Attendance targets, reward systems, and discrimination

March 13, 2017

It would seem bad enough that today’s children have to suffer from the results of an increasingly narrow curriculum and pressure to perform due to government targets and testing. But it also seems that this doesn’t stop at performance targets. Attendance is apparently also under scrutiny, with ridiculous advice published in my child’s school newsletter this month.

‘The school’s average attendance rates have recently slipped from 97% to 96.9%’, we are told. ‘We need to do better.’ Suggestions for how this may be achieved include;

‘If your child is feeling a bit under the weather, send them in and let us know. In our experience, they can often get a second wind and, if they can’t manage the day, we will call you and let you pick them up.’

Erm, no thanks. 

If my child is feeling a bit under the weather, he’s not likely to learn much, is he? And I’m not going to send him to school just so he can contribute to the school statistics and targets. Sorry. I send him to school to learn.

In my experience, as his mother, I think I am best placed to judge whether or not it is best for him to attend school on a given day. Why would we want kids that are possibly unwell going into school and potentially spreading their illness to other kids anyway? How will that increase attendance? This advice makes no sense to me at all.

Just as testing contributes only to the school’s performance targets, and are of no benefit to the children, this approach is not in any way beneficial to my child. It’s all about targets. As usual.

‘Organise holidays and trips during school holidays (there are 175 non-teaching days a year to pick from)’

Please don’t patronise me. I am well aware of how many non-teaching days there are, and I’m sure the school is equally aware of the price difference of holidays during these 175 days compared to other days in the year, although they conveniently omit to acknowledge this here. For many, there’s also the small matter of when they are able to get time off from their work.

Finally (and this is the best bit) we are told, ‘We will be introducing new special recognition certificates this term for children who have 100% attendance this year.’

Now, if you’ve read some of my other blogs posts, you will already know how I feel about reward systems. So I’ll try not to say too much on this particular subject. But just to point out the basics; any reward system has a flip side. It’s all very nice for the children who receive the reward, but it effectively punishes those children who do not. That may not be the intended outcome, but it is the outcome nonetheless. It’s that simple. And how is it OK to punish a child for having been ill, for coming from a disadvantaged or complex background, for taking days off for religious observance, or for the decision of their parents to take them on a term-time holiday? (I don’t know many children who get to decide on the dates of family holidays).

What exactly is such a reward system supposed to achieve? Is it supposed to encourage children to come to school when they’re ill? To stop having a disability? To cease to observe religious events? To nag their parents not to book a term-time holiday? To help resolve any number of social, domestic or other issues that may account for their lack of 100% attendance over a year? I’m really struggling with this.

A few statistics (since we’re so hung up on these):

A Department of Education report on pupil absence from schools in England found that illness was by far the most common reason for pupil absence. (around 59% compared to less than 10% for term time holidays).

Statistics have also shown that children on free school meals, or those with special educational needs, are around three times more likely to be persistently absent.

“There exists a growing number of parents with complex problems, often related to poverty and mental health. Their children are often those with poor attendance records.” says one headteacher in a Guardian article on ways to tackle poor attendance. A school Home Support Worker in the same article points out that, “Most of the mums I see whose children are persistent absentees are struggling with domestic violence, disability problems or debt.”

Furthermore, Department for Education guidance regarding The Equality Act 2010 states,

“Indirect discrimination occurs when a “provision, criterion or practice” is applied generally but has the effect of putting people with a particular characteristic at a disadvantage when compared to people without that characteristic.”

Given that children with disabilities or long term health problems, or children from a particular religious group will be at a clear disadvantage when it comes to the school’s reward system, I would suggest it could well be argued that said system is discriminatory and in breach of said Equality Act.

I get that schools are under pressure to achieve certain targets. I do. And I get that they need to encourage good attendance, and tackle poor attendance. But this fails to really tackle any underlying issues, and is surely not the way.

Oh, and by the way, a slip from 97% to 96.9% does not a data trend make.


Reading is for life, not just for rewards

December 2, 2015

As a parent I’ve always been aware of various schemes knocking around with the admirable intention of encouraging children to read. The Summer Reading Challenge is one example. I’ve never paid any attention to these schemes nor had my child participate in any of them. He likes reading anyway, loves going to the library to choose new books, so I’ve never felt the need to consider them.

a-kid-readingThis term my child’s school announced the new Bug Club scheme. This scheme, it seems, encourages children to read books online where they can then answer questions about them and gain rewards to go on to play games online. On the surface this might seem OK – today’s children are used to doing things online right? And anything that encourages them to read has to be good?

Well, possibly. But having this time been forced to give the matter some thought I find I am very uncomfortable with the whole thing. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I don’t like it.

Firstly, is it really a good thing to encourage children to see reading as something they do online? Don’t they spend enough time online already? And let’s not move to replace books with computers. There’ll always be something special about books, especially books that become a child’s favourite, with worn edges from being read again and again. Children can take books to bed, take them on long journeys, to sleepovers, and can snuggle down with mum or dad to read them together. Or are we now supposed to be snuggling down together with a tablet?

Secondly, the questions the children have to answer about the book they’ve just read seem to turn reading into a task and take away the joy. Presumably they’re in line with the national curriculum expectations as to what a child should be able to glean from reading a book, recognising alliteration, that sort of thing. But it seems to me to suck all the pleasure out of reading. It becomes another test, almost a box ticking exercise.

But my biggest bugbear by far is the rewards the children get when they’ve finished a book and answered all the questions. This is where I believe these schemes are the most flawed. Quite simply, rewarding children for something sends them the message that that something is a chore, and they deserve a reward for having trudged through it. It sends a message about what is or is not desirable or fun. In this case, we’re telling our children that it’s the computer games, and not the books, that are fun. Kids, well done for having completed this chore. As a reward you can now play computer games, because God forbid that you would actually want to spend your time reading another book.

Surely the reward should come from the pleasure of reading, the enjoyment of the story? That’s intrinsic motivation, and that’s what we want to foster in our children’s attitude to reading. Reading needs to be something children want to do for its own sake, not to answer a set of mundane government approved questions in order to gain some screen time, something I struggle enough to limit in our household already, thank you very much. We want our children to continue to read long after they’ve left school and the rewards have stopped coming.

Rewards provide extrinsic motivation which studies, for years, have repeatedly shown actually decreases intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn has written a great deal on the subject:

Scores of studies have found that offering people a reward for doing something (such as reading or helping) tends to reduce their interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. One reason for this effect, though not the only one, is that anything presented as a prerequisite for something else — a means to another end — comes to be seen as less desirable. The recipient of the reward figures, “If they have to bribe me to do this, it must be something I wouldn’t want to do.”” – from the article Do This and You’ll Get That. A Bad Way to Defend Good Programs.

“You may succeed in getting students to read a book by dangling a reward in front of them for doing so, but their interest in reading, per se, is likely to evaporate – or, in the case of kids who have little interest to begin with, is unlikely to take root — because you’ve sent the message that reading is something one wouldn’t want to do.” – from the article How to Create Nonreaders. Reflections on Motivation, Leaning and Sharing Power

I could go on.

My child’s school recently invited parents to an information evening about this new reading scheme. Looking at the presentation slides on their website, I notice a quote used on the last slide;

“Researchers have shown that, once social and economic factors are removed parental engagement is a more significant impact on attainment than almost everything else”.

I’m sure this is true, but this doesn’t mean I’m going to blindly engage with any crap the school throw at us, so I’m very sorry, but they won’t have my parental engagement with this scheme. I would like my child to continue reading what he likes, when he likes, and just because he likes. That’s what I believe will lead him to enjoy reading for life, not just for the sake of rewards.


Positive reinforcement? Gotcha!

August 4, 2014

There are many silly and misguided things in place at my child’s school in the quest to encourage desirable behaviour. There’s the enduringly popular classroom happy/sad face chart; public shaming made pretty for the teachers. And whenever I’m invited to attend an assembly I come out feeling distinctly nauseated. It’s just one reward after another. It’s all about rewards. Everything. They’re really working hard on raising the next generation of ‘What’s in it for me?’s. 

For example, each class gets points for ‘lining up nicely’ at playtime. Each week the points are totted up and a winner announced in assembly. An extra 5 minutes playtime is awarded to the winning class. Groan. I could write a separate post just on this, but the message going out about what’s desirable and what, by default, isn’t, is the first point that springs to mind. 

Then there’s the Star of the Week awards and Golden Book awards. Not sure of the difference between these awards, but in any case, whenever my child receives one he rarely knows what it was for, so how exactly does it encourage him? Encourage what

congratulationsWhich brings me to one of my favourites; the Gotcha Card. If a teacher notices a child behaving particularly well in the corridor they make a note of their name (secretly), and lo and behold, at some date in the future, the child receives, by surprise, a Gotcha Card in assembly. 

What a load of tosh. 

First, if we want to reinforce a particular behaviour with children we need to do so at the time. A child doesn’t have the capacity to reflect on or even remember what their behaviour was in the corridor at some unknown time in the past. Just as unrelated consequences (aka punishments) given out or enforced days after the offence are ineffective in stopping undesirable behaviour, so rewards given out after the fact are ineffective in promoting desirable behaviour. I’d have thought this was fairly obvious.

And no need for me to cover the bit about how extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic motivation and actually makes the child less likely to repeat a particular behaviour, since in this case the child doesn’t even know what behaviour they’re supposed to be repeating.

Why not just comment on the child’s behaviour at the time, for Christ’s sake? Oh, of course, just as the happy/sad face chart has to be on public display, so do the Gotcha Cards. Presumably it’s supposed to encourage the other children to try harder, although they’re probably all left feeling as confused as the recipient as to what exactly needs to be done to earn this particular reward.

Just a nice little reward for the child? Yeah, I’m sure it gives them a brief feeling of gratification….but at the expense of all the other kids.

My child complained to me that he has never received a Gotcha Card, expressing feelings of injustice, since, he says, he always behaves well in the corridor.

“I know you do”, I replied. “Perhaps a teacher just hasn’t been there at the time to see that. You’ve just been unlucky.”

He didn’t buy this. “Lots of teachers have seen me” he says.

Of more concern to me are his evident feelings of futility, that whatever he does isn’t good enough, that he’s not a ‘good’ child, like the others getting those Gotcha Cards. He’s a failure.

Might as well give up and start running about screaming and doing cartwheels in the corridor. Sod it. 

So to whoever came up with this idea at my child’s school – Gotcha!

Gotcha coming up with yet another idiotic, misguided, poorly thought out scheme that will do more harm than good, will gratify the minority at the expense of the majority, and will achieve precisely nothing.

 

See my other posts for more about my views on rewards.


“Santa won’t come unless you’re good.” Taking bribes and threats to greater depths.

December 10, 2013

What’s wrong with a little bribery around Christmas time? Every parent does this, right? It might seem like a convenient and harmless way to get kids to comply without an all-out fight, but I think it’s bribes and threats in their lowest form. 

I don’t like bribery or rewards as a parenting tool at the best of times, for a number of reasons. One is that they teach children to focus on self-gain, to do things for the wrong reasons. I’d really like my child to tidy his room because he’s conscious that it’s the right thing to do, because his connection with me is strong enough that he wants to comply with my requests. Not because he’s rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of the pile of presents he’s going to get at Christmas. I don’t want to encourage a self-interested, ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude.

Normally I’d also point out that when we use rewards as a parenting tool we model bribery and manipulation, and yet, actually, that isn’t a problem in this case. No need to worry about that here since we’re not even bothering to at least be honest about what we’re doing. Instead, we stoop to greater depths and deviousness by hiding behind Santa. It’s his decision, not ours, as to whether or not our child has measured up to standard. How convenient? What a cop-out. 

santa with listThen there’s the use of the term ‘good’ when referring to a child or to their behaviour. It’s quite a broad term really, isn’t it? What does it really mean to our children, other than that when they’re not ‘good’ they are, by default, ‘bad’? Is this really what we want our children to believe? When my child makes a bad choice, loses control, or becomes disconnected, and behaves in ways that I don’t want him to behave, shaming him is really not helpful. Making him believe he is not ‘good enough’ for a visit from Santa isn’t going to make him feel great about himself or help him behave any differently. I don’t want to impose on him these feelings of conditional acceptance. Whatever his behaviour, he is always loved and loveable. 

Think about it. What a horrible message to send a child – that they are so bad that the jolly, generous, magical man who likes to give children presents will simply miss them out because they’re a bad person. What a horrible threat to make to a small child, whether empty or not. Christmas should be a magical time for children, and as such should not be poisoned by adults with their unkind threats and scare stories. Of course every child will be visited by Santa. It’s the season of goodwill, of love, of forgiveness. 

The thing is, children, especially those young enough to believe in Santa, don’t always have complete control over their behaviour, their impulses, or their feelings, and they don’t always make good choices. They’re still not terribly mature, you see. Behaviour is communicating a need. Even if it’s outright defiance, there’s still a message there, a need for connection. Simply trying to use Santa to control behaviour isn’t going to meet those needs, and isn’t going to foster that close connection of love and trust that is the real key to gaining genuine cooperation. 

Bribes and threats have no place in a loving, connected, respectful relationship. Instead of hiding behind Santa we need to be the parents our children need us to be, to understand and address their needs, to show them our gentle leadership, our ability to set empathetic limits and to accept the uncomfortable feelings that may arise in response to those limits. And above all, we need to send the message that they are loved unconditionally. However they might behave, Santa will visit no matter what.


Distracted by stickers

December 18, 2012

My child came home from school today with a sticker stuck to his chest that said “Well done”. (He comes home from school most days with at least one sticker stuck to his chest.) When I asked him what he did to get this sticker he said he had got his name on the Thank-you Board.

“If you get your name on the Thank-you Board you get a sticker”, he explained.

“But what did you do to get your name on the Thank-you Board?”, I persisted.

“I don’t know, I can’t remember.”

I had to try very hard not to laugh.

well_done_starI’ve read about this, probably mostly in Alfie Kohn’s book “Unconditional Parenting”, and other articles he’s written on the subject of rewards. Amongst the many problems with rewards is that they tend to distract from what we’re trying to teach. My child’s focus has been shifted from the behaviour that earned the sticker, to the sticker itself.  He has not reflected on the effects of his behaviour on other people, on why it was a desirable behaviour. No, he is too busy basking in the pleasure of the approval and the pat on the head he has received.

So, someone at school gave my child a sticker, presumably with the intention of reinforcing a particular desirable behaviour. Yet my child can’t remember what the behaviour was. Classic.

The sooner parents’ and teachers’ love affair with The Sticker is over, the better, I say. Perhaps then we can start doling out some more meaningful praise and encouragement.

Let’s say my child helped another child find their hat.

There’s descriptive praise, “You helped Judy find her hat, you kept looking even when she’d given up”.

There’s pointing out the effects of a child’s behaviour on others, “Judy is so pleased she’s got her hat back”.

There’s pointing out the effects on yourself, “Thanks for helping Judy find her hat, that’s saved me a bit of time”.

Oh, and none of the above needs to be issued in a gushing, over enthusiastic sort of way. A child will register the message and the implications of it well enough.

OK, quite possibly the person issuing the sticker at school said some of the above. I’m sure they will have at least told my child why he was receiving a sticker. But it’s become all about the sticker. What has he learnt? Apparently, nothing.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish have a good way of describing how to praise and encourage in their book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk“. As well as many examples of descriptive praise, in which “the adult describes with appreciation what he or she sees or feels” they suggest adding to this description “one or two words that sum up the child’s praiseworthy behaviour”. So;

“You kept looking until you’d found Judy’s hat for her. Now that’s what I call helpful“.

Faber and Mazlish go on to write,

“…praise… is a matter of really looking, really listening, really noticing and then saying aloud what you see and what you feel. One wonders how such a simple process can have such a profound effect. And yet, day after day from our small descriptions our children learn what their strengths are……All of that goes into his emotional bank and it can’t be taken away. You can take away “good boy” by calling him “bad boy” the next day. But you can’t ever take away from him the time he cheered his mother with a get-well card, or the time he stuck with his work and persevered even though he was very tired. These moments, when his best was affirmed, become life-long touchstones to which a child can return in times of doubt or discouragement. In the past he did something he was proud of. He has it within him to do it again.”

Sadly, my child can’t remember what he did today. He’s probably forgotten about the sticker by now too. Even if he hasn’t, it’ll be taken away when he fails to earn one of the many dangled in front of him tomorrow.

See my other posts for more about my views on rewards.


The bad influence of school.

January 17, 2012

My child has now been at school for four months, meaning he is spending more time away from the family home than he has ever done before. This means, of course, that he is more prone to influences other than those he encounters at home.

Now I don’t mind him coming home announcing that he’s Darth Vader and I’m dead. I don’t mind that I’ve had my first ‘all the other children do’ (in this case in relation to bags of crisps in lunch boxes). But what I do mind very much is that last night he helped me tidy up some crayons, then asked me if he could have a reward for helping. Aaargh!! The horror, the horror!

If you haven’t already read them, my previous posts, “What’s wrong with rewards?” and “Sticker crazy!”, will fill you in on my position here. But to summarise, here are six reasons why I don’t use rewards:

1. Rewards teach a child to focus on self gain.

Quite simply, rewards encourage a child to think of things in terms of what’s in it for them – self interest.

2. Extrinsic motivation sabotages intrinsic motivation.
When we reward a child with motivators like chocolate, stickers or special outings, we increase their extrinsic motivation, and studies have shown that as this increases, intrinsic motivation decreases. Intrinsic motivation is the type we want them to have as it represents a true commitment to something, not a superficial interest merely as a means to an end.

3. Rewards encourage a child to focus on parental approval, not on the effect of their behaviour on others.
For example, when a child is rewarded for sharing, this shifts their focus to the approval of their parent, and away from the effect their behaviour has had on whoever they are sharing with.

4. Rewards model undesirable behaviour.
Let’s not kid ourselves, rewards are basically bribery. At any rate they represent someone using manipulative methods to produce a particular behaviour. This is not the type of behaviour I wish to model for my child.

5. Rewards create an environment of conditional acceptance.
It’s all very well telling ourselves how delighted our children are when they get a reward, but the flip side is how do they feel when they don’t? Like they’ve failed, let us down, aren’t good enough, and are unaccepted, unloved…..These are all possibilities I would put forward.

6. Rewards are often used to bring about a change to a child’s behaviour which benefits the adult, without addressing a child’s underlying need.
A parent might start a reward chart to try to encourage a child to, say, stay in bed. But a child’s behaviour is telling us something, expressing a need. A parent needs to get to the bottom of this and find ways to address it. Rewarding the problem away is simply brushing it under the carpet, to re-emerge in the form of another unwanted behaviour.

I always knew my child would be subject to these ill considered reward systems when he went to school, so this isn’t exactly a surprise. It just makes me sad to see my child, with his natural good nature and inclination to please, doing something with an ulterior motive like this.

I am still trying to come up with a good response, as I anticipate this will not be the last of such incidents.


Sticker crazy!

December 12, 2011

The world truly has gone sticker crazy.  My child comes home from school every day covered in the darned things. Whenever I ask him what they were for his answers range from a kind or helpful thing he did, to everyday things he did, to things he didn’t do.  Last week he got an especially large sticker for ‘looking after a child who had fallen over in the playground’. Sometimes he has a sticker for eating all his dinner (he gets a reward for eating when he’s hungry?!).

What bugs me is that my child is a sensitive boy, always very aware of any distress felt by others around him.  He just is, naturally.  Not because he’s been ‘encouraged’ to be, or ‘taught’ to be.  He sometimes has funny ways of showing it, but he just is.  I’m sure most children are if they’re left to their own devices and not tampered with by adults with stickers. It’s intrinsic, not something that can be taught.  So giving him a sticker for this particular trait is not only unnecessary, it could be counterproductive.

Alfie Kohn writes in his book “Unconditional Parenting”,

“….researchers have found that children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people.  Instead, they tend to attribute their behavior to the reward. Then, when there’s no longer a goody to be gained, they’re less likely to help than are kids who weren’t given a reward in the first place. They’re also less likely to help than they themselves used to be. After all, they’ve learned that the point of coming to someone’s aid is just to get a reward…..No wonder, then, that kids who are rewarded for being helpful end up being less helpful once the rewards stop coming.”

I’d hate to see my child’s natural sensitivity and kindness sabotaged by stickers.

My child has also always been a very good eater with a large appetite.  He will try just about anything (including sand, chalk and snow!). So why introduce rewards for something he’s happy to do anyway? Kohn goes on to write,

“Give children an unfamiliar beverage, and those who are offered a reward for drinking it will end up liking it less next week than kids who drank the same stuff without being offered a reward.”

Last week we went to the library. My child has always loved books. He loves getting new books. When we went to check out our selection we were greeted by a lady that asked if he’d like to join the ‘Bookstart Bear Club’.  Joining the club, which, by the way, I’m sure is an excellent initiative, at least in its objectives, means that my child will receive a stamp every time we take some books out of the library.  When he collects so many stamps he gets a certificate.  Oh, for God’s sake.

Yet again, we’re offering children rewards for something they’re happy to do anyway, risking devaluing the activity, as well as promoting self-interest.  Kohn refers to several studies that show the problems with this,

“….pay children for trying to solve a puzzle, and they’ll tend to stop playing with it after the experiment is over – while those who were paid nothing are apt to keep at it on their own time.”

Joan McCord writes in her study, “Questioning the Value of Punishment“,  in Social Problems, Vol 38, No 2.,

“Studies have demonstrated….that incentives larger than necessary to produce an activity sometimes result in devaluation of the activity being rewarded.”

Kohn concurs,

“The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

McCord also goes on to write,

“When a reward is clearly a benefit to the person being promised the reward, rewarding teaches the child to value his or her own benefit.”

OK, I’m over analysing. Granted, much worse things could happen to my child at school than he be given stickers.  It’s just a bit of encouragement and praise?  Maybe, but aside from all the objections I have raised above, which I personally think are fairly compelling, sticker culture creates an environment of conditional approval.  I want my child to feel accepted and loved regardless of whether or not he measures up to adult standards.