students learn better.


  9. Hey2Teacher,
    For the past couple of years I have been working with my students on what I call, for lack of a better term, “conversation protocol”. For starters, save on very rare occasions, my students do not raise their hands when we are having a class discussion or I am teaching something on the carpet. Rather, I talk about how people usually carry on conversations – taking turns, staying on topic, agreeing courteously, backing off when more than one person starts to speak, etc. Although, it doesn't eliminate “calling out” (adults do this in a typical conversation) but it does call children's attention to how to handle this when it happens. I have decided I need to write about this because it is something that I believe in strongly and have been tweaking over the past couple of years with my students. Your question made me think about this again.


  10. I work with very young children and the question I always ask myself when I feel myself saying or thinking “no” is “what changes should I be making?” I find that when my students are misbehaving or having trouble interacting in a responsible way, it is usually because I haven't provided the right guidance or supports to do so.


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