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To Reward or Not to Reward: Behavior


We’re revisiting a mini-series of sorts on a controversial topic; controversial in education anyway: Giving rewards for behavior.

Back in the 90’s an influential book was written by Alfie Kohn (1993) that essentially said rewarding behavior is bad, and rewarding academic behavior or performance was really bad and amounted to, among other things, bribing students. In addition, other researchers, educators, and philosophers have argued that rewards reduce the inherent value of that which is learned and/or reduce the likelihood that a student will engage in academic behaviors when the rewards are withdrawn or not offered.

Kohn provided arguments against the use of rewards that are intuitive and “made sense” to educators and parents, i.e., giving external rewards kills intrinsic motivation. While these arguments are debatable, the intuitive appeal made several educators, and parents for that matter, resistant to using rewards (or reinforcement as it is better known in the research literature) when trying to increase behaviors from students. Some of the concerns associated with using rewards will be addressed in this and other posts, but in general, the evidence-based research continues to support the use of reinforcement (or rewards) when trying to change or improve behaviors.

Academic behavior, more commonly called learning (or academic performance) in school settings, is a central focus of education. Teachers, and parents, are trying to increase students’ learning to move students along in their acquisition of knowledge to become knowledgeable and skillful adults. There are other purposes for school, including social ones, but a major emphasis in schools is for students to learn more information and to learn that information more quickly when possible. Learning comes easier for some students than others, but all are gaining or acquiring knowledge and skills at different rates.

Reinforcement is something that increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. It takes many forms like praise, gestures, grades, money, peer reactions, etc., and reinforcement comes after a behavior is demonstrated. Praise after completing an assignment and a grade on a quiz are common examples.

A bribe, on the other hand, is an enticement prior to a behavior, and typically an enticement for an illegal or unethical behavior; something against the rules.

We often hear, “I shouldn’t have to reward Johnny for doing what he’s supposed to do” or “I shouldn’t have to bribe Johnny to do what he’s supposed to do”. Our response is something along the lines of rewarding Johnny will make his progress toward his/your goals much, much quicker; make his misbehavior or lack of production better; and make your lives easier. Just a little effort expended on your part, as a teacher or parent, can make the process and outcome better for all involved.

More to come – thanks for following along!

If you need help or guidance with behavioral and/or academic concerns, please contact us at or 865-974-6177.