No Quid Pro Quo (Kids)!

Written by Seth Pozzi, Head of School on .

Intrinsic Motivation
When Rewards Can be a Bad Thing

Experiences from age 0-8 influence how kids will think for the rest of their life. No one wants to raise an adult who will always think: “What’s in it for me?” when confronted with a task or responsibility. But you might be surprised to know that some commonly used discipline and “positive reinforcement” strategies can actually contribute to this kind of mindset. 

Here are a few suggestions that can help ensure we are building up intrinsic motivation and not a “What’s in it for me?” mindset in our children. 

Avoid Rewards, Incentives & Bribes
One strategy to keep in mind is to avoid giving children a reward for doing something that is a basic expectation: going to school, separating without tears in the morning, putting dishes in the sink, getting a good grade, doing homework, reading, etc. These kinds of rewards often influence a child’s behavior in the short term but don’t promote intrinsic motivation. 

Rather than giving rewards, we strive to give children words to tell them exactly what behavior is working and why. 

  • You put your toys back in their spots so they won't get broken or lost. 
  • You put your book back in the right bin so we can find it next time. 
  • You put your blanket in your nap bag so it will be there when you need it tomorrow.
  • I saw you get out your homework and get started so you will have time to play later. 

Emphasize how they might feel over your own approval. 

  • You worked really hard on the art project. 
    • Instead of: I am so proud of you.
    • Try: I bet you feel proud.
  • You remembered to put your dishes in the sink without being asked today. 
    • Instead of: I love that you did that. 
    • Try: That’s really responsible. 

Please & Thank You
While important aspects of politeness, the words "please" and "thank you" suggest that an action was optional. Responsive Classroom reminds teachers to avoid thanking children when they do something that is a basic expectation: Lining up quietly, putting our supplies away, cleaning up the lunch tables. Just like the prior examples, the ideal response reinforces the behavior that is working and why. 

  • Instead of: Thank you for pushing in your chairs.
  • We might say:
    • You remembered to push in chairs so no one will trip.
    • Let’s go back and try that, remembering to push in chairs so no one will trip.

Similarly, at home, you can try "noticing" and remarking about the desired behavior without the "please" or "thank you," if the behavior is an expectation, as opposed to a personal favor. 

That's not to say you can never say "please" or "thank you."  They still very much have a place in the lexicon, but they can be used more appropriately if the child does you a favor or a gesture of kindness. For example, "Thank you for grabbing me a tissue when I sneezed" or "thank you for holding the door".

Finally: I noticed you read through the entire article and learned a bit more on how to help build intrinsic motivation.

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