Prizes are no way to reward pupils, expert says

17th July 2015 at 01:00
Public praise causes `collateral damage' to children, he warns

Popular school systems for rewarding good behaviour are actually harming children, according to an internationally renowned psychologist and expert in character education.

Prize-giving assemblies, motivational posters and gifts for children who do well are "killing" classroom culture, said Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St Louis.

Speaking in the UK, Professor Berkowitz said that such schemes were shown by research to be counterproductive and that positive role models - in school or at home - were a far more powerful and benign influence on children's characters.

To illustrate how bizarre he found common reward systems, Professor Berkowitz asked delegates at the Character Scotland conference in Glasgow (bit.lyCharacterScotland) whether they would use them at home with their own children. Would they plaster posters illustrated with words like "respect" and "responsibility" on the walls? Would they start each day by reading out a pithy quote or convene the family once a month to announce who had shown the best character?

"How many of you went out and made these cute little signs to rename the spaces in your house, things like `caring kitchen', `benevolent bathroom', `tactful toilet'?" he asked.

"How many of you walk around your house with little slips of paper in your pocket and every time your child does something good, you give them one and at the end of the week, if they have five or six of them, they get a pencil that sparkles and smells like strawberries?"

This was not "deep, powerful stuff", Professor Berkowitz explained - that came from role models and "the values of people who are significant to you in your life".

"Educators, for some reason, instinctively feel like they have to give children tangible rewards and ideally to do it with an audience," he said.

Pam Maras, professor in social and educational psychology at the University of Greenwich, agrees that school rewards can be ineffective. "If you reward the good and punish the bad, like Pavlov's dogs, then change only really occurs in the specific situation," she said. "What you want them to do is to generalise the behaviour to other contexts.

"If you have a sign saying `respect', you're probably in a school where people are modelling good behaviour anyway."

The praise problem

But Sarah Morey, assistant headteacher at North Leamington School in Warwickshire, argued that people rewarded children at home as well as at school - just as she had done when her son recently achieved an excellent school report.

"Verbal praise is a very important part," she said. "But I think there's a place for both. Especially with pupils who perhaps don't have those role models at home."

Professor Berkowitz said that praising a child in public could be problematic. If a pupil's good character or behaviour was highlighted in class or at an assembly, he said, "at this point everybody hates [that child], she's uncomfortable, the teacher is killing the culture of my classroom".

He added: "My elegant advice to you about rewards and recognition is the following: stop it. Replace it with individual affirmation. All I have to do is go up to my pupil, put my hand on her shoulder and say, `I saw what you did. That was so kind. Keep it up.' No audience, no one else, walk away - and there's no collateral damage that we get from the other stuff."

The academic said that there was no point in schools professing the importance of character if the adults who worked there - including non-teachers - did not embody good character and show awareness that their actions left a mark on children.

"Some of those marks are temporary and wash away, some are scars that will throb with pain for the rest of the child's life," he said, adding that teachers had "awesome power over children".

`It's not about forcing things on people'

Sarah Morey, pictured, assistant headteacher at North Leamington School in Warwickshire, uses signs in the secondary's corridors to highlight the comprehensive's commitment to opportunity, respect and excellence.

"Quite often, these behaviours aren't necessarily exhibited by students' parents," she says. "So we focus on the behaviours that will set students up to have the happiest life they can."

The school also subscribes to the Carrot Rewards system. Pupils are rewarded for sustained proactive behaviour, and then entered into a lottery that allows them to win cinema tickets or Amazon vouchers.

"We pre-warn students if they're going to get a reward," she says. "Teachers quickly pick up on the ones who don't want it done in front of the whole class. It's not about forcing things on people."

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