Saturday, December 8, 2012

Do We Get a Prize?

Accomplishment can be its own reward.
I've been amazed and surprised at the power of rewards. By that, I mean that my kids are obsessed with them. And I don't even give any out.

A few weeks ago we were working in literacy centers. It was time to transition to something else, so I told the first graders to clean up. My kids sometimes need a lot of "verbal encouragement" to clean up. So I was walking around the room, telling them...reminding specific instructions for cleaning up their spaces.

One group of girls had created a display of books along one of the boards. (I think they were pretending to be in a library or bookstore.) These girls worked hard to clean up quickly and put all the books immediately back where they belonged. Since I'm a big believer in thanking and recognizing hard work, I went specifically to each of these girls. "Thank you for working hard and putting away the books. You did exactly what I asked and have moved back to your desk. Thank you." The response? "Do we get a treat/prize?" Uh, no.

This week we were working on a reading/writing/compare and contrast type of activity. We were reading about kids helping in different ways all around the world. We were comparing/contrasting how the kids were helping in the photos in our reading as well as comparing/contrasting how we help. "On the back of your page," I said, "list ways you help at home, at school, and in the neighborhood. Let's see how many you can get." The kids went to work. "Do we get a prize?" some asked. One boy showed me his list and told me how many he listed. "Great!" I said. In the days since then, he's told me that I said I would give him a prize and he wanted to know when he would get it. Uh, I didn't say that.

My school has fundraisers and gives prizes for kids who raise different levels of money. The firefighter who came to our grade gave them a "homework" assignment to check smoke detectors...with a treat or reward for any kids who brought back the paper indicating that they did it. But I don't have a prize box or give rewards. I do comment on hard work and effort. I note what the kids did, making specific statements about what I saw and heard. But I don't give out prizes. Maybe something that's a special treat for everyone...but that's rare and not in response to certain behavior.

But my kids continue to ask about them. I usually just say no and move on. But the power of them is the same. I want my kids to clean up because that's what people in a community do. (And our class is a community.) I want them to work hard because that's how learning happens. Prizes and rewards may be nice, but they are not real results from doing. (Just my opinion, FWIW.)

And the fact that kids ask, "Do we get a prize?" indicates to me that they may not have much motivation inside to complete the task or much feeling of accomplishment when they do it. I'll keep trying to recognize hard work for its own merit. It's harder than just buying lollipops but so much more worth it.


  1. I so agree! I tried a prize box with a group I had once that was difficult to work with (great kids, but their ages & personalities together OR SOMETHING) wasn't working out so well and we had issues. Everyday a certain child would have a fit if she didn't get a prize. So DONE with that. No more. There's something to be said for hard work, the feeling of motivation and accomplishment. I'm not sure how exactly to teach that except by example. You're right on this.

  2. I work in a Montessori school and it is a part of our philosophy that children have to learn to be intrinsically motivated to do something, rather than relying on extrinsic rewards for behaviour or work. Those who have come through from nursery don't question it. Those who join us later find it hard to believe that the teachers don't control the behaviour/work of the class by rewarding or punishing. It takes a long time to break down that assumption that worth is given by adults not by a child to themself. I see it has started to sink in when a child is happy to have done a piece of work well and his/her reward is a feeling of satisfaction. I see it when a child takes it upon him/herself to tidy up a mess because it is "our" classroom, not the teachers. There are countless other ways seeing it but you know it when you see it. A child's self worth has to come from him/herself. Not from me. My biggest challenge sometimes is helping a child find things that s/he can revel in without any outside intervention. You are so right - the effort is worth it.

  3. Interesting read Scott! Sad that so many children are only motivated by the prize. I did a prize box once upon a time but I don't see the merit anymore. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I completely agree! I teach Grade 1 / 2 and have never given prizes... although I did used to have a trophy that I moved from table group to table group while the kids are on task..... no one got to take it home, but maybe it was still like a prize? huh....

  5. An interesting report was publicised this week on the BBC. It was saying that young, middle class adults are having breakdowns because they have never had to face failure before. All through their childhoods they have had parents and teachers who have prevented them from being in situations where they might experience failing at something and have, conversely, become accustomed to being rewarded constantly for "normal" achievements. Once these children got to university and their first jobs, where they have to be competitive and work without reward, or even recognition sometimes, they have no intrinsic sense of worth or achievement and fall apart. It seems to me, it is enormously important that the "normal" things that people do, whether they are adults or children would be easier to do if the person didn't need reward, recognition or even thanks for "normal" work. We are not giving our children a fair upbringing otherwise...

  6. Thank you for your post. This prize thing has become an entitlement for children and they expect it in everything they do. What will they be like when they grow up if they always get a prize for doing something.

  7. I agree with your philosophy and teaching style. I am an Occupational Therapist ( and I seldom hand out prizes in my clinic. I have stickers; but I forget to use them because I do not use rewards as incentives. Pride in themselves is what I want my clients to take away with them. Self-confidence is such a great motivator! Thanks for your post. I just found your blog and am looking forward to a lot more great "reads!"