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Bribery in the Classroom?

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I believe in treats, but my daughter took it a bit too far.

woman handing girl money

Bethany Sanders: My daughter was in kindergarten last year, and just a few weeks into the school year, she brought home a note about a new classroom incentive program. At the end of every week, she'd bring home a sticker sheet. If she'd worked hard and behaved herself, it was up to me to read the note and provide her with a reward.

"What are you going to buy me?" she asked.

"Buy you?" I choked on the water I was drinking. "BUY you?"

Her hopes of building a Littlest Pet Shop empire dashed, I sat her down and explained to her that I wasn't going to buy her anything. "Behaving and working hard is what your dad and I expect of you," I told her. "It's what will help you succeed in school and in life. It's what you're supposed to do."

Though I don't have a problem with all incentive programs, I'm a big believer in intrinsic rewards: the pride and satisfaction that come from a job well done, and the joy of learning in itself. Just this past weekend, that same kid from the story above read her first chapter book -- an accomplishment that filled her with pride. And no one paid her to do it.

There's evidence to support my point of view. Numerous studies have found that money and other rewards not only don't help kids perform better, they sometimes make kids do worse.

But as it turns out, bribery may indeed have its place in the classroom. A recent study -- done, ironically, by a man who'd fought his way out of a rough childhood not with rewards, but with hard work, competitiveness and a fear of failure -- found that when incentives are planned well, they can improve test scores equivalent to spending three extra months in school.

For his study, Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Jr. set up incentive systems in four different cities (Chicago, New York, Dallas and Washington), reports Time magazine. Each program was set up differently, and each was compared to a control group. The bar? End-of-the-year standardized testing.

The results were interesting. In New York, kids made no measurable improvement. In Chicago, kids improved their grades but showed no growth on standardized tests. Kids in Washington made small gains. But it was the ones in Dallas who made everyone stop and take another look.

The Dallas schoolchildren were paid a small amount of money to read books, which boosted their reading comprehension -- and therefore their test scores. The difference? According to Time, while the students in the other cities had been asked to improve their performance on nonspecific tasks, the kids in Dallas had been asked to do something they already knew how to do: Read books. Fryer theorizes that giving kids control over what's necessary for performance -- attendance, participation, work ethic -- can motivate them to improve their test scores.

Fryer's study inspired the Knowledge Is Power Program, which now runs in 82 schools across the country -- and gives kids weekly rewards for doing what they're supposed to anyway. But really, let's be honest: Do you work for free?

A few weeks ago (before I read the Time article), I offered my kids a deal. We were just beginning the monthlong school read-a-thon -- a competition that's really hard to win. So instead of focusing on winning, I helped the kids set their own personal goals. Then for every book they read, I paid them a nickel.

Without my reminding and without my nagging, my kids didn't just reach their goal, they surpassed it. And just a few days ago, at the award ceremony? One stood in first place, the other in second.

So yes, I'll continue to model a good work ethic, teach my kids a love of learning and expect that they'll toe the line. But I think there just might be room in there for a treat or two, too.

"Bribing can work -- and here's why," says momlogic expert Dr. Janet Taylor. "Motivation is both intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external). There is nothing wrong with externally priming kids' behavior with either monetary or verbal (praise) rewards. Bribing should be used, as the Time article suggests, toward efforts like education, character-building or health-related activities, to reinforce positive habits and skills. Directing your kids to individual, purposeful goals requires effort. Ultimately, a positive outcome or simple sense of fulfillment can result in an enhanced psychological benefit. Those feelings can pave the road for them to take control of their own lives and develop the internal capacity for generating their own action plan -- minus a bribe. By paying kids now to aim higher and study harder, we can save later by having a more educated -- and motivated -- workforce."

Do you reward your kids for their hard work?

next: From Nicaragua with Love
7 comments so far | Post a comment now
LizzieB April 13, 2010, 11:03 AM

Bethany, great post. I’m totally guilty of bribing my girls into behaving better and cleaning up around the house. I try not to go crazy but I can definitely see how it can get out of hand.

Bethany Sanders April 13, 2010, 11:18 AM

Thanks Lizzie! A few weeks ago, I told my 7 year old I’d double her allowance if she’d help her sister finish cleaning her room. My mom — who was over helping wallpaper the kitchen — burst out laughing, which made me realize what I’d just said. Sometimes, bribery is just the only way. :) Thanks for reading and for commenting!

Anonymous April 13, 2010, 12:15 PM

we pay our oldest boy for grades (our youngest isn’t in school yet), if you ask me we pay him way too much, but i’m working on that. my husband thinks he should get $20 for an A and $10 for a B - yeah, my husband is NUTS! BUT he does have to put 1/2 in savings. but next grading period, he longer gets those amounts.

Heiddi April 13, 2010, 7:01 PM

Hi Bethany,

Great post. I don’t necessarily reward my son with things. I don’t pay him for his good grades. I work as a socio-therapist (behavior) and decided to use a behavior chart at home with kiddo. He likes seeing the checkmarks on the dry-erase board and it builds him up. I tell him that I’m so proud of the hard work he’s doing and do things with him that don’t cost anything. Such as a trip to the park to ride his bike or razor or a later bedtime on the weekends. I try not to use rewards too much because he tends to ask for a lot. He’s learning that he has to work for the things that he wants and that he is in control of his behavior. He has greatly improved at home and has been listening better. My question to you is, why didn’t the teacher let you know about the rewards thing BEFORE sharing it with the kids? That would have annoyed me because I don’t necessarily have money to pay for regular rewards. Hello? Does she think you’re made of money? Other than that, great post!

Bethany April 14, 2010, 9:21 AM

Thanks, Heiddi. I think that the kind of reward the teacher had in mind was something small and not necessarily monetary. But the kids in the class heard “reward” and ran with it.

H April 14, 2010, 12:28 PM

Yeah while I’m a supporter of OCCASIONALLY giving a treat for good behavior, it shouldn’t be expected. If I am going to reward them they should be surprised with the reward after having done the task. Not being told “well if you do this you get a treat.” They should do their tasks with a good attitude without the promise of a reward. Rewards are just that. Rewards, extras, not something to be expected.

Bruce Sallan April 17, 2010, 9:56 AM

Maybe it is going too far in Kindergarten but later in life, what is the difference between paying your kids for good grades and us getting paid for our jobs? Doesn’t it actually teach them the value of work? If your kid got an “A” instead of a “B” because of an extra $10 wouldn’t that be worth it? How different is that in the real world?

This is from your erstwhile momlogic blogger - “Just A Guy” - Bruce Sallan - I have no strong opinions - lol.

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