What’s so wrong with rewards at school? (Part 3)

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

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 the food 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 operate a variation of a sliding scale. 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 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. 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.

If you want further information along these lines connect with @braveheartadopt on twitter or BraveHeart Education on Facebook. Also check out our website for training opportunities in your area.

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