Why is the teacher giving my kid m&m's?

Apr 14, 2011 at 2:37 a.m. ET

Six-year-old Carlos Melendez stood in line waiting as his first-grade teacher bid farewell to her students at the end of the school day during the second week of school. She was completing her ritual of placing a sticker on the hand of every child who had been good that day. As she reached out to give Carlos a sticker, he informed her, "I don't need a sticker to know when I've been good. I can tell on the inside."

"ABC" written in candy.

When Carlos' teacher complained about his attitude at parent/teacher conferences, the boy's parents told her his statement was correct. They politely informed the teacher that Carlos' motivation to do well in school came from the inside, and they preferred that she no longer use stickers with him.

Is it really pizza party time?

Karyn Murphy's parents recently received a letter from their child's third-grade teacher. It explained how many books their daughter would need to read in order to attend the class pizza party at the end of the month. The pizza party was the reward children would be receiving for their reading efforts.

The letter instructed the parents to sign a form verifying Karyn's books and number of pages read. Instead, her parents returned the form to the teacher, accompanied by a letter of their own:

Our daughter reads because she loves reading. Your program of rewarding children with pizza for reading teaches children that the reason to read is to earn an external reward. We feel this undermines her internal motivation of wanting to read for adventure, fun and personal interest.
We, As Karyn's parents, are not interested in a quick-fix style of motivation that results in many books read quickly to obtain a reward. We are interested in creating a lifelong reader. Pizza parties will not attain that result.
Please know that we will continue to encourage Karyn's interest in reading our way and that we will not be recording the number of books she reads. We expect that she will be allowed to attend the party with her classmates.

Is a goodie the goal?

The parents in the scenarios above represent a growing number who are speaking and acting out concerning their dissatisfaction with the escalating educational practice of distributing stars, stickers, smiley faces, grades and other external goodies in order to control how children act.

Most parents know that rewards produce short-term compliance. Any parent who has ever offered a child a trip to the movies if they clean their room knows that. And external rewards are incredibly easy to use.

>> 5 Non-monetary rewards for good grades

The problem is that many parents and some teachers don't know that external rewards do not produce lasting change. In fact, these extrinsic reward systems often have the reverse effect. They teach children that the reason to act responsibly, read, study, or behave altruistically is to get rewarded. This fails to help children develop an internal reason to do the desired behavior -- so when the reward is ended, so does the behavior.

An increasing number of parents are beginning to realize that the more rewards are used, the more they are needed in the future, and as children grow in age and size, it is necessary to increase the size of the reward.

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These parents are concerned because the quick-fix control systems of rewards often used in schools teach that learning is something one does to get a candy, a gold star, or your name on the board -- rather than as something that is important for its own sake.

If intrinsic motivation has been carefully nurtured by the parent and does exist within a child, it is overridden as children learn to rely on the external control offered by teachers looking for quick and easy answers to their frustrations.

Temporary change vs long-term success?

Offering children rewards for acting responsibly, learning a number of spelling words, or sitting silently at the school assembly assumes that these students have no interest in acting that way without the rewards. It shows a lack of trust of children and an unwillingness on the part of the adult to invest the time necessary to give reasons, teach the desired behaviors, or display patience while children learn from their mistakes. Rewards are being used by teachers who are looking for an easy way out -- a way that does not require teaching children the compelling whys to do the desired behavior.

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Rewards only create a temporary change in behavior. They do not alter what children believe or how they feel about an activity. They do not create self-motivated, self-directed, critical-thinking, reasoning children with a strong internal set of values.

Rewards teach children to do what is necessary to get the reward and no more. Creativity, thoroughness and risk taking suffer. Children learn to play it safe, take shortcuts and just get it done.

Responsibility its own reward

Parents like the Melendezes and Murphys are beginning to ask questions about the practice of dispensing rewards. Are the teachers who use them developing self-responsible children or youngsters who obey without thinking? Have the teachers thought about the long-term effects of the practice, or are rewards just a convenient way to gain compliance? How interesting and relevant is the assigned task if the teacher has to give my child a reward to do it?

>> Tracking your child's grades online

These families have moved past just asking the question, "Why is the teacher giving my kid candy?" They are doing something about it.

What do you think? Are school rewards motivational or do they ultimately have a negative impact on a child's behavior? Weigh in below!

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