“The learning should be its own reward.”
This is a common refrain told to new teachers. It is mainly used to discourage giving students rewards for meeting expectations, a practice known to many as bribing. I stop just short of calling it bribing. I typically opt for the term incentive or rewards; however, the general idea is the same. But whatever you want to call them, I use them. And, I am unashamed.
I get it. You want students to become self-motivated and self-directed learners and external rewards like candy or free time may undermine that goal. But honestly, I just don’t have time. Yes, I, like everyone else I want my students to learn to make it through life without some promise of reward for every little accomplishment, but developmentally, that is not where students are coming to me. I would love to tell you that my mini-lesson where I invested them in college and careers was enough to make them intrinsically motivated overnight. However, they are still kids that think short-term which necessitates quick consequences and sometimes quick rewards.
Many people will point to some studies that claim rewards are bad for children. While you can find such studies, you can find others that imply the opposite. Some studies have found that praise and rewards have helped kids improve behaviors long-term. Other studies have found that using such tactics improves relationships because of the positivity it introduces. All of this is to say that it is not a foregone conclusion that rewards are developmentally bad.
Also, just for the record, adults operate on incentives, too. I find it utterly hilarious when teachers who criticize the use of class incentives and rewards turn around and complain about the lack of bonus pay in staff meetings. Adult incentives are all over the place. Children are quite literally the only people in the world that we expect to work hard without incentives.
My hope is that one day all my students will evolve into the self-starters we envision them as being…but they need to learn the order of operations today. So yes, that kid who turns in homework for a week straight gets to go to my treasure chest. Yes, when class behavior is on point for a whole month, I buy some pizza. Yes, for the first week of school I reinforce class expectations with candy…and I don’t feel bad about it.