Lewes New School does not use a reward system to encourage children, for the following reasons.
- We want our children to value learning as a rewarding activity in its own right. Reward takes away the intrinsic worth of the activity.
- We want to encourage children to be capable of self-evaluation, rather than depending exclusively on the valuation of others.
- Rewards are addictive, and become the reason for producing ‘good’ work.
- Rewarding desired behaviour puts the locus of responsibility outside the child, preventing the child from developing an inner locus of responsibility. The child may behave well while adults are around, but have no reason to behave well when adults are not present.
- When we give visible rewards (eg. gold stars), absence of the reward for another child may be perceived as punishment. If a child receives a gold star for one piece of work, and then nothing for the next, the child may experience this as punishment.
- Rewards create competition between children, and learning is a non-competetive activity. We want to keep competition as a separate learning experience, and in areas where it is relevant, such as sport.
- Rewards for ‘good’ work discourage risk-taking, experimentation and creativity. Children become afraid to fail, and failure is an important part of the learning process.
- Rewards give children the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than somebody else, and take away the intrinsic satisfaction in work for its own sake.
- Rewards lose their value to the child the more they are given and the older a child gets, so we keep having to develop bigger or better ones.
Praise is included as a form of reward, but visible rewards are potentially more damaging as they are evidence for everybody to see. Praise is defined as evaluative/judgemental statements such as ‘That’s a very good picture’ ‘You are a good artist’, ‘good boy’ etc. This kind of praise can be harmful for the following reasons as well as the above:
- An evaluative statement may be a label, and labels (whether negative or positive) may limit a child’s perception of himself and cut down possibilities.
- The praiser assumes a superior position to the praisee in order to have the authority to praise, and therefore keeps the praisee in a position of inferiority.
- Our evaluation of the child’s work may not match the child’s, and the child may therefore feel confused or misunderstood, or learns not to trust his own judgement.
- Our effusive praise may actually rob a child of his own feeling of achievement.
- Praise may be experienced as dishonest or manipulative by the child, and therefore damages trust.
- Praise creates a dependency on outside evaluation, stunting the decision-making ability in children by placing the emphasis on making choices that win adult approval.
The latest research on the effects of praise show that acknowledgement of effort is very effective in motivating children to achieve further, whereas praise for innate talent has the opposite effect as children become afraid to fail.
However, it is very important to feel acknowledged, appreciated, accepted and heard; these are the building blocks to true self-worth, and there are many alternatives to praise:
- Describing what you see. If a child presents you with a picture, describing what he or she has done gives the child feedback on what he has communicated through his work. Even young children’s scribbles can be described: ‘You’ve made a very dark painting and used lots of black!’ can leave a child feeling very proud. He still owns his achievement, and he knows that you have really looked, and that is enough. Noticing what they do and feeding back to the children is an intrinsic part of nurturing self-motivation: ’I can see you’ve been trying really hard recently with your spellings, and it’s really paid off – you’re getting there!’
- Positive I-messages. Eg. ‘I love how you’ve used lots of yellow and orange together – it makes me feel very warm!’ In the case of helpful behaviour, instead of ‘What a helpful girl you are!’, describing the behaviour and the effect it had on you can be more effective in fostering self-esteem: ‘I really appreciated your help today, you cleaned up the whole classroom and I’m relieved I don’t have to stay after school to do it!’ The child then puts in the evaluation for herself, and thinks ‘I’m very helpful!’ – sowing the seeds of self-worth, rather than dependence on an adult’s praise.
- Acknowledging. Eg. Child (proudly): ‘I got eight out of ten today’, Teacher: ‘That’s a high score – you must feel very proud of yourself! or ‘You’re happy with the result’. This kind of response keeps the responsibility with the child to evaluate her own work, and helps the critical thinking process along. When the work is not so good, we can look for the positive, and then describe what needs to be done, eg.’I really like the way you’ve coloured the map in; now it’s the labelling you need to work on to finish your picture’.
- Taking care to display, record, file or present all the children’s work gives them the clear message that all of it is valued.
- Children may sometimes mark their own work in spelling tests etc. in order to understand that they are testing themselves rather than competing against others.
Acknowledging and valuing each other is an intrinsic part of Circle Time activities.
To reward and praise is a natural inclination when we see work or behaviour that pleases us. Acknowledgement and appreciation can be just as satisfying, if not more so, and this approach can help to develop and nurture positive qualities in our children such as self-discipline, self-evaluation and feelings of self-worth.
At Lewes New School we also believe – and observe from experience – that providing a stimulating and relevant learning environment in which the children are fully engaged and making choices renders praise and reward obsolete. As one of the children put it: ‘Why would I need a reward for something I wanted to do?’