Q: Our 8-year-old son was caught stealing from the teacher’s prize box at school. He has done this in the past and was punished, but it seems he hasn’t gotten the picture yet. Do you have any suggestions for us?
Before I answer your question, I want to address the issue of classroom prize boxes. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column concerning the disconnect between research and practice in America’s schools. This prize box foolishness is a prime example of just that.
Well-done research has all but completely debunked the notion that rewards improve academic performance. If any improvement does take place, it is generally short-lived. Furthermore, some research has found that rewards can actually depress motivation and result in lowered performance.
In a school setting, this issue is complicated by what I call educational correctness. These days, a teacher who gives rewards must come up with excuses to give them to every child in the class. If she doesn’t, she runs the risk of dealing with outraged parents as well as disapproving administrators. In the final analysis, therefore, classroom rewards become meaningless, even counterproductive.
All of this has been known for quite some time. The question, therefore, becomes: Why are America’s schools still using rewards to motivate students when they are likely to have the opposite effect? The answer: Bureaucracies are inherently rigid. Once a certain practice becomes embedded in a bureaucracy – in this case, America’s educational bureaucracy – changing it takes more than evidence it isn’t working.
Where your son’s nimble fingers are concerned, I first recommend that his teacher make the prize box disappear. Since it won’t disappear, however, I encourage you to make him get up in front of the class and apologize to everyone. In addition, there should be extended consequences at home (e.g., early bedtime for a month) and school (e.g., no recess for a month). Will that solve the problem? Maybe.
The fact is that when a child does something wrong, and the adults in his life respond by doing something right, there is no guarantee the child will stop doing the wrong thing. In that case, the adults should simply keep doing the right thing. It’s called staying the course – no matter what.