Why do reward systems work so effectively?

Children always need incentives to perform well. From the slightly creepy “Father Christmas is watching you” to promises of chores earning pocket money (or, more likely nowadays, in-game currencies), kids quite quickly develop a sense of actions having consequences. As well as making them better behaved, it’s also a valuable life lesson: that behaving well and working hard brings rewards in the end.

Such incentivised behaviour-influencing is necessary because children really do need to be taught that certain actions are the right things to do. For a child to realise that they might have to wait for a reward, even if they can see it in front of them, is quite a leap in their development.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in 1970 attempted to discover at what age this instinct develops. Children were left alone in a room with a marshmallow (or pretzel if they preferred them), after being told that they could either eat it straight away or wait till the tester came back, in which case they would get two marshmallows.

While some kids did go for instant gratification, they all at least thought about it, and took on board the consequences of eating it. In some of the experiments, the children could also play with toys as a reward, and it was discovered that if the toys were hidden, they were more likely to wait longer, whereas the ones who could see the toys got frustrated more quickly.

Considering Stanford also performed the infamous Prison Experiment, we think these kids got off lightly.

What the experiments showed was that children really are capable of putting off instant gratification for the promise of larger rewards later. Even small children were influenced. The experiment, or variants of it, are still run today, and the results remain consistent, although some kids try to trick the system by taking a nibble out of the marshmallow that they think won’t be noticed.

In the classroom, gratification takes a slightly different form. It’s usually being badly behaved, lazy, unkind to peers or a combination of these. There are no marshmallows. But the principle remains – making them think twice about being badly behaved can indeed be triggered by the promise of a reward, even if it’s one that can’t be seen or is abstract in form.

Of course, not all kids choose not to misbehave after thinking twice, but some will, and that’s a win for classroom discipline. Furthermore, when children see their classmates eventually getting their rewards, and realise that it’s only their bad behaviour that has prevented them from getting one, it usually has a positive effect in the future.

That’s why putting a reward system in place in the classroom is a good thing. Tokens being collected by individuals or groups put a visible incentive right in front of them. They can literally see the effect of bad behaviour and good behaviour. Combined with an open environment where children are given space to vent their frustrations in a calm, controlled manner, rewards play a vital part in discipline and development.

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