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What's so wrong with rewards at school?

  • Written by Nicola Marshall
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Something I’m asked time and again, whilst doing training for schools, is how can we use rewards effectively with children who’ve experienced trauma? Well there are a few fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves first:-

  • What are we rewarding children for?
  • Why do we feel the need to reward?
  • What are we hoping we will achieve when we reward them?

The whole concept of rewarding good behaviour is rife in our homes and schools but where did it come from? Is it a throw back to the harsher days of never praising children for when they did something well, of only reprimanding them when they stepped out of line? When I looked this topic up on the internet it’s littered with articles and techniques around how to reward positive behaviour in children and ignore the bad.

However what about when children have had a difficult start in life, they don’t have the strong foundation that nurtured children have had, they don’t have the safe base of a safe parenting structure to come back to when they go off and explore. Their worlds in short are upside down to other children’s worlds. So why do we then insist on treating them the same? They do not understand why you are rewarding them for something and it gives them mixed and damaging messages sometimes.

For example our first question – what are we rewarding children for?

In a classroom we talk about good or appropriate behaviour. We want a child to sit in a certain way, do the tasks asked of them quietly, be polite with people, not hit other children etc. All things that we feel are acceptable and appropriate in our society – the niceties of how we interact with each other. So what about a child who struggles in these areas – they can’t sit still due to the hyper-vigilance they feel about whether they are safe or not, they have little impulse control, their cause and effect thinking is not developed and they have no empathy. To expect them to follow the rules when they haven’t been taught them and many times don’t have the tools they need to be able to comply is unrealistic.

Rewarding children (or punishing them by not rewarding them) for things they can not do sometimes sends the message that they must be so bad that they can’t control their emotions and actions. To see other children getting their stickers and sweets for something they feel is impossible for them to do only compounds their feeling of inadequacy and worthlessness.

Children who have experienced trauma feel at the core of their being that THEY ARE BAD – not that they do bad things but that they are bad! The toxic shame associated to this feeling is too much for them to bear sometimes. When we then reward them for something we think they have done well two things happen in them. One, they do not believe you so they will prove you wrong by doing something they know you will disapprove of like hitting another child. Secondly they think that you are lying to them as they KNOW they are bad, it’s engrained in them.

The way our educational system is set up these days is around behaviour modification techniques. Getting children to behave in the way we as society deem is fit. But what happens in the midst of this is there are masses of children who don’t fit the mold – in fact I would go so far as to say no child fits a mold! They are all unique, different, individual and as such should be treated so.

I can hear the cries of “easy for you to say, you don’t have the teach a class of 30 children all with different complex needs” and of course that’s true but that’s my point – the system is set up in such a way to meet our needs as adults and teachers, not to meet children’s needs. I’ve heard recently of many schools that are going to open plan classrooms. I don’t see how this can help children’s concentration and attention. For children who’ve experienced trauma especially the noise and chaos will not help them to learn but in fact it will hinder them greatly.

What should we be rewarding children for then, if at all? Well I believe we need a different approach. Instead of trying to modify children’s behaviour and push them into a mold of what we think is appropriate maybe we should be encouraging them to explore their emotions and feelings more. Instead of being afraid of anger and aggression – find ways to help the child integrate that into their whole person. I’ve always been a volatile personality and have struggled for years with my temper, so much so that at times it makes me feel that I AM BAD – in who I am. I wish that I’d have been taught how to face my feelings and deal with my anger in such a way that it was not swept under the carpet or seen as a nasty trait but as part of the whole human experience.

Imagine what a child would feel like if they were praised for being able to express their feelings, or encouraged to wrestle with their failure and disappointments – how different would they be as adults I wonder?

So our second question then why do we feel the need to reward children?

We are told that what you focus on is what you get and I can see that. The more you comment on the negative things and complain about how awful something is the harder it is to get yourself out of that place. However for children who’ve experienced trauma especially we must always put their needs before ours. I think as adults we feel that if we don’t praise every single thing we’re not supporting and encouraging children. I’m not saying of course that we should pick on their difficult areas and make them feel rubbish. What I am saying is that we need to look at why we struggle so much with this whole area of rewards. Whenever I’ve spoken about this on training invariably someone struggles with this concept of giving low-key praise and not linking it to the action. We feel that the point of rewarding is so that they do that behaviour again – behaviour modification, but the key element to remember with these types of children is that their behaviour is communicating a need – they are not naughty children, they are scared and anxious children showing that in ways that we find difficult and that are unacceptable in our societies.

What I will say about praising children is that we need to make sure we are building up their self-esteem. This will take a long time and baby steps – when we go in all guns blazing and tell them how fantastic their singing is and they should be on X Factor you have no idea how that information will be received. They need small doses of praise and affection that builds their resilience and gives them a sense of who they are and who they can be.

Which brings me to my final question – what do we hope to achieve by rewarding them?

In the traditional sense with our reward charts and sliding scales of behaviour charts we are hoping they will tow the line and conform to the ‘right’ ways of behaving according to us. However you have to remember they have probably experienced a very different environment to other children and what they know as normal and acceptable is not what you or other children will think. For them it may be acceptable to hit someone when they can’t get their own way, or to demand food from other people. Don’t forget as well that they are very self-reliant and will do whatever it takes to get their needs met. That’s not behaving inappropriately if what they feel they need is that food that someone else has or they will die. We cannot understand the depth of emotion they may feel around something that terrifies them.

Some schools I know have a variation of a sliding scale, where the children all start out in the green square at the start of the day then move to amber if they don’t... 

keep the rules, then to red. This I think doesn’t send a great message to children. If a child is frightened and incredibly upset about something so much so that they can’t sit still or do their times tables our response should be compassion and support, not to move them down the scale. Also of course for children who need attention being in the red is what will give them the attention – they don’t care if it’s good or bad attention!

When I said earlier that these children are topsy turvy, upside down children – the ‘normal’ rewards and consequences don’t work with them, there needs to be a new approach. The main way we can reach these children is through relationships. Relationships are where things have gone wrong for them in the past and relationships are what can build their self-esteem and change the way they see themselves and the world around them.

I read an article recently by Bryan Post an American leading expert in the field of attachment and parenting traumatised children. He was talking about consequences at school and gave this example.

Tim walks into the classroom in the morning loud and boisterous. A simple consequence you might provide Tim is a little shame and embarrassment mixed with classroom training. “Ah, Tim I think you’ve entered the big kids room this morning. Why don’t you try it again, or you can go down to the second grade where you might fit in better!” Oh, that’s a good one right there. All of the other students laugh. Tim’s face turns red, he storms out, and then storms back in without giving you even a look.

How about a different approach? Something that will shock Tim – he walks in being loud and boisterous and stops to talk to Gerry for a minute on the way. As Tim is interrupting the morning register you pause, take a big deep breath and feel your centre. Then, you just state in a gentle voice, “Tim”, Tim hurredly shuts off his morning meandering and replies, “What?” You look at him and smile, gesturing to his seat with your head. He sits. It happened so fast that the class doesn’t even know that it happened.

Then later you go over to him and say “Tim are you ok this morning? You seemed quite upset earlier, is there anything I need to do different? I don’t want you feeling like you aren’t getting enough attention. That would be terrible for you. In fact, because it seems like that’s what’s going on, maybe you and I could spend some time together in the morning before class. What do you think? That would help me make sure one of my favourite kids is getting the attention that he needs and I wouldn’t be worried that I might be messing up with you” Tim stirs. “Nah, you don’t have to do that. You give me plenty of attention really, I was just being rude and not thinking”. You respond with more compassion, “Ok I understand but if you come into my classroom feeling that way, it tells me this is not the safe place I want it to be for you. And that’s my responsibility – to make learning safe and enjoyable for you. I’ll see you in the morning ten minutes before bell rings”.

A very different approach right? And I’m guessing for some of you that raised more questions…but I know it works. When you can see their behaviour as a sign that something is bothering them then you can stay curious and compassionate – it’s not easy because they are skilled at the defenses they have created to protect themselves, but they need the relationship with adults to be strong, and to help them rebuild what they so desperately need to develop and grow.

It’s a process of moving from one belief i.e. that we must reward specific behaviour for a child to learn that’s how to behave, to a radical concept that if we could build a strong relationship with the child, encourage expression and integration (knowing that we ALL struggle with the full range of human emotion) and find ways to help a child feel safe and feel good about themselves and their worlds – then I believe we would have really helped a child to grow to be a well rounded, resilient, functioning member of society.



Submitted by: Nicola Marshal - West Midlands UK