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?

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.