The Problem with Stickers, Star Charts, and Candy for Preschool Children - Extrinsic Rewards Don't Work - Paper Pinecone Blog

The Problem with Stickers, Star Charts, and Candy for Preschool Children - Extrinsic Rewards Don't Work

Published Date: 12/19/19

There is not a preschool in the world that at some point has not tried using extrinsic rewards for behavior, achievement, or other goals. Kids of all ages love stickers and stamps on their hand, but do they achieve the results that teachers think they do?

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The difference between extrinsic rewards, things you can see, touch, hold, or eat, and intrinsic motivation, like the feeling you get for a job well done, are vastly different over time. Researchers have found that the overuse of extrinsic rewards can demotivate children to develop persistence and the valuable trait that some in the education community call “grit”. As our world becomes faster paced and instant gratification is an expectation due to the advances of technology, it is important to note what preschool teachers can do to help children learn to wait, work hard, and feel good about themselves when they achieve something.

What does intrinsic motivation look like? In young children, it is what makes them curious or show interest in something. A four year old asks, “Why?” many times a day. They are filled with intrinsic motivation if their questions are answered. Their brains crave new information so that they can make sense of the world around them. As children turn into teenagers, that curiosity seems to fade away. There is some research that believes the overuse of extrinsic rewards may contribute to that decline.

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We want children to have autonomy. That means we want them to do what they should do because they want to, not because they must do it. Teachers often use rewards, like stickers or stamps, to encourage students to do things they need to do in a classroom. The problem with this strategy is that giving students’ small rewards becomes the child’s focus and goal instead of them consciously trying to learn something. It is a common misconception that rewards work; however, research has repeatedly shown that extrinsic rewards do not motivate students to achieve, instead, it may keep children from doing their best.

Using sticker and start charts can have unintended consequences, including:

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They can lead to a bargaining attitude among children

  • Children begin to expect that everything in life will be rewarded, but as we all know, that’s simply not how life works

Adults assume misbehavior stems from lack of motivation to exhibit good behavior

  • There are many reasons a child may behave in an undesirable way, including not knowing what the appropriate behavior should be. A star will not make a child do something if they do not understand what is expected of them or if they are developmentally unable to do it. Behavior needs to be taught, explained, modeled, and praised, but not rewarded with meaningless tokens.

Some kids won’t play the game.

  • Some children will feel controlled or manipulated by extrinsic rewards.

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They can interfere with internal motivation

  • Studies show that if children are told in advance that they will get a reward for doing an activity well, that they will do it; however, when given the free choice to play at one of several different activities including the one for which they were previously rewarded, they will avoid that same activity because it is no longer attached to an extrinsic reward.

Few teachers (or families) can keep up with them more than a few weeks.

  • The initial excitement of earning rewards fades fast. The adult must be constantly upping the stakes and coming up with new rewards. It is a never-ending battle.

In addition, behavior charts can cause children who do not get a “star” for good behavior, or even worse, an “X” or a blank for not compliance to feel guilt or shame. Children can internalize that failure and will often see themselves as a bad person if they don’t get the star.

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Instead of using a behavior chart, there are a several other strategies that teachers and parents can use that are more effective. Especially with preschool children, the developmentally appropriate thing to do is to incorporate movement and redirection into classroom management. A preschool child should not be expected to sit still and do anything for more than ten minutes. Getting the child up when they are starting to fidget or misbehave, moving them to another part of the room, and redirecting them to focus on a new activity works very well to control behavior. In addition, if teachers stay physically close to children and engage them in conversations, they are less likely to get off task. The attention of a teacher, especially personal attention directed at them and not at the entire group, is the best motivator of all.

So, what is a better way to build autonomy and intrinsic motivation in young children? Children are best motivated to please adults that they admire and who have shown kindness and interest in them. Teachers too often expect children to come to a preschool already knowing how to behave.

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Dr. Ruby Payne, Ph.D., a writer and educator who has published many books about working with children in poverty, notes that schools operate from a middle class value system that may not match the system of behavior and values that children have experienced at home. We cannot expect children to all know the “rules of school”. Every behavior and response must be taught and modeled by the teacher.

It is easy to notice and reprimand children for misbehavior. It is more difficult to be on the lookout for good behavior and to use praise individually. “Thank you for sharing the blocks,” and “I like the way you put your papers in the basket,” are both individual comments to children that increase their sense of self-worth and develop their autonomy. A whole class compliment doesn’t touch the heart of a child like an adult noticing his or her individual behavior. It shows that the child matters. He or she is worthy. All children really want is to please the adult that is significant to them. Teachers can become one of those significant adults in the child’s life through modeling, sincere praise, and kindness.

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