During the just completed academic school year, I visited many different programs. One program in particular made an interesting change over the course of nine months and I was able to witness the before and after affects of this change. The program decided after many months of giving children rewards to remove that practice and return to children being intrinsically motivated in work and play.

At the beginning of the school year in the program I observed, rewards were being given out for almost every activity the children participated in. Children earned rewards for cleaning after their work, lining up, sitting quietly, choosing work, and so on. The children enjoyed getting rewards in the form of paper tickets they used to purchase toys and treats they earned for what was called “good behavior.”

Always having rewards created affects that included; children looking to follow an adult instead of interacting with peers, children only communicating with teachers effectively when rewards were available, children were overly quiet and passive, children had less motivation to work and play without teacher input, all activity was held hostage by a prize needing to be available for participation to commence. This pattern of behavior was consistent for many months.

Then a program change was made to offer no rewards to the children. The move away from rewards and the change in philosophy occurred in between my visits. During some following visits I noticed some new patterns of behavior that included; children having more conflict socially, children struggling with problem solving in work and play, children were more unsure of themselves, children did less activities and lacked a creative drive, the once calm classroom became very loud, and children lacked focus and motivation to find their own work.

A couple of articles I found share some of the same conclusions as I witnessed in this program. An article on PSYBLOG titled “How Rewards Can Backfire and Reduce Motivation” talked about a study by Mark Lepper at Stanford and David Greene at University of Michigan. In the study 51 children age 3-4 years and involved drawing. The children that participated in the study already liked to draw. The children were asked to draw and the received an expected reward, a surprise reward, or no reward at all.

After the test was complete the children were observed to see how much they would continue to draw on their own. The expected reward group drew less than half of what they did before and the surprise reward and no reward group performed about the same with the surprise group drawing a little more often.

On Edutopia an article titled “Six Reasons Rewards Don’t Work” by Dr. Richard Curwin shares why “It is best not to use rewards in academic and behavioral situations” and outlines the costs involved with this practice. The costs are outlined with words like Satiation, Addiction, Finishing vs. Learning, Manipulation, Pressure, and Control. The article outlines many of the behaviors I witnessed including; needing a reward to do an activity, refusal to work or participate without a reward, doing for the reward instead of pleasure or joy, children following this behavior when dealing with peers asking them for rewards to do something, children feeling inadequate if reward was not earned, play turned into a job, and children lacking the motivation to make their own choices.

The story continues. The wonderful thing about children is they are resilient. Later in the school year, just a few weeks ago, I was able to visit the program again. A handful of children are now working independently and becoming more accustomed to finding and creating their own work. I did not hear any children asking for rewards or say they missed them. Many of the children like working alongside the educators on projects that are created by children part of the time and adults some of the time. Some of the children are still finding their way and the educators are working hard to support the children who still are struggling with their intrinsic motivation.

The use of rewards is a personal choice. I know many programs use them and have done so for years. My personal education and training offered a different way to see children so I have not used rewards to motivate children. This topic is not about right or wrong. It is about how we view children and their capabilities to self motivate and develop a sense of discovery and wonder about life and the world around them. Does a toy, sticker, or candy make that experience better? I will let you decide.

Do you use rewards in your program? If so, what are the outcomes of offering rewards to the children?

What motivates the children in your program?