The ultimate reward

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Put your reward stickers away, says Sue Cowley, there are other ways to motivate young children


Sue Cowley

When you are trying to get children to do something, it is very tempting to use extrinsic rewards to motivate them. ‘If you eat all your dinner, you can have some pudding.’

The problem with extrinsic rewards, though, is that the child starts to expect the reward as a right, rather than behaving because they see the purpose behind the behaviour. If we focus too much on extrinsic rewards, eventually the child asks, ‘What do I get if I do that?’

The reward has become the point of the behaviour, rather than the behaviour coming from an intrinsic motivation. To get to intrinsic motivation, we have to take the time to discuss why a child needs to do something, rather than using a treat or a bribe.

Extrinsic rewards tend to set child against child: they give the impression that behaviour and learning are a competition that only some can win. ‘Look how well behaved/hard working you are!’ the sticker says, with the implication that you did better than all the others.

The messages become even more confused, because as educators we often give the most extrinsic rewards to those who struggle most with behaviour. Whenever a struggling child takes a small step forwards, we quickly reward them in an attempt to keep them on track.

For children who behave intrinsically, this must feel confusing. Why is he being rewarded for that tiny thing, when I always behave myself without it? If we can learn to see behaviour and learning as an individual process, then verbal praise or gentle encouragement are often all we need to keep each child on track.

At our setting we don’t use stickers, star charts or certificates. And, funnily enough, the children and parents don’t seem to miss them. We feel the ultimate reward is for our children to experience joyful play, and the learning that comes through it. We give lots of feedback to parents, but not in the sense of ‘Your child is good because he did this’.

Feedback is about the next steps each child needs to take, both in the curriculum and in learning how to regulate their behaviour. So put your stickers away – start with the child, and focus on the beautiful reward that is the joy of learning.

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