Bribery is a quick fix

Nancy Stewart
Monday, January 27, 2014

Does the 'bonus culture' belong in early years, asks Nancy Stewart

Motivation is a complex thing. Research shows that if you offer people a tangible incentive for doing a low-level, mechanical task you might get better performance. But try rewarding (or maybe bribing) people for any task that requires them to think and the results are worse. People do better when they believe in what they are doing, not when working for rewards.

What motivates children to learn? If it is their curiosity, their need to master new skills and their drive to do things for themselves, then this intrinsic motivation supports them to be strong learners. On the other hand, if they perform only for a sticker, a smiley face or the approval of others they are likely to become limited learners who avoid challenge - and become less motivated when there is no reward.

What motivates the adults who work hard to do their best for young children? Given the pitiful pay scale for early years practitioners, it's safe to say it isn't the money. Putting in the effort, the thought, the continual learning and emotional commitment requires motivation based on believing that it matters.

Offering bribes is growing in the world of early years, however. Currently, mothers in two areas are being given up to £200 in shopping vouchers if they breastfeed their babies. If the pilots work, this could go nationwide next year. In another two areas, pilots are running that pay parents up to £600 for attending classes on helping children with homework in primary school.

These financial incentives are risky. Maybe parents will turn up for classes, or breastfeed at least for a while. But these payments send the wrong message about being a parent.

The motivation throughout parenthood needs to be internal - wanting to do their best for a child - instead of asking 'What's in it for me?' Rewards lead to short-term compliance with somebody else's agenda, but parenting means making responsible decisions for the long haul.

And now the Government is providing £10,000 for each of 49 schools to pilot working with two-year-olds. This looks suspiciously like a bribe. Many schools have been reluctant to offer two-year-old places, and that sort of money won't be available later. We may get quick-fix new places, but will they be motivated by the best interests of the children?

Nancy Stewart is principal consultant at Early Learning Consultancy

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