A couple of Christmases ago, my husband gave me a fitness tracker. I try to get a workout in every morning and he knew that I would be excited about watching how the steps added up over the day. He was right. I loved pushing myself and getting badges as I met new goals. I don’t mean to brag or anything, but people in my office liked to ask how many steps I had already collected when they saw me in the kitchen getting my morning coffee. And, they laughed (I like to think it was out of awe and respect) when I regaled them with the answer. As much fun as I had with the tracker, little did I suspect that it would teach me a lesson about the counterintuitive detrimental impact of rewards on behaviors.

Those of you know me are aware of my love affair with early childhood research. I devour articles about the field and seek out primary sources whenever possible. It is a passion of mine to figure out what the research means and how we can translate that into classroom practices that best serve children and families. Most of the time, the research makes sense and I am easily able to reconcile what I read with what I see in real life. However, when it came to the research about the impact of rewards on young children, I struggled a bit.

If you have read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, you are familiar with some of the research about this topic. In his book he warns that when we give children rewards for behaviors, we think we are reinforcing behaviors that we want to see. He lays out research that shows that instead of an increase in those actions you want to see, rewards can backfire and result in disincentivizing these behaviors.

I read about an interesting report that illustrated this idea. The researchers designed a study in which teachers started giving children stickers for drinking their juice with their morning snack, an activity that children naturally engaged in without cajoling or incident. After drinking their juice, a teacher would give the child a sticker and point how great it was that they had finished the drink. The reported results were dramatic. After a shirt time, children started to resist drinking the juice. It became obvious that they were choking it down just to get the sticker. By incentivizing a natural behavior, it appears that the reward had sent the implicit message that there was something wrong with the behavior; as children needed to be rewarded to do it. As soon as teachers stopped giving out stickers, many of the children stopped drinking the juice. Why continue to engage in the behavior if there was no longer a reward to do so? The intrinsic satisfaction of drinking the juice was eroded by the presence of an extrinsic reward.

I understood this research, I was able to articulate it to others, and I was able to translate the findings into appropriate behavior guidance policies and programs. But, there was always a little question in my mind; don’t we all do stuff for rewards? Would most of us work without a promise of a regular paycheck? Don’t we often reward ourselves with a new outfit, a bowl of ice cream, or a big glass of wine in response to a self-perceived “job well done”? Can the presence of these rewards actually erode our motivation? And, this is where the fitness tracker comes in.

For years, I have gotten up early every morning and headed to the gym and work out. It is not that I ever loved it; but I liked the way it made me feel and I thought it was important for my health and well-being. It was something I looked forward to. So, before the fitness tracker, working out was a behavior I did without much thought. The tracker that I have gives you a badge for working out for so many minutes, for burning so many calories in a day, and for moving around for so many hours in a day. You would also get badges for completing certain challenges; such as beating your calorie goal every day for a month. I am a bit embarrassed to say that I became a tad obsessed with these badges. If I had not burned enough by the end of a day, I would pace my hotel room or apartment floor until I got the indication that I had reached that goal. So, at first, it seemed like the incentives were working; I was increasing my activity to achieve a reward. Or, was I …?

I also noticed a few different things, here are some examples.

  • I used to get up early so I could work out for 45 – 60 minutes (I know, don’t judge). The fitness tracker only required me to work out for 30 minutes a day to get a reward. So happily, I set my alarm a little later; realizing I could get a little more sleep and still earn the reward.
  • And, an additional badge was promised if I completed 8 workouts of at least 18 minutes – so, sometimes that 30 minutes was cut even shorter.
  • One day I was sick and just could not get off my couch. There was no way I was going to win the badge for working out or burning enough calories every day that month. Even when I was feeling better, I didn’t go to the gym for the rest of the month. Why work out if the reward was out of my reach.
  • These, and a couple other incidences like them really illustrated for me the research about rewards. It is not that rewards don’t push people to take on a certain behavior; we like rewards and will behave in certain way to get them. What the research is indicating is that when there is an extrinsic motivation (like a sticker, the promise of a pizza party, screen time) the behavior becomes a means to an end. Short-term, we might see an increase in the behavior we want to see. But, in the long-term, the presence of an extrinsic motivation can build resentment about the desired activity. Behaviors that were once viewed as neither positive nor negative (like drinking juice), or even seen as beneficial (like work-outs) are dreaded and avoided once the promise of a reward is viewed.

Unlike extrinsic motivators, intrinsic motivation helps children reflect on their behaviors and connect with how they feel about them. When we work for a paycheck, Fridays can’t come soon enough. When we work for the work, each day is an adventure and is worth looking forward to. Intrinsic motivation creates joy and purpose in tasks and makes them more likely to be sustained into the future.

And, isn’t that our goal? As teachers, we are in it for the long haul. As teachers we make deposits into a future we may never see. But, we live in a today that was created by the teachers who came before us, so we know the value of the work.

What do you think? Engage with me and others in the ECE community on my social media outlets. You can also find more information about my book and available training sessions, on any of the following:

Facebook: Teacher as Gardener

LinkedIn: Michelle Salcedo

My book Uncover The Roots of Challenging Behavior can be purchased at Free Spirit Publishing or Amazon

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