Are Kids Punished by Rewards?

I recently read the book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, ‘A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn, a noted author and outspoken critic of traditional education, including grades, test scores, and homework. Much of what he says is in agreement with the Montessori approach to education.

As I read, I thought about this question: In Montessori, we often talk about the harm of external rewards, but are we using them without realizing it?

Alfie Kohn’s definition of “reward” is broad. He considers grades themselves to be a reward (which means that giving kids money or gift certificates for grades is a reward on top of a reward). He also considers punishments to be the flip side of rewards, and just as damaging when it comes to motivating people.

According to Kohn, our current general strategy for managing people (from students to workers) is, “Do this and you’ll get that”. We often motivate children by dangling rewards in front of them. The rewards seem to work quite well in the short term.

Kohn cites many studies that show that rewards are generally not effective when it comes to changing long term behavior. Most people who complete a task specifically for a reward (like a child who reads books for a summer contest at the library) cease to perform that task once the reward is gone. Not only that, but they often consider the task to be unpleasant once they receive no reward for it.

Using Rewards in the Classroom

He quotes one (non-Montessori) teacher who said, “But stickers are just so easy!” Sure, a group of children may be quiet during class for the promise of stickers, but that “easy” solution doesn’t address underlying problems (Are they being asked to sit for too long? Is the material not presented in an engaging way?) and most people don’t want to think through the situation to find a more creative solution.

We don’t use stickers in Montessori, but sometimes we do use non-material rewards. I’ll give one example. In my Montessori training, I was told that while conducting line time, if the children aren’t paying attention, choose one child that is sitting quietly and draw attention to them: “Look at how nicely Billy is sitting!” By focusing the attention on the good behavior, you are encouraging the other children to also behave, and the well-behaving child serves as a model to them. It’s positive peer pressure.

According to Kohn, this kind of classroom management tactic is rewards-based. The “reward”, in this case, is the attention of the teacher and the verbal acknowledgment of the good behavior. It fosters a sense of competition, which is detrimental to the classroom atmosphere. Kohn says this scenario is an example of how you can reward someone without using a concrete “reward”.

Children and Rewards

Many of us use logical consequences both at home and in the classroom. The work of Rudolph Dreikers is often cited as the basis of this approach. But according to Kohn’s definition, any consequence manufactured by the adult is a reward or punishment.

In other words, we may tell a child, “If you can’t do your work quietly, you will not go on the field trip”. From Kohn’s perspective, this is using the reward/punishment scenario. If they are quiet, they get to go on the field trip. If they are not, they don’t get to go.

This system is behavior-based, and inherently false, since nothing about the child’s loudness is actually tied to the field trip. We created the false connection between the behavior and the consequence. Mr. Kohn would find this type of logical consequence to be more harmful than helpful.

Sometimes there is a consequence built in to the child’s behavior. For example, if they do not keep their room clean, they may not be able to find something when they need it. If they break something valuable they need to pay for it. In these cases, the adult response should be: nothing. There is no need to add a consequence on top of the (true) natural consequence that already occurred.

Is Kohn Right About Rewards?

Mr. Kohn’s theories are not without detractors. Some claim that he simplifies behaviorism to make it easier to destroy; others point to neurological evidence that we are hard-wired for rewards, which promote helpful behaviors like obeying laws and following social mores.

Mr. Kohn says our current philosophy of “do this, get that” is nothing more than “pop behaviorism”, yet others (rightly) point out that humans have been motivated by rewards for centuries, long before scientists starting observing (and rewarding) rats in cages.

What Can We Do?

I don’t think we can ever get away from rewards, and I don’t know that we have to. If a salary is a reward (and Kohn says it is), then all of us are working for rewards regardless of the internal satisfaction that our jobs bring. Every day, our behavior is rewarded or punished. Run a red light, get a ticket. Make a delicious meal, receive a compliment. A world with no rewards or punishment would quickly fall apart.

When it comes to children, we can steer away from rewards by giving feedback rather than praise, avoiding grades and test scores, and letting them feel the effects of natural consequences whenever possible—and still there are times when we will reward or punish them for what they’ve done.

Being aware of the rewards conundrum is often enough to make us re-think our approach to misbehavior. Mr. Kohn suggests some other responses instead of rewards and punishments:

1. We can talk to the child and tell them what they did was wrong and how to change their behavior.

2. We can examine the behavior and try to find the underlying cause. Is there something we can change about the situation? Are we contributing to it in any way? Is the child trying to communicate to us through their (wrong) choices?

3. Have the child evaluate their own behavior. How do they think they are doing? Are they improving in any areas? What can they work on?

4. What can we change about the situation? I found this write up (not from Kohn’s book) called No More Logical Consequences that shows what happens when the focus shifts from rewards/punishments to finding solutions. It’s very thought-provoking.

Kohn calls this approach “working with” rather than “doing to”. And he urges parents and teachers to keep in mind their long term goals for children, such as helping them grow into responsible and caring people, rather than on short-term goals, such as obedience.

Is this always enough? I don’t know that it is. Some situations call for a bit of behaviorism. But I do like the idea of cutting out rewards as much as possible, and focusing on the underlying causes of misbehavior. What do you think?

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22 Responses to “Are Kids Punished by Rewards?”

  • Psmontessori said at August 17th, 2009 at 3:11 pm :

    I have read this book and am currently reading Kohn’s Beyond Discipline. Here’s my two cents. At one point in Punished by Rewards, Kohn points out that the reason we tend to use rewards/punishments is because they do give temporary compliance.

    Because of this, I believe, we have built social norms around it and often revert back to doing it when desperate. I’m absolutely guilty of it. I think it’s more important to be aware of the “dangers” of rewards/punishments for children than it is to necessarily follow this code perfectly. After all, we’re human and make mistakes.

    As Montessorians, it’s easy to forget that other schools do not function the way that we do. Most people don’t know that feedback is more useful than praise. So, I think this book is really eye opening to a lot of traditional teachers. For me, it’s a good reminder about bad habits that come easy – like pointing out good behavior in front of the class. (My trainer specifically told us NOT to do that, but I still catch myself doing it!!) Following Kohn’s edict is hard. He admits it too. But, it’s worth the effort.

  • Lori Bourne said at August 17th, 2009 at 5:12 pm :

    I was interested to note that Kohn only has one child. I wondered how his use of rewards might change or increase if he had more than one 🙂

    It’s so ingrained in our culture that is does take deliberate thought to avoid the reward/punishment scenario. Like you, I’m trying!

    When I posted this link on my Facebook page, there were some great responses. Here are a few:

    From Linda: “It’s hard to avoid but it necessary in order to instill a satisfaction in a job well done – intrinsic value.”

    From Melissa: “Satisfaction in a job well-done should come from within the child. Intrinsic value does not have to be tangible. And yes, this is rewarding!”

    From Kelley: “This is such a controversial topic for me, I keep writing a comment then erasing half of it because my head is going in 20 different directions. I personally am not sure how I feel about this since we live in a reward-based society.

    We as Montessorians don’t typically use stickers because those are silly rewards, and are not meaningful. In this day and age children receive trophies just for signing up for soccer, they see rewards/ bribes everywhere. “Why does daddy work so late?” Well because he needs to work hard so his boss can recognize his achievements and reward him with a bonus/ raise so we can continue to live in our house/ take our vacation.

    Children don’t have to be rewarded but I think they do have to be acknowledged for their hard work and making good choices. I think there is a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. There are some many real life situations that I can think of that support both sides. I guess I’ll just need to ‘follow the child!'”

  • Melanie Howard said at August 17th, 2009 at 6:36 pm :

    Wow, this is very interesting and thought provoking. Not being from a Montessori background, I have not thought of this before. My kids are doing great in traditional school (I’m not saying that to mean they are doing better/worse than they would in Montessori…it is just all we know) and all of their teachers do use “marble jars”, stickers, treasure box, etc. for good behaviors.

    It seems to work out really well in the classroom, but I do notice then some disparity between how they behave at school and at home. Even if I attempt to do a sticker chart at home (please don’t hate me 🙂 it doesn’t seem to hold the same weight as in school.

    Thanks Lori, I will be thinking on this for a while. I enjoy being rewarded for hard work or an accomplishment, is that wrong? The reward is not the main reason that I do something though…

  • Lori Bourne said at August 17th, 2009 at 6:52 pm :

    It’s great that you’re thinking about this issue, Melanie! What you’re asking about actually goes to the foundational differences between Montessori and traditional school. In traditional school, the main goal of the teacher is usually control of the classroom, and in Montessori it isn’t.

    Not to say that Montessori teachers want chaotic classrooms (they don’t), but that they allow a lot of freedom (both freedom of movement as well as freedom of choice) and the controls come from the children’s engagement in working with the materials. There’s no need to bribe them to get them to complete their work.

    I like rewards too…but mostly intangible ones, like the feeling of satisfaction after completing a task (checking off a box on my to-do list is one of my favorite rewards) and seeing my family happy after a delicious meal (whether or not they say anything about it).

    There’s a reason that children in traditional school settings often stop reading after they leave school, or even more sadly, stop learning. It’s become such a carrot-and-stick process that they have never experienced the joy of learning just for learning’s sake.

    Kohn cites many interesting studies, one of which asked people if they would rather have a job that is boring but pays well, or a job that is interesting and challenging that doesn’t pay as well. Overwhelmingly people said they would rather have the interesting job…but often people are driven by other factors when they choose a job, like the pressure of providing for a family, so they choose the boring/high salary job instead of one they’d really enjoy.

    When you are attuned to rewards, you will start to see them everywhere and then you’ll begin to wonder if they develop children’s long term abilities to make good decisions without being enticed to do so.

    Keep thinking about it!

  • Gypsy said at August 17th, 2009 at 8:01 pm :

    I love Alfie Kohn, although I have some trouble putting into practice, as its just so ingrained! There are some great books by Louise Porter who works in this unconditional parenting framework in terms of pre-school education, she has done a lot of research in Australia on it. While its not specifically Montessori it is fascinating reading.

  • Collette said at August 18th, 2009 at 8:02 am :

    Thank you for this. I am not a teacher, but often feel like we live only by rewards and punishment in my house. I am interested in reading the book “No More Logical Consequences” that you mentioned.

  • Lori Bourne said at August 18th, 2009 at 8:49 am :

    Thanks for the link, Gypsy! I will look into Louise’s research.

    Collette, I am so glad you’re interested in the book. I highly recommend it. At the very least, it’s extremely thought-provoking! Hopefully you’ll have a chance to read it.

  • Rafael Piovesan said at August 23rd, 2009 at 6:41 pm :

    I just read the topic and the coments and would like to expose some of my thoughts about it.
    (Sorry if my english is not perfect, but it is not my native language)

    “humans have been motivated by rewards for centuries, long before scientists starting observing (and rewarding) rats in cages.”
    True… but one thing does not exclude the other. That is always how it happens. You watch something, think about it and then promote some sort of change. But to be able to watch it, it needs to happen. The fact that “humans have been motivated by rewards for centuries”, just gives us a notion about how hard it will be to change this, and how long that will take.

    ” A world with no rewards or punishment would quickly fall apart.”
    Its utopic to remove rewards and punishments from our world like that. But to me its is all about love and good will. if children learn to do good (to them and others) because its good insted of to get a reward for it. Then thats just what they will pass on to others. A society filled with love and this way of thinking does not leave space for rewards or punishments. And that is also utopic. But we can at least start something towards that.

    Sorry if i could not make myself too clear… i did elaborate it better in my mind… But it was a bit hard putting it to words, specialy in english.

  • Alanna Fieffer said at August 25th, 2009 at 4:10 am :

    First of all, I agree with your statement that any consequence manufactured by the adult is a reward or punishment, and that in your field trip example there is no ‘logical’ connection between the loudness and the child not being allowed to attend the field trip. If you consider the main point behind the purpose of an adult imposing a consequence upon a child for ANY reason, you will find that there are actually very few circumstances under which there is any justification for imposing said consequence.

    Really, logical consequences are meant to be a sort of last resort teaching measure in the case where it is UNSAFE to allow a natural consequence to occur. With this in mind, the only circumstances under which a teacher SHOULD be imposing ANY consequence would be if someones safety is threatened by the child’s behavior – such as that child or a classmate or other child that could be in danger – and the child responsible for the dangerous act has not yet learned how to behave safely. That said, if there IS a safety issue involved, one would hope the teacher would be acting immediately to remove the danger and not wasting precious time with “If you xxx then yyy will happen” (now Johnny, if you continue to strike that child with a ruler in the eyeball, you will lose ruler priveleges) O.O!!

    Two of my children attend public school – we live in an area where the only options are public, Catholic, and homeschooling – which many parents shy away from because of the stigma that remains from older generations that homeschooling is a combination of lazy parenting and the desire to engage in extended vacations whenever the whim strikes. In one week I am about to embark on the stigma-strewn journey of homeschooling for many reasons – many of which are linked to the degree of control the teachers in the public school system seem to believe they have over not just the children in their care, but the child’s parents as well. Should I gain some confidence with this, I will be following suit with the other two shortly thereafter.

    Anyway, I realize I got off topic here. But I just wanted to share my 2 cents.

  • Lori Bourne said at August 25th, 2009 at 6:40 am :

    Hi, Rafael! When I said “A world without rewards would quickly fall apart” I was using the word “rewards” in its broadest sense, which according to Kohn even includes things like salaries. Kohn himself would agree that a world without salaries would not work. He does suggest things like including more self-evaluation when it comes to jobs (and salaries and bonuses) but even he doesn’t say you can do away with them.

    Alanna, I think that Kohn would say even in a situation where a child was endangering another child, there should not be a consequence or punishment. A child should be stopped from the action, and talked to about it, but most of all, the adult should be analyzing the situation to see what can change and what/why the child is acting that way.

    In that situation, I would just take the ruler away, not bother giving a “If you do this, this will happen” statement. Kohn might see that as a consequence, but if you think about it, even talking to a child about their behavior could be seen as a consequence…which is definitely something Kohn’s critics would mention when criticizing his conclusions.

  • Alanna Fieffer said at August 26th, 2009 at 2:39 am :

    While I can’t really wrap my brain around the concept of absolutely NO consequences I do think that society’s concept of tangible reward as being motivating and desirable is detrimental to a childs development. The deliberate instituting of any kind of reward as an incentive sets kids up for accomplishing things for the wrong reasons. Absolutely we should find ways to help our children desire accomplishment for its intrinsic value. Overt reward systems such as charts and stickers (yes, even those that do NOT revolve around monetary reward) only serve to teach children that they should ‘give’ for the purpose of ‘getting’ – not for the purpose of actually learning or experiencing personal accomplishment on a deeper level.

    As an example, the allowance system (in my opinion) used as a contingency on chores accomplished teaches children only to work only to earn. While they do need to realize eventually that we need money to survive (ie pay power bills and rent/mortgage), teaching them to work ONLY for materialistic gain denies children the opportunity to experience their full potential. That said, I DO believe in allowance specifically to teach money management and budgeting but it should not ever be tied to chores.

    Look at us as adults now (those of us who were raised with materialistic rewards). How many times do we promise ourselves tangible incentives in order to get motivated to do housework or a work related project? If we reach our goal we buy our chocolate bar or mocha or take our trip to the Bahamas, and when it’s all done/gone we are right back where we started crying about feeling empty and becoming workaholics in order to get the bigger, better reward at the end. If we do NOT meet our goal we focus on the failure. How many of us take the time to savour the little steps we DID accomplish? Rarely do we find our self talk sounding like “so I didn’t finish the project but MAN did I ever learn something about myself in the process!” No. Instead we feel like we failed. And THIS is what we set our own children up for by using reward systems.

    Uhh … in my opinion, anyway. Again with the getting carried away…..I guess this sparked more passion in me then I originally realized.

  • Tania said at September 2nd, 2009 at 8:17 pm :

    Great topic Lori!
    I have read 3 great books which deal with the topic of parenting respectfully without rewards/punishments.
    The first 2 are practical and simple to read. The 3rd one, PET, is more in depth (the psychology behind the theory).
    They are Sibling Rivalry, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk and PET (Parent Effectiveness Training).

  • adila said at January 17th, 2010 at 6:45 am :

    Hi! I was just reading all the comments. I would like to ask you one thing. I teach in a Montessori school and the kids are wild. Nothing seem to be working. So what should I do – reward them? Thanks a lot. Some info would be good.

  • Lori Bourne said at January 17th, 2010 at 7:08 am :

    Hi, Adila! Thanks for your question. No, we do not reward children in Montessori school. It sounds like you have not taken the Montessori training because classroom management is covered in depth in the training, so is there a Montessori-trained teacher at your school that could talk to you about that?

    We don’t “control” children in Montessori; we set up the environment properly and then give them direction and teach them grace and courtesy. I’ve written about grace and courtesy here (start with the first post at the bottom – you’ll want to read all the posts) and classroom management here. That’s a ton of info to get you started!

  • Carey Montgomery said at January 20th, 2010 at 6:13 pm :

    Try reading Kids Are Worth it! by Barbara Coloroso. It talks about the 3 R’s, logical and natural consequences in a way that even Alfie Kohn couldn’t disagree with. A logical consequence would be if, bobby lost his friend’s baseball mit then he would have to tell his friend he did, (own the problem) decide how we was going to redeem himself, work and buy his friend a new one. Work out how we would accomplish this task (retribution). It is hard to use the appropriate words to not attach our judgement/consequences. I recently took a class for my public school license and it talks about using I statements, I feel…when…. because….. I would like…. This is used to not pass judgement or use consequences but explain how to change a behavior that will help the child and the group as a whole.

  • Lori Bourne said at January 21st, 2010 at 9:39 pm :

    Thank you for your suggestion, Carey! I do like that idea and I agree, Kohn would probably see nothing wrong with that approach. Some situations lend themselves to real-life consequences more than others, which can make things difficult sometimes.

  • charlotte said at September 3rd, 2010 at 4:24 pm :

    I teach in a public school. PTA wants to be involved, which is a good thing. However, they want to be sure “every child gets a reward,” during the school year. They want to give awards such as “nicest smile,” “best Whatever…” I think this is a phenomenal waste of time and kids are far too smart to be impressed with getting that type of award.

    Any suggestions how to handle this?

  • Lori Bourne said at September 3rd, 2010 at 4:44 pm :

    Yes, the key here is parent education. If the staff is in agreement that this kind of reward is unnecessary and even damaging, simply talk to the parents about it at the next parent meeting. You can forward them information like this post if it helps.

  • phobelexx said at June 4th, 2012 at 2:07 am :

    A little manipulation is just like a little evil….it’s still manipulation and evil.

    See the following for more of an example:

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  • bnw said at August 3rd, 2012 at 7:07 pm :

    I was reading through the comments section after reading the article. One of the comments made me think about a situation that happened this past year with one of my students. The student was using the computer to research some animal (I can’t remember which one now). I had set him up on National Geographic’s kid webpage looking specifically at the animal he was wanting to research. I went to help another student at that point. After helping some other students I went back to check on the student. The student was playing a game linked from Nat Geo’s website instead of researching. I calmly said “Joe” you are done with the computer. He said okay, and stood up and moved on to another lesson. I feel like I gave a logical consequence for the student’s behavior, but I know that it’s not always that easy. I wish that every “misbehavior” had an equally, easy, logical consequence to implement. But after reading this, I guess my seemingly easy, logical consequence would be seen as a punishment….. I don’t know how to not give punishments then, and that is frustrating.

  • Lori Bourne said at August 3rd, 2012 at 9:37 pm :

    Your response in that situation was perfectly fine – just make sure that the students are completely clear on your expectations ahead of time and that they know what the consequence will be if they don’t comply.