Behaviour - Punishing with rewards: when praise becomes a sanction

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Punishing with rewards: when praise becomes a sanction

We spend so much time thinking about punishments that the concept of how we should praise children often falls off the table. And who can blame the busy teacher for failing to fret about the manner and method by which smiley faces are distributed, when so many of us feel that out hands are full merely by attempting to tackle the not-so-smiley faces lined up on the naughty step? Not I.

But every good teacher who has the merest inkling of tenderness towards his charges realises that sanctions are only one side (albeit a glorious and necessary one) to the motivation equation. Children must be pulled as well as pushed. We are all, by virtue of our shared human nature, receptive to praise and blame; our moral fabric rests on such points. The questions of where such abstracts originate from is a matter for another day. But praise we must, for many reasons.

Firstly, because many of them, much of the time, will deserve it; if you are inclined to encourage good behaviour, it should be linked to consequences that, for the student, are satisfactory- the hand shake, hug and hail of any good relationship. The teacher’s response should encourage as well as deter, because failure to do so will result in a cohort who are merely motivated to avoid perdition by any means possible, and given the ingenuity of the human heart, that can mean simply not being caught. No, we want them to want what you want them to want, and the simplest way of setting them off towards the path or righteousness (apart from simply telling them, which is often the most overlooked strategy of them all) is by rewarding them when they incline themselves towards the good. They must love virtue, not merely despise vice

So rewards are essential. But just as there is an obvious excess of punishment (cruelty and capriciousness in the classroom earns for its instigator exactly what it deserves: slavish, biddable serfs who will overthrow you, the tyrant overlord, as soon as they are able), so too are there excesses and deficiencies in the realms of praise and rewards. This goes against the recommendations of many, who feel that children cannot be praised enough; perhaps this springs from a subconscious assumption that children are the vessels of innocence and charm, despite appearances to the contrary; perhaps it originates from a more understandable misimpression that positivity begets positivity, without exception. These beliefs, however angelic in their genesis, are thicker than blood.

Praise, it is said, should be frequent; catch them being good, I have been told on many times. This, despite the fact that catching them being good often requires a butterfly net the size of the Dartmouth Tunnel, and reflexes like a ninja. But, young Jedi, dangers there are to this policy. To the Dark Side lead you this will. Why? Because praise can be as toxic as shame. Here’s how:

Praise exists as a way to reward good behaviour. But the human mind, alert to novelty and the shock of the new, is also prey to a complication: desensitisation. As soon as we face a challenge, overcome it, and enjoy the fruit of success, we become bored of the new status quo and seek greater challenges. On one level you could despair of this acclimatisation that drives us to perpetual new horizons of novelty as indicative of a nature not unadjacent to that of a termite, consuming, moving on, consuming and moving on. Or your glass could be half full and you could celebrate our voracious appetite for discovery and innovation, driving us on to greater heights as a species. Whatever: it’s what we do. If you subject anyone to the same stimulus repeatedly, their sensitivity to that stimulus wears off in a curve that bottoms out around zero. It’s as true for the caffeine in your coffee as it is for the snooze of your alarm. It’s why people who move from the country to the city can’t sleep for the first month and then develop an immunity to sirens and audio trauma; it’s why people from the city who perform the reverse migration lie awake at first, stiff with panic at darkness and silence…and then adjust. It’s why sweet tea tastes sour after a Mars bar; why every family wants bigger houses, more cars, more space, more, more, more. We cannot persist in a stasis. If a stimulus is constant, it ceases to be a stimulus.

Notice I said, ‘If it is constant.’ Praise cannot be an ever-present feature of your idiom. It can be frequent, and it should be, if you are praising the right things for the right reasons. But we mustn’t succumb to the golden-hearted desire to see good in everything, to drop stars and merits like manna from the Heavens, simply because they have turned up, or looked in vaguely the right direction. You’re a teacher, and you don’t want to teach them the wrong lessons: that rewards accrue by entitlement; that praise is a human right. They are none of these things: praise and rewards have to be earned to be meaningful, or the class will see you as a kind of Santa Claus in an agreeable cardigan, good for sweets and treats, but not to be treated as anything other than a biscuit barrel.

And economics teaches us another valuable lesson: the more available an object is, the less valuable it becomes- the law of supply and demand. That’s why gold is expensive and bullshit is free; scarcity dictates value in conjunction with utility. Children sure want praise (and who can blame them?) but if they always get what they want, then they find that they want something else. Look at that Satanic engine of broken dreams and lives ruined on the rack, the X-Factor. From whom, out of all the talent vacuums on the judging panel, do the contestants most crave the recognition- Knight Rider? Cuddly hair-tosser Cheryl Cole? No, no, it is the very Prince of scathe, Mr Cowell who attracts their desperation, because he is the hardest to please. When he says, ‘I like you,’ it indicates that they really must be doing something right. If The Hoff likes you, it simply means you have a pulse, and possibly breasts.

Regrettably, I recommend that you be more like The Cowell than the Hoff. Praise should be sincere; it should be meaningful; it should be carefully directed. When you do that, it can drive them to lift X-Wings out of the swamp. When you overdo it, you do nothing but punish them, because they don’t value your recognition any more. Keep the gold stars in a locked box that says, ARE YOU SURE?’ on it. ‘Well done’ should mean done well; ‘Excellent’ should refer to that which excels. ‘Brilliant’ should dazzle you. Hyperbole is a lazy way to engage students; they adjust quickly; they understand the dissonance between signifier and signified easily enough. They know when they’re being hustled. So don’t hustle them. Tell them when they’re being good. And when they’re not, don’t.


Resources - Get into the spirit

As December rolls around, school boilers freeze over, viruses swarm and multiply in the petri-dish bell-jars of the classroom and the break can’t come quickly enough. Don’t give in to the temptation to start the fun lessons too soon - else what’s a school for? But it is the time for giving, so why not stave off the bleak mid-Winter by trying to reward the kids who really deserve some praise - you know, the ones not laughing at you and shouting. Make some phone calls home to say something nice for a change; it’s amazing how it props up your sanity. Here are some good resources that will help you spread a bit of love this Christmas. I’ve also included the link to the Christian Aid teachers’ website as a good way to help plan lessons that really deal with some of the issues behind Christmas. Finally, I insist you check out the NORAD Santa tracking site, below. It’s the Armageddon alarm kids will love.

Not the Mr Men stickers

  • A selection of, quite frankly, adorable reward stickers ‘based’ on a popular children’s range of characters. Personalise away.

Design your - or your class’s - own blog tutorial

  • A great, easy tutorial to bring out your inner narcissist; or to teach your children to develop a writing voice

Poems for bookmarks

  • Does what it says on the tin; delightful series of poems in columns that can be printed out and given to children. Warning: not so much fun with a Kindle.

Batman/ Ben 10 Wristband

  • Frankly, I can’t think of anything I’d rather have had in year 4 than a Batman reward bracelet. Except for a big mate to stop me getting clobbered in the playground for wearing one.

Finding allies in your school

  • You are not alone: my article on who can help you.

Advent Powerpoint

  • Sweet powerpoint to be used as the basis of a primary lesson on the reason why we solemnly scoff chocolates for 25 days.

New 2011 Ofsted observation criteria checklist

  • It’s the gift that keeps on giving! Gold, Frankincense, and More. Read while unwrapping presents. Then stop crying.

The Quiet Ones

  • John Bayley’s interesting video short on dealing with quiet pupils

Christian Aid Teacher website

  • Inoculate the children against materialism with lesson plans, activities, and videos that celebrate the real meaning of Christmas and focus on relieving poverty.

NORAD tracks Santa website

The most genuinely bonkers and heart warming website you’ll ever see, with the most heart warming use of America’s early warning system since…ok, it might be the only example. If you haven’t heard about this OFFICIAL US government Santa tracking project, then check out the wiki page:

As the break rolls around, try to do the one thing that every human, let alone every teacher needs to stay human: see family, be with friends, and love someone. If you know someone that doesn’t have someone, then why not think about extending a hand of friendship, even if it’s only for one night? Give the gift, if you’ll pardon me, of love this Christmas. Peace and goodwill to all people, and for two weeks or so, teachers too.

Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas to everyone

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