Here’s why reward programs never work long-term
When a child’s behaviours are challenging or concerning, we often jump to looking for solutions which address the behaviour, but not the underlying cause.
These methods grossly oversimplify human behaviour, which is incredibly complex. Behaviourism identifies a problem behaviour and seeks to replace it with a preferred behaviour. Then the adult is to reward that preferred behaviour and dole out consequences for the undesired behaviour.
Sounds kind of like dog training, doesn’t it?
Kids are cute, but they’re not puppies, and human brains are much more complex than this approach would suggest.
Before we can even introduce reason or logic, children must feel safe and cared about. None of us can learn while experiencing stress, anxiety, or fear. That’s not how our brains work.
Think about it: How can we be focused on worrying about other people’s feelings, or about how our behaviour impacts others, if our brain is screaming “Danger, Will Robinson!”
We’re not going to be capable of learning our times tables when our brain detects an immediate threat to our sense of safety. Think of intense and uncomfortable emotions (fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, hurt feelings, sadness, etc.) as a barrier preventing us from accessing the logical parts of our brain.
When we feel dysregulated or unsafe, information only gets as far as the emotion centres of our brains, and our complex problem-solving capabilities are temporarily out of service.
“If you continue to expect the child to pay attention, focus, and learn, you will be eroding the child’s sense of safety with you. You will be damaging the empathic bond between the two of you.”— Dr. Bruce Perry
When I refer to disruptions to the child’s sense of safety, I don’t necessarily mean the obvious kinds.
When we think of children feeling unsafe, we tend to think about bullying, abuse, and physical injuries or illness. Those are important, of course, but we often miss the more subtle ways children experience stress.
The most common behaviour issue in schools is aggression. We can’t have aggressive behaviour in our classrooms because we need to keep everyone safe. Absolutely, this makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is our approach. The most common next step is to isolate the child (both literally and figuratively), removing their sources of connection to their classmates, teacher, and school community, and attempting to examine the child’s behaviour in a vacuum.
To use a different metaphor: we get tunnel vision.
We identify the concerning behaviour and write it on a little chart. We sit down with Jane or Jimmy or Bobby-Joe, and — usually without consulting them first — outline the plan.
See here now, Jane. You’re not allowed to hit. When you get mad, you’re going to go to the “calm down spot” and squeeze this stress ball or do some breathing exercises. Whenever you choose those positive options, you’ll get a sticker on your chart. Once you fill up a row on your chart, you’ll get to select a prize.
Sound good? No? Too bad.
There are so many things wrong with this scenario, however well-intentioned. When a child is dysregulated, their ability to choose is severely limited — this is the case for all humans, but even more so for children, whose brains are still maturing.
Punishing children for not making “good choices” is essentially punishing them for having a child’s brain, or for having a brain which is experiencing stress. We can’t learn from rewards or consequences — nor can we use logic and reason — when we’re under stress because our brain has to focus on taking care of our basic needs.
And yes: removal of, or missing out on, a reward is a form of punishment.
Threatening the removal of rewards is also counter-productive. If a child is dysregulated and unable to access the rational part of their brain, and we say “if you don’t stop that right now, you’re not going to get a sticker for today!” we’re more likely to escalate the situation.
That threat may even work the first time, when the program is shiny and new, but how long before the kid starts saying “I don’t care!” and “sucks to your stickers!”
Our friend Jane will likely continue to engage in the unwanted behaviours when she is dysregulated for these reasons. She also won’ t learn how to behave any differently until someone role-models how and co-regulates with her.
When children experience danger signals in their brains, regardless of how safe adults think they are, it feels to them as though they are truly under threat. When kids react to this feeling, they are not doing it on purpose. This is the most important thing I try to convey to people, so please allow me to repeat myself.
When children react to a perceived threat with problematic behaviours, they are not doing it on purpose — they are responding to danger signals their brains are sending.
This is why behaviour charts don’t work: children cannot learn any new skills or new ways of managing stressful situations until they feel safe.
© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
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Delahooke, M. (2022). Brain-Body Parenting: How to stop managing behaviour and start raising joyful, resilient kids. Harper Collins.
Desautels, L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.
Greene, R. W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.
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