Rewards and Vacuous Praise

Think back to your days in the elementary (or even secondary) classroom. I’m willing to bet that most of you will be familiar with some version of the controversial reward chart as exemplified above. What are your thoughts? Do rewards work? What has been your experience with rewards in the classroom? Go ahead and think about this for a minute before you read on. 


Pintrest board on reward systems.

My Grade 2 Experience:
I distinctly remember the day my grade five teacher decided to implement a “Merit Points” system in our classroom. There was a blank chart on one of the the side walls with each of the student names listed in rows, and empty boxes for check marks next to each name. Our teacher explained that these points will be very difficult to earn and would only be awarded for “exceptionally good behaviour”. None of us really knew what that meant, but I was interested in seeing how this would play out. 

After our return from recess that day, the class began filing in when all of the sudden Mr. R yelled, “EVERYBODY FREEZE!” And so we did – “Megan has earned her first merit point. She picked up a piece of garbage that wasn’t hers – WITHOUT BEING TOLD TO DO SO.” Man, I thought, if that’s what it takes to get these merit points I’d better pick up every single piece of garbage I see, but only when I’m not being told to do so. 

As the year wore on, Megan, a naturally kind-hearted person and good friend of mine, began accumulating more and more points. Eventually, there was no way to catch up. A large portion of the class had no points at all! Naturally, I stopped caring – what was the point? I was never going to get enough merit points to win the prize, and it didn’t matter if I did good deeds outside of the classroom because Mr. R was never going to see them anyway. 

What I Know Now:
I watched a lecture presented some years ago by Aflie Kohn  as a part of the MacClement Lecture Series at Queen’s University. To answer the question, “How do we create kind, compassionate, and caring children?” he asks us to consider the following question, “How can we destroy a child’s inclination to care?” The answer: competition and rewards. 

Grades, stickers, praises, money, are all forms of rewards commonly used by parents and teachers – these are thought to encourage positive behaviour when in fact research shows the opposite effect to be true. Providing extrinsic motivators (i.e. rewards) for what are inherently intrinsic values and behaviours (compassion, resilience, grit…) simply does not work! Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are inversely related. According to Kohn, research shows that children of parents who frequently use rewards tend to be less generous than their peers. 

Thinking back to my grade two classroom, the only thing that the Merit Points system did was reward the students who were already good. While I was motivated to “try” for a short period of time, I quickly reverted back to whatever I was doing before once I decided it was a waste of my time. 

Praise can be similarly perilous to your child’s development. If you are like me, you often get annoyed when others give you empty praises like, “Good job!”, “You’re awesome”, or “You’re so smart!”. Not only do praises like these provide no context or constructive feedback whatsoever, they can also be detrimental to a child’s confidence, grit, and self-esteem. This article (“How Not to Talk to Your Kids”) does a good job at explaining the basics. In general, kids who are praised for intelligence over effort tend to give up more easily on tasks that they believe they have no inherent talent for. Specific praises like, “I like that you moved on to the next question when you got stuck,” are key to providing students helpful strategies to succeed. 

In general, I think that rewards can act as good short term motivators for getting necessary but uninteresting tasks done and out of the way, like rewarding myself with candy for completing  chapter readings for a course I don’t enjoy for instance. However, in the long term, rewards can hinder a child’s development of good attitudes and behaviours and should generally be avoided.

Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well. – Judith Brook, New York University Professor of Psychiatry

For more information on this topic, I recommend reading more of Carol Dwek‘s Mindset Research.