Handing out colored bracelets and upbeat stickers when students behave well seems like an effective strategy for encouraging civility. Little prizes and public praise would seem to encourage honesty, generosity and other marks of good character, and for years schools have relied on such rewards to elicit the behavior they desire in their students.
At Lincoln-Hubbard School in Summit, New Jersey, for example, teachers used to hand out stickers to elementary school children with the words “I was caught doing something right” when a child behaved properly. At Glenwood Elementary School in Short Hills, New Jersey, some second-graders who conducted themselves well were rewarded with beans that they could trade in for toys at the end of the week. “You would get them for a bunch of different things, like helping the teacher,” said Brian Smith, when recalling the class reward system. “It made the problematic kids not want to be as problematic.”
Rewards can be seductive, according to Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of education at University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of You Can’t Teach Through a Rat. They’re easy, they seem to work—particularly with the hard-to-reach kids—and many teachers are taught according to the behaviorist model, which posits that people repeat conduct that’s reinforced and avoid what’s punished. “We are breeding a new generation of kids who are well trained to be reward and recognition torpedoes,” Berkowitz writes.
But a substantial body of social science research going back decades has concluded that giving rewards for certain types of behavior is not only futile but harmful. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink identifies seven drawbacks to extrinsic rewards: they cripple intrinsic motivation, limit performance, squash creativity, stifle good conduct, promote cheating, can become habit-forming, and spur a short-term mindset. Giving prizes for routine and mindless tasks can be moderately effective, Pink writes. But offering rewards for those tasks that are “inherently interesting, creative, or noble…is a very dangerous game.” When it comes to promoting good behavior, extrinsic rewards are “the worst ineffective character education practice used by educators,” Berkowitz writes.
A handful of schools are heeding the research and beginning to back away from the practice. In Florissant, Missouri, students at Northview High School no longer receive rubber bracelets when they do something right. Monthly awards assemblies celebrating the student who demonstrated superior character in the area of responsibility, say, have vanished. Under the direction of Stephanie Valleroy, the now-retired principal of Northview, the school moved decidedly away from prizes and public affirmation of good behavior.
Valleroy decided to change the school’s culture in 2007, after she and other educators on her staff attended conferences on character education, including events hosted by Leadership Academy in Character Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Inspired by what she’d learned, especially about the corrosive effect of rewards, she returned to Northview and launched a character education committee and school leadership team. Valleroy knew she needed staff buy-in, and over a period of years sent educators to conferences on character. Together, they revamped lesson plans to incorporate character development into all aspects of the curriculum, and shared the new plans on the school intranet. She also worked with the staff to craft a new mission statement for the school that put character at the center.
Some teachers struggled at first with the removal of extrinsic rewards. “‘What do you mean we’re not giving out Northview bracelets?’” Valleroy recalled some teachers asking. She told them: “We’re just not.” Parents embraced it right away; Valleroy had been at Northview for more than 20 years when she made the change, and parents trusted her.
Instead of handing out prizes, teachers tried to reach children by talking about what’s inside them. “We consistently talked to them about what were their motivations from the heart,” Valleroy said. Rather than say “don’t do this,” teachers would remind students of the school’s mission and rules, which focused on respect, responsibility and work ethic. Teachers often asked students, “What’s your responsibility in this?” The school also folded service into the curriculum, which required children to take on a project that aided the school, community, country or world. Private words of encouragement replaced the monthly awards assemblies. “I would pull kids aside and say ‘I know you did a really good job in X,’ but not in public,” Valleroy said. “It was just a comment, not an ordeal,” she added.
Not only did the children shrug when the rewards disappeared, Valleroy said, they also welcomed the character-infused approach to learning. Teachers overheard students talking about being responsible and respectful. Kids who ordinarily kept quiet in class volunteered frequently, and more stepped up to help their classmates. The service learning also had a dramatic impact, according to Valleroy: Students took pleasure in helping others, and recognized that they had abilities worth sharing. “Their academic skills and attention and willingness to participate in academics grew immensely,” Valleroy said.
“Removing extrinsics was a huge part of its success,” she added.
What’s especially noteworthy about the school’s embrace of prize-free character education is that Northview serves only children needing special education; all 180 students who attend require support that’s not available in mainstream schools. Even more so than in regular classrooms, special education relies heavily on extrinsic rewards with its students. “The use of extrinsics is a common practice in special education and it was simply what we did,” Valleroy said.
Curiously, the students who responded most positively to the shift were the ones with great emotional needs, often the toughest challenges for teachers and most likely to be controlled with rewards, according to Valleroy. These students wanted to help in other classrooms as a part of their service learning, and began to form natural relationships with the other kids along the way. Valleroy saw them step up to leadership roles, and many spoke at graduation about how far they’d come. “It was incredible to see that growth,” Valleroy said.
After Valleroy retired, Brian O’Connor took over as principal and continued to emphasize character development and intrinsic motivation. The school population is familiar with adversity: most of the students at Northview High School qualify for free or reduced lunch and many live in foster care, according to Valleroy. In spite of those obstacles, she reports that 89 percent graduate, 87 percent report feeling safe at school, and attendance rates hover at 90 percent.
Mainstream schools could also do away with extrinsic rewards, Valleroy said. “It would be a paradigm shift,” she said. “But it absolutely could be done.”