There’s no arguing toddlers can be difficult to control. Since children five and under are still developing their social skills, teachers may find themselves struggling to convince their students to follow the rules. This is where rewards come in. If a child believes she will receive a prize for a certain behavior, she is more likely to do what’s needed to get her treat. But do rewards really work in the long run?
The Insightful Teacher offers some insight. Full of information about how young children think and learn, this book is an excellent resource for teachers seeking to better understand their children and manage their classroom. So what’s the verdict on rewards?
Pros: Rewards are very effective ways to modify behavior. Since young children haven’t yet learned to think in the long-term, their behavior can be impulsive and shortsighted. However, if there is a goal to look toward—a piece of candy, an extra five minutes on the computer, etc.—then the future becomes more tangible to them and they will change their behavior in order to meet these goals. Rewards may also provide the first incentive to practice self-regulation, an important skill with children use to control their behavior without reprimand from adults. Self-regulation in early childhood has been linked with academic success later on in school. Though self-regulation relies on lack of outside influence on behavior, rewards can be the first step to children monitoring their own behavior.
Cons: One of the biggest drawbacks to having rewards as the only incentive to rule following is that it doesn’t teach the importance of rules. If a child is given a piece of candy for sitting still in class, he isn’t being told why sitting still is important in a classroom setting. He may not even be listening to the teacher; perhaps all he’s thinking about is the candy he gets at the end of the day. This also runs the risk of behavioral regression if the reward is removed. Without that incentive to follow the rules, children may regress back to their disruptive behavior. Such a pattern is particularly concerning if the rules being encouraged with rewards are social-rules. While raising your hand to speak only applies to the classroom, understanding not to hit a peer is a more universal lesson. If that rule is enforced only through the promise of candy, the child might not follow that rule outside the classroom and will not understand the empathy the rule encourages.
Rewards can be a good place to start when it comes to rule enforcement, but they shouldn’t be the only step. Rules need to be explained and exemplified if they are to be followed, and while a reward may help get students’ attention, other techniques must be employed if children are to learn to respect each other and the classroom.