Rewards and Punishments Don't Intrinsically Motivate – These Things Do

Rather than teach them to overvalue the approval of others, we ought to teach them to follow their own quiet voice of guidance.

Yesterday, I ventured out into the world, a few days after Hurricane Irma stormed her way through Florida and left, not only people without power, but traffic lights, too. When I approached an intersection, I felt lost and unsure because I didn’t know how to move or when it was safe to go.
Knowing the rules, and trusting that everyone else observes them in the same way, provides a sense of security and competence. Without systems like these, our efficiency, comfort, and safety become jeopardized.
Magda Gerber, an early childhood educator refers to discipline as a social contract, which, like traffic signals, provides clear expectations and predictable environments. A system of rules, procedures, and values that the community agrees to makes life easier for everyone. For this reason, Magda Gerber said, “Lack of discipline isn’t kindness, it’s neglect.”
In the beginning of the school year, we talk a lot about the rules of our classroom, which all students agree to easily because they so clearly protect the well-being of everyone and promote a productive learning environment. We practice the procedures for coming into class, leaving class, going to the bathroom, walking down the hall, and so forth because – like me at that intersection – people want to know how to be safe and successful.
By the end of the first week, my students asked, “Are we going to have dojo points? Is there a treasure box? How about Fun Friday?” I told them yes and no. I believe in acknowledging accomplishments. I believe school should be a place where children want to go and that it’s important to incorporate fun into the classroom. So yes, we will celebrate regularly as a class, and no, there won’t be points to add or subtract.
The ultimate goal of discipline is self-discipline, which must be cultivated from within. The desire for points, or the fear of losing them, diverts internal guidance and makes children more externally motivated and dependent on outside control. My job is to teach expectations, practice procedures, hold discussions about our values, set limits, give feedback, and enforce the rules. But it’s also to stay out of the way and encourage the students’ independence and autonomy.
Over the summer, I read The Daily 5, which is a framework for structuring the literacy block so students develop lifelong habits of reading, writing, and working independently. I was surprised how adamant the authors are on the importance of staying out of the way:

[In the beginning] we did what we thought all good elementary teachers did. As the children were practicing Read to Self and building their stamina, we went around the room to each child, quietly telling them what a wonderful job they were doing as readers. We were proud of their ability to stay focused and believed that we needed to constantly reinforce on-task behavior. The first days our students read without our hovering reinforcement, their behavior fell apart. They were up and walking around and coming to us asking what they should do. We realized we anchored their behaviors in our reactions. We realized we unwittingly taught them to rely on our reinforcement to keep them on-task. They were not the least bit independent.

What did the authors do to correct this? Review the desired behaviors daily, give the students many opportunities to model them, stop the class as soon as someone practiced incorrectly, and reflect. It’s possible to hold children to very high standards without the use of rewards and punishments.
The experience of those authors applies to independence in general. I could give out points every time a student lines up quietly or starts a task promptly. I could move a color card higher each time a child acts with kindness. But rewards only motivate people to get rewards. Being a kind, responsible, and a contributing member of a community should be a reward in its own right. If I’m not around or the rewards aren’t forthcoming, where is the motivation to do the right thing?
In her book “Redirecting Children’s Behavior” Kathryn J. Kvols writes, “Rewards can interfere with the development of a sense of self-worth. Children may interpret being rewarded to mean they don’t need to do anything until there is something in it for them…. If you rely on rewards to teach children how you want them to behave, you deny them to learn from an internal source of motivation and strength.”
I want my students to do the right thing, but not because someone is watching, and not because they are going to earn or lose something. I don’t want them to act a certain way so they can make a trip to a treasure box. I want them to realize they have the power to make choices, and that their choices contribute to their happiness. It’s not up to someone else to provide a reward or punishment for their behavior. Behavior alone does that. This empowers children.
Misbehavior is often a child’s way of expressing a need. Maybe she’s asking for a limit or communicating that she hasn’t mastered a certain skill. When we take points away or move cards, we aren’t encouraging problem solving and communication. In this environment, children are more likely to feel discouraged or even angry and hide their mistakes. I want my students to learn that mistakes are inevitable, powerful teachers.
Even when rewards systems focus on positive behaviors, they create competition and stifle creativity. Many children spend time wondering what to do to “get to blue” or why someone else earned a point instead of them. Children typically want to please us. Rather than teach them to overvalue the approval of others, we ought to teach them to follow their own quiet voice of guidance.
“The question isn’t how to get children to obey,” writes Dr. Shefali Tsabary in her book “Out of Control”, “but what are the needs of the child?”
Below are 10 needs children have that I use to guide the way I run my classroom:

1 | Clear expectations that honor their age and nature

Third graders need to be social and active. For this reason, I incorporate movement and collaboration into the majority of our activities. Before we start an activity, I go over what the classroom should look and sound like while they work.

2 | A sense of control over themselves

For this reason, I offer choices within boundaries, which promotes inner discipline. For example, during Read to Self, the students may sit where they please and read material of their choosing, but they must begin right away, read the entire time, and stay in one spot.

3 | Consistency

A rule is always a rule, and it’s expected to be followed.

4 | Opportunities to practice

When I teach something, be it a skill or a procedure, I don’t just tell them what to do, I show them. I give them opportunities to practice and role play. Often, misbehavior is simply showing a lack of mastery. What’s called for in these cases is practice in the procedure or expectation, rather than guilt, shame, or punishment.

5 | Acknowledgment of their intentions

Although they require redirection, children should also have their true intentions acknowledged. For example, I might say, “Your friend is bothered because you’ve been violating his personal space. I know you’re usually very respectful, and that’s not your intention. Is there something going on?” Part of true discipline is cultivating positive self-talk in our children, not interfering with it.

6 | Chances to repair and solve

I believe in encouraging children to think through situations to come up with solutions. “What’s the problem? How can it be fixed? How can we prevent it from happening again?” Children are usually very insightful. If the problem regards a conflict between two people, we think of win-win solutions together.

7 | An understanding of why we do the things we do

It’s not about blind obedience. We do things in certain ways for important reasons, and these reasons should be communicated to create a sense of ownership over the rule or procedure.
When I go over the way we move in hallways, I explain the importance of being respectful to the people who work in the office and other classrooms. I tell them high-traffic times require us to move smoothly and in a way that allows other people to move, too. I also tell them it’s important for me to be able to give them directions in these situations. Cooperation is more likely when they understand why.

8 | Honesty

When we communicate authentically with our children, we model respect for ourselves and respect for them. From this place, we set limits that honor who we are.
We were walking to lunch recently, and the students were very chatty. It was hard for me to give them a direction. I told them, “I’m not willing to fight for your attention. Let’s go back to the room and review this procedure.” When we’re honest, we reveal parts of who we are, but not in ways that are flustered or emotional. This promotes connection and trust.

9 | Connection

I strive every day to give each of my students focused attention, even if it’s just for a moment or two. I want them to know I care about who they are and am interested in listening to them. Every child is important, and when they feel this, their need to misbehave in order to get attention decreases. I always thought, even with my own children, that cooperation is best won through closeness.

10 | True and meaningful learning experiences

Consequences for misbehavior should be respectful, reasonable, and related. For example, if a student doesn’t finish her classwork, it becomes homework. If a student makes a mess, he must clean it up. If she damages something, she must repair it. If he abuses a privilege, he loses it. If she’s off task while working in a group, she’ll work on her own. Natural and logical consequences are built in to just about every situation.
Discipline isn’t about controlling children, but teaching them to be self-responsible. Rewards and punishments are effective in gaining temporary compliance, but they don’t help kids become caring, responsible, and self-directed.
I firmly believe children don’t need to suffer to learn, and they don’t need external rewards to be motivated. They need a system that fosters respect between all community members, in which self confidence is the by product and joy is the reward of cooperation.