Behaviour’s 3 Rs – Part 2; Reward

Part 2; Reward

Starting work as a specialist behaviour support teacher in 1998 I could see that punishment and reward were the twin pillars of behaviour management in my numerous schools.

I could see the awards and the children’s work displayed in the corridors, the school council members and the school’s values displayed in reception. ‘Every day is a new start’.

And yet some individuals, children from five to eighteen, had somehow outdistanced the rewards system and got caught up in punishment. The children I was called in to support seemed to be immune to the effects of rewards and most of them had worked their way to the cliff edge of permanent exclusion. If rewarding good behaviour worked disruptive behaviour would be prevented and there wouldn’t be the nedd to stamp it out. But disruptive behaviour has been a persistent worry over the decades so what’s going wrong?

Of all the big ideas flooding into the schooling system behaviourist psychology, which provides the basis for behaviour modification, can claim to be among the few firmly based on research evidence, it’s must be a problem of replication and our failure to apply it properly that produces the poor results. So what should we be doing to get the results we want?

I’m drawing on Walker (2014) in ‘Consequences of behaviour’ in this article which explains that ‘behavioral consequences (results) have a direct influence on the behavior a child exhibits. Behavior can be modified, that is, increased, initiated, or extinguished, by systematic manipulation of its consequences. The possible consequences of human behavior are classified as positive reinforcement, extinction, negative reinforcement, and punishment.’ Psychologists tend to talk of consequences to behaviour rather than reward and punishment in relation to the behavioural modification of children so let’s follow that trail.

There is plenty of advice including Mosier’s freely available on how to use consequences in the classroom. Let’s recap the basics on how it’s supposed to work. In the context of early years teaching from the Childcare quarterly cited above;

‘When appropriate, allow natural and logical consequences to redirect inappropriate or disruptive behavior. This will encourage self-direction and intrinsic motivation without inflicting the cognitive, social, and emotional damage caused by punishment. Supporting a child’s cognitive, emotional, and social development requires well-honed communication skills. When talking to young children about behavior, differentiate between the child and the behavior. It’s the behavior that’s good or bad, not the child. A critical factor for successfully implementing developmentally appropriate child guidance is consistency.’

Is that clear to you? It’s doesn’t make sense to me; you have to talk to the behaviour not to the child and that way you’ll encourage intrinsic motivation in the person of the child who you are not addressing. It can’t be intrinsic to the behaviour because that’s not sentient. Let’s go on with Meiers.

‘You need to enforce rules consistently, even when it may be easier to look the other way. Children need to know what is expected of them. They have difficulty adjusting to unexpected change. When they display disruptive behavior, keep in mind that it may have been conditioned into them since toddlerhood. It’s unrealistic to assume that it will be extinguished in just one day. Behavior reinforced prior to the child’s being exposed to your classroom will take time to reshape. Don’t expect an overnight change.’

Disruptive behaviour is the result of established distorted thinking then and we’re in for the long haul in trying to extinguish it. As a general statement children are thrown by changes. Does that ring true? Walking and talking? Should we think about disruptive children as damaged goods?

Never mind, onward and upward. Let’s go looking for rewards.

‘Developing self-control is a process. Throughout the process early childhood educators must demonstrate considerable patience and be consistent in reinforcing productive, socially competent behavior.You can change disruptive behavior by using a consistent, systematic process, such as the 12 levels of intervention.

1 Give no direct attention to the unacceptable behaviour

2 Arrange the environment to minimize disruptive behavoiur

3 Use neutral time to discuss alternative behaviour to the disruptive act with the entire class

4 Scan the room for children engaging in prosocial behaviour and use an ‘I’ message to commend the behaviour.

5 Start walking towards the child who is displaying disruptive behaviour while pointing out an acceptable behaviour by another child.

6 Stand by the child for a short period.

7 Stay next to the disruptive child for an extended period.

8 Apply gentle, appropriate touch.

9 While applying touch use a verbal cue to redirect the child.

10 Manually guide the child to undo the unacceptable act and redo the desired behaviour.

11 Keep the child by your side for the entire activity, use the three-part ‘I’ message to explain why you are limiting their access to to other activity.

12 Keep the child by your side for multiple activities as long as is necessary to faclitate self-control.’

Not easy to see where the reward is here. Some children have been commended for doing well and been pointed out as examples of good behaviour as a the means of manipulating the disrupter.

This 1-12 programme is for young children and for older children it may need to be revised as teaching a subject in secondary school while standing beside an actively disrupting student for the whole lesson may not be productive, or wise. Nevertheless buried within this programme are the 4 keys to behaviour modification; positive reinforcement, extinction, negative reinforcement and punishment, explained like this in Walker (2014);

Positive reinforcement, the reinforcer or consequence of behavior, tends to increase or sustain the frequency or duration with which the behavior is exhibited in the future. It is only effective when it’s appropriate and meaningful to the individual, if it is perceived as reinforcing by the individual.’

Here it is! Reward = positive reinforcement. Of course there is no way of knowing how it’s perceived by the child or what it means a the time, but this is experimental psychology were talking about here so you’ll be able to tell by looking at the results. If the child doesn’t change it’s either that we got it wrong or there’s something wrong with the child.

Let’s skim over the other reinforcers.

Extinction is the removal of a reinforcer that is sustaining or increasing a behavior, unwanted behaviour attracting the attention of significant adults for example. The ineffectiveness of ignoring as an unplanned intervention is a result of the inconsistency of its application rather than its inadequacy as a behavior change technique. The inconsistency on the part of a teacher or parent tends to confuse children and reinforce the unacceptable behavior. In the classroom setting, the target behavior will be extinguished once the reinforcer has been withdrawn for a sufficient period of time.

 Negative reinforcement in the classroom setting is the student performing a behavior and the teacher removing something the student dislikes, the removal of an already operating aversive stimulus. As a consequence of the removal of the aversive stimulus, the target behavior is strengthened.

In contrast, punishment is the addition of an aversive stimulus or the subtraction (taking away) of a pleasurable item or activity in an effort to change the frequency of a behavior.’

Punishment is the most frequently used of the behavior change techniques and is a group of behavioral reduction procedures including from the least to the most intrusive and restrictive differential reinforcement, extinction, verbal aversives, response cost, time-out, overcorrection, and physical aversive. Although frequently used with children punishment is the least effective of the behavior management interventions. Those using punishment have been reinforced by its immediate result but the long-term effects of punishment are limited. Punishment suppresses the undesirable behavior rather than extinguishing it, suppression is of short duration, and the behavior recurs in the absence of the punisher.

Examples are beating, electric shock (Note: that’s what it says in the text!), additional homework and the taking away of a pleasurable item or activity like extracurricular activities and playtimes. Punishment is not to be confused with extinction (see earlier section). Some punishments will remove some unacceptable behaviors but when a punished behavior recurs, it usually does so at a rate higher than before the punishment was originally imposed. Another concern associated with punishment is its potential and actual effect on the physical and emotional health of the child. In some cases, punishment may cause emotional problems.’

Writing about reward is more tricky. Anyone can see that punishment could be harmful and some people don’t seem to care, but rewards? Can there be a downside to telling children they are clever and funny and brave? I know I’m stepping into a patch of nettles. When my boy comes home with his ‘Star of the week’ badge pinned to his little jumper he is happy about it. Who am I to take it away?

If you skipped through this last section because it’s all there in your memory from your teacher training days, I apologise for the tedium. I can vaguely remember trawling through the theory of what should work too. What is striking in the application of this theory that the advice does not include the giving of stars and stickers and celebrations of achievment to get poorly behaving children to change and it’s all about external, extrinsic push. The carrot seems weak compared to the stick and punishment has got a lot a baggage attached to it. So where do we go from here?

Punished by rewards?

Twenty years ago Alfie Kohn, author of the 1993 book ‘Punished by Rewards’ commented that both rewards and punishments are ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning.

At the time Kohn’s book caused quite a stir. What evidence did he have for his claims? Was it true that there might be something wrong with rewarding and praising children as often as we could.

The behaviour experts at the time were telling us to aim for a 5 to 1 ratio of reward to punishment in school. Were they right? Most children were behaving well, then as now, and those who weren’t were beyond the power of praise and reward to make them change. Certainly behaviour policies throughout history have not demanded that persistent seriously bad behaviour be met with increasingly serious rewards, but in the time when behaviour is less than serious, does reward have a place?

So what’s new in the rewards cupboard?

Nothing much has changed. Kohn’s (1993) book didn’t precipitate a revolution and he was pigeon-holed by some with those other progressives allegedly advocating free-for-all classrooms and teachers’ abdication of responsibility. These days while there may be some feelings of uneasiness about using punishment to stamp out children’s bad behaviour particularly when they both get too extreme surely there’s nothing wrong with rewards to make them perform even better when they are already doing well, is there?

Kohn in the early 90s was interested in how external control affected students’ motivation and how this in turn affected their learning and to me this is crucial aspect of behaviour management. Is our intended educational outcome that children should become increasingly dependent on controlling adults or that they should develop the strengths of independent thought and action?

He said ‘One of the central myths we carry around in our heads is that there is this single entity called “motivation” that one can have more or less of. And of course we want kids to have more of it, so we offer them A’s, praise, and pizza. The truth is that there are qualitatively different kinds of motivation. We need to stop asking “How motivated are my students?” and start asking “How are my students motivated?” The kind of motivation elicited by extrinsic inducements isn’t just less effective than intrinsic motivation; it threatens to erode that intrinsic motivation, that excitement about what one is doing.’

This question of the meaning of motivation is at the heart of Daniel Pink’s 2009 book ‘Drive’ and he turned to Kohn for inspiration. His suggests that motivation can be best thought of as;

  • First Drive – biological need for survival; food, shelter, safety from attack, etc.
  • Second Drive – extrinsic motivators; praise, punishment, peer pressure, etc.
  • Third Drive – intrinsic motivators – purpose, mastery, autonomy

When we bring this analysis to bear on the question of the behaviour of students in school, we can relate it to the intended educational outcomes of our action. Are we engaging Third Drive? As Bill Rogers (Stop using the word ‘punishment’ if you want to improve behaviour TES Professional 27th November 2014) has emphasised our work focused on behaviour must always have an educational purpose and it’s hard to argue against that although some might. In general in whatever we do specifically about behaviour there is the overarching aim of enabling children to fulfill their full potential through education; we help children to develop a sense of autonomy, resilience and self-motivation to succeed. Behaviour work should have the same aims and clearly match the same standards.

But if what we’re doing and are advised to do it’s all about manipulation and we are going to keep on doing it, at least we should know the safe limits of reward and punishment.

And if Kohn and Pink are right we should think the unthinkable and do something different.

Coming next;


Part 3; Something Different  

#behaviourinquiry #kindbehaviour


Consequences of behaviour (2014) Walker J., Shea T., Bauer A.; Bacon Prentice Hall


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