Why is it important for classrooms to use reward systems?

Just why are reward systems so important in the classroom? It’s partly down to human nature, and partly down to educating kids in the need for forward planning. Let’s dive deeper.

If you’ve got kids or have looked after someone else’s, there’s probably been a time when you’ve shared out a bag of sweets with them: three for them; three for you. You’ve probably also told them that that’s all they’re getting, so they should make them last. Five minutes later, you’ve got two sweets left, and they’ve got none.

What does this have to do with rewarding children in the class? It shows that children don’t have a natural ability to project the here and now into the near, or even medium, future. They sadly watch as you nibble on your sweets while they stare at their empty bowl.

Until you give in and let them have one of yours.

It’s instinctive

It’s difficult for children to link today’s effort or willpower with tomorrow’s reward – that much is true. Indeed, it’s probably also quite natural. Out in the wilderness, if they found a berry, they’d eat it rather than leave it for someone from another tribe, or even their sibling. It’s that instinct that got humans out of the wilderness, but as soon as we started growing crops and building towns, we had to teach ourselves that planning ahead is the way to go.

Rewards in the classroom

And that brings us back to the classroom. Kids’ instinct is for pleasure in the here and now. In the classroom context, pleasure is not doing the work, chatting with the neighbour, doodling or daydreaming – anything other than what they’re told to do.

Tell them that slacking on their maths now means they won’t become a chartered accountant in twenty years is hardly going to register. But once you’ve set up a simple reward scheme, the process of linking effort today with rewards tomorrow starts to make sense to them.

The trick is usually to start small. Good behaviour will win them a reward in half an hour. It could be a physical reward or some other privilege, like the chance to have a play or go on the tablet.

Once the link between work and reward is established in their minds, you can start extending the wait. They’ll be rewarded tomorrow, next week, next month.

The bigger picture

It can be tricky making children remember to link a single act of good behaviour today with a reward in a week, so the best way is to create a cumulative reward system. In other words, it’s lots of small acts of goodness that build up their personal reward collection – and bad behaviour makes it smaller. When they can visibly see the fruits of their effort growing before their eyes, they’ll start to appreciate the value of good behaviour and the cost of bad.

The school reward system is really a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The idea isn’t actually the rewards, or even the good behaviour. It’s planting the seeds in their minds that there can be a tangible benefit to hard work. They might not feel like doing those sums, but they’ll see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel if they get through them. And that’s a skill they’ll be able to carry with them throughout their lives.

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