Rewards and Consequences Reimagined

Rewards and consequences are often the cornerstone of behavior management. Who among us hasn’t bribed a child to do something or handed out a consequence for unwanted behavior? Yet today we’d like to talk about rewards and consequences… and how we can rethink them. 

By Momentous Institute | Oct 04, 2022
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Rewards and consequences are often the cornerstone of behavior management. Who among us hasn’t bribed a child to do something or handed out a consequence for unwanted behavior? Yet today we’d like to talk about rewards and consequences… and how we can rethink them.

First, why do we need to rethink this at all? After all, rewards and consequences often do the job. But we’d like to pull up and think about this from a higher level. We think of discipline and behavior management in two ways: one is short term (i.e., getting a behavior to stop, meeting a certain expectation) and the other is long term (i.e., developing critical life skills). For example, let’s take a child engaging in disruptive behavior. The short-term goal is to get the child to stop. But the long-term goal is to get the child to learn new behavior, to understand the impact of constant disruptions on others and to better manage their unmet need.

Five steps for responding to classroom disruptions.

Rewards and consequences often achieve the first goal – they can solve a short-term problem. But they don’t often achieve the second goal of teaching a certain skill.

Let’s start with rewards. Rewards can be a very powerful tool for acknowledging a student’s hard work and effort and for affirming a job well done. We are not suggesting that rewards do not have an important role in education. Surprisingly, social rewards are the most powerful type of rewards – think high-five, thumbs up, kind smile, pat on the back, or genuine compliment. However, we want to be thoughtful about how we use rewards. If we think of rewards (especially social rewards) as a way to build skill, they will be much more effective.

When using rewards, ask yourself, “What skill do I hope to develop?” Then target the reward toward that skill. Remember, rewards don’t have to be tangible – you don’t need a treasure box or even extra recess to reward students! A reward can be as simple as an acknowledgment or praise for hard work. Consider these examples. 

A student struggles with a project and asks for help. The student is clearly frustrated, but they stick with it. Before the class moves on to a new lesson, the teacher approaches the student and says, “That project seemed kind of difficult, but I noticed that you were very persistent. You really stuck with it!”

A student who typically struggles to stay in his seat manages to remain seated for five full minutes. When the teacher notices him start to wiggle and get up, she approaches him and says, “You’re doing a great job remaining in your seat. What strategies are you using to keep your body calm?”

A simple self-regulation trick. 

The class is working on group projects. One of the groups is working through a conflict and can’t agree on their approach. The teacher is monitoring the conflict but waiting to the side to allow students to work through it. After much discussion, students make a plan and begin the work. The teacher says, “Wow! You all did a great job working through your plans for this project! You all had different opinions about the best way to do it, and in the end, you agreed on a plan. What skills did you use to come to a decision?”

Now let’s talk about consequences. There will be times in a classroom when consequences are necessary. Natural consequences, where the consequence comes as a direct result of the child’s behavior, can be very effective. For example, if a child doesn’t take care of her art supplies and they dry out, she may have to wait in line as she borrows class art materials. But natural consequences aren’t always possible or safe, so then a teacher has to correct behavior using logical consequences.

Consequences should be respectfully and privately given. It’s not appropriate to issue a consequence to one child in front of a group. If a child does need a consequence, again consider the skill that will help the child do better next time. Take again the example of the child disrupting the class. What skill will the child need to manage her behavior? It may be impulse control or social awareness. Use that skill development as a guide to consequences and redirection. So, a logical consequence might be to direct the child to work in a quiet area of the room, where she is not disrupting other children’s learning.

You may have a standard set of consequences that align to certain behaviors. The most important element is what happens after the child fulfills the consequence. You should always engage in a conversation with the child (when the child is in a calm state of mind, not when their fist is still clenched.) Let’s take the child who disrupted learning as an example. When you do invite her back to her regular seat, ask questions such as, “What were you feeling in that moment? What happened right before? What was your goal with that behavior?” Next, prompt her to think of a strategy she can use to control her impulses. You might need to suggest a few strategies if she can’t think of one. Then, pay attention to how well she uses that strategy and praise her effort!

Sometimes children may not be able to answer these questions, and that is fair. However, if you can get a child to say something like, “I was so mad!” or, “I wanted to make her feel bad because she made me feel bad”, then you can have a helpful conversation. The circumstances that caused the behavior are likely to happen again, so you can encourage a child to think about how they might respond differently the next time.

Many schools have classroom discipline plans built upon rewards and consequences. While “If X, then Y” plans are popular, they’re often not very effective. This is because they don’t usually get to the root of the behavior or work on building a skill. If you’re in an environment with a structured discipline plan like this, make sure that you build in as much flexibility as you can. Pay attention to how many rewards and consequences you’re issuing. Check to be sure you’re issuing as many (or more) rewards than consequences.

Here's the big takeaway: rewards and consequences are important. But if they don’t build a skill, they’re not useful. Rewards and consequences without skill building are simply policing of behavior… and that’s not a healthy environment.