Behavioural rewards – the antibiotic of primary education

Having worked in primary education for many years now, I am confident that within 20 min of working with kids I can spot those that have been weaned on stickers and treats to reward their hard work. And it drives me nuts!

When I first started teaching in the UK in the late 90’s behavioural rewards were the cure all for everything that was wrong with inner city problem kids and disaffected learners. Naturally, knowing nothing better I used them myself. In my first year of teaching in a rough UK inner city school it was my go to ammo and it worked for a while. But simply put all I was doing was creating a culture of extrinsic motivation and compliance, that was severely detrimental to learning. So when I still see them being used by teachers these days it gives me a sinking feeling.

A turning point in my practice was an article by Shirley Clarke entitled “Raising Children’s Self Esteem.”  Although a little dated around the edges, it’s a good read on the subject of external rewards (you will even see reference to Carol Dweck’s early work before it became the trendy Fixed/Growth Mindset bestseller).

I will add that on the odd occasion in severe behavioural cases, extrinsic rewards have their place, however they must be used very sparingly and replaced as soon as possible by equipping children with internal coping strategies. If it’s one thing we know about learning it is that we have moved on from Pavlov’s dog!


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