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.

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.