Conventional wisdom tells us we should use rewards, punishments and ignoring (a type of punishment) to make kids want to behave or comply with adult wishes. This behaviourist approach, reinforcing conduct we want and punishing conduct we don’t want, is routinely used by teachers and parents. Many of us were raised this way and it worked for us( we turned out ok) so it should work for our kids. Right? Not necessarily. During my 35 years of teaching and working as a principal I have seen the use of reward stickers, certificates, public praise at award assemblies, little prizes and lots of other creative extrinsic rewards used by teachers and parents to elicit the behaviour they want to see more of. I too have used these approaches and more with my classes, entire student body and my own children. Although I would not say don’t use little rewards any longer, I would say it is important to know what rewards, punishments ( consequences) do and don’t do. I would still like to give my grandchildren little rewards as a fun, playful activity or treat. I will not give a reward as a way of motivating longterm compliant behaviour or as an attempt to build character, honesty or problem solving skills.
Collaborative Problem Solving is supported by research that tells us giving rewards is not an effective way of teaching complex cognitive skills kids need to solve problems, reduce challenging behaviour or build relationships. In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” Daniel Pink writes that rewards, among other things, reduce intrinsic motivation, can become habit forming and develop a short term mindset. Punishments or consequences also do not teach the cognitive skills referred to above. Often the lesson an imposed consequence teaches is simply that the adult is bigger and stronger than the child.
A small number of schools across the United States and Canada are reexamining their use of rewards and punishments as motivating tools. One school in Missouri no longer gives out school bracelets for doing something right and has eliminated the monthly awards assembly. Instead they developed lessons in character development across all curriculum areas, provide private words of encouragement to students and initiated a service learning component to their curriculum where students would take in a project to help their school or community. Instead of handing out prizes teachers reached out to the kids through talking about what was important to them and their concerns and responsibilities. This was definitely a mind shift for the school community.
CPS also requires a mind shift. In many ways using Collaborative Problem Solving and the Plan B conversation with our children provides us an opportunity to find out what is really important to our children and engage them in solving problems and taking responsibility just as the school in Missouri is doing. We know that rewards and punishments do not teach the complex cognitive skills kids need (although some can be used to teach basic lessons to younger children). For long term skill building and problem solving it’s time to move away from the use of extrinsic rewards and consequences. CPS provides a road map for us to follow when working with our kids.