Is your child being punished by rewards?

th-10The school year has only just begun. It’s a time when children are excited to return to school, see their friends, meet their new teachers and feel really good about being a year older. Right? Not for all.

I received an email from a mother who said her son shoved his homework into his backpack all ripped up, said he doesn’t care or give a s*#t about his homework. She explained that the school has a color system for behavior—green, yellow, blue, and red (wonder what the blue means). Everyday her son comes home and tells her, I was good today or I was bad today.

Most schools have some form of behavior management program in place. Using punishment to manage behavior has much research supporting its ineffectiveness and shows that it can be counterproductive. In lieu of punishment techniques, many schools have taken to reward systems. The problem is that students who miss out on the rewards again and again, feel punished and resentful of the students who get them.

I’m sure that the administration and faculty of any school wants to keep as much order as possible so that the children can learn and do well. When hundreds of children are under the same roof, the fear of chaos and out of control behavior looms, the adults are responsible for all the children’s safety and learning, etc., etc., etc. However, as I see it, the children are the consumers in the business of education, and schools need to serve the consumer.

A color system (this one uses both reward-green and punishment-red)or a sticker plan or any type of condition put on behavior, whether for good or bad, does not serve the child as is so clear in the case of this mother’s very angry and confused son. Can you blame him for ripping up his homework?

If a child is not in that middle spectrum of excited to get back to school, eager to learn, and self-motivated, but is instead the square peg who never feels like he fits, who knows he can’t do what the other kids can so easily do, who feels like a loser unless he can twist himself in a way to get the green or the sticker or the point, you are going to see ripped up homework, resistant behavior, aggression toward others, and eventually an I-don’t-care attitude. Our high schools are full of unmotivated, hard to manage kids who often turn to whatever helps in the moment—other kids who understand them, drugs, sex, alcohol, etc. These kids get more and more resistant to controls at home.

Young children don’t have the perspective to understand why schools do what they do. They either learn they are good or bad and that learning can last a lifetime.

How many of you have children who are square pegs trying to fit in round holes? How do your children act out their frustrations? And how do you handle the acting out behavior? If they are criticized at school with a blue or a red or they don’t get the reward and then come home to let loose because home is safe, and then they get yelled at or have a privilege removed because they’re not doing their homework or are hitting a sibling, what do you think the final message is to this child? How do you expect them to behave?

Not getting a green or a sticker is a punishment. There’s no way around it. It’s not an incentive because the kids who always get the green will get it anyway and the ones who have to twist themselves to get it, will just get angry and resentful when they don’t. This is not a condition for learning.

When your children suffer a system like this, expect that they need to release pent up energy when they return home. Allow for that. Do something physical and aggressive with them right after school. When you hear statements like I was good or bad today, don’t just say, You’re always good. They need to hear the real deal. Try something like, “I can certainly understand how getting a red must feel. I know how I would feel. I also know that it’s hard work to get a green and sometimes you don’t feel up to it.” Then ask what he thinks each color means? Talk about each one. Ask, “Do you think it means you are a good person or a bad person?” Why do you think the school uses a program like this?”

The best conversation is asking the questions after you have connected with the feelings. Let your child come up with the answers. Add your opinions. If you get nothing back, explain to your child what the colors or stickers are used for, why teachers use them, etc. The goal is for your child to understand the external use of these methods so that he doesn’t internalize the message of good or bad, smart or dumb.

I encourage you all to speak to your administrators if your children’s schools use behavior management techniques that use punishment or reward systems. It may work for the adults in the building, but does nothing anyone would ever want for their children. If enough parents raise a voice over time, something might happen.

You might print out this article to take with you.