What’s so wrong with rewards at school? (Part 1)

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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 good enough 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 because 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 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. Why was this decision made to go open plan? Who knows.

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 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?

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