By Brittany Sanders
I believe in treats, but my daughter took it a bit too far.
My daughter was in kindergarten last year, and just a few weeks into the school year she brought home a note about a new classroom incentive program. At the end of every week, she'd bring home a sticker sheet. If she'd worked hard and behaved herself, it was up to me to read the note and to provide her with a reward.
"What are you going to buy me?" she asked.
"Buy you?" I choked on the water I was drinking. "BUY you?"
Her hopes of building a Littlest Pet Shop empire dashed, I sat her down and explained to her that I wasn't going to buy her anything. "Behaving and working hard is what your dad and I expect of you," I told her, "It's what will help you succeed in school and in life. It's what you're supposed to do."
Though I don't have a problem with all incentive programs, I'm a big believer in intrinsic rewards -- the pride and satisfaction that comes from a job well done and the joy of learning itself. Just this weekend, that same kid from the story above read her first chapter book, an accomplishment that filled her with pride. And no one paid her to do it.
There's evidence to support my point of view. In numerous studies, money and other rewards not only don't help kids perform better, sometimes they also make kids do worse.
But as it turns out, bribery may indeed have its place in the classroom. A recent study -- done, ironically, by a man who fought his way out of a rough childhood not by rewards, but with hard work, competitiveness, and a fear of failure -- found that when incentives are planned well, they can improve test scores equivalent to three extra months spent in school.
For his study, Harvard economist named Roland Fryer Jr. set up incentive systems in four different cities -- Chicago, New York, Dallas, and Washington, reports "Time" magazine. Each program was set up differently, and each was compared to a control group. The bar? End-of-the-year standardized testing.
The results were interesting. In New York, kids made no measurable improvement. And kids in Chicago improved their grades, but showed no growth on standardized tests. Kids in Washington made small gains, but it was the students in Dallas that made everyone stop and take another look.
Dallas schoolchildren were paid a small amount of money to read books, boosting their reading comprehension and therefore their test scores. The difference, reports "Time," was that students in the other cities were asked to improve their performance on non-specific tasks, while the kids in Dallas were asked to do something they already knew how to do -- read books. Fryer theorizes that giving kids control over the tasks necessary to perform their performance -- attendance, participation, work ethic -- can give them the motivation they need to improve their test scores.
Fryer's study inspired the Knowledge is Power Program, which now runs in 82 schools across the country, giving kids weekly rewards for doing what they're supposed to anyway. But really, let's be honest: Do you work for free?
A few weeks ago, before I read the "Time" article, I offered my kids a deal. We were just beginning the month-long school read-a-thon, a competition that's really hard to win. So instead of focusing on winning, I helped the kids set their own personal goals. Then for every book they read, I paid them a nickel.
Without reminding and without nagging, my kids didn't just reach their goal, they surpassed it. And just a few days ago at the award ceremony? One stood in first place, the other in second.
So yes, I'll continue to model a good work ethic, teach my kids a love of learning, and expect that they toe the line. But I think there just might be room in there for a treat or two, too.
Do you reward your kids for their hard work?
Bethany Sanders is a teacher turned stay-at-home mom of two living in the Midwest. Her musings on parenthood can also be found at Strollerderby and Savvy Source.