Rewards vs. Cognitive Skills

In the Dan Pink video that I posted about a week ago, he said something that interested me: he said that rewards motivate mechanical skills, or skills that do not require much brain power or reasoning. Rewards actually hinder cognitive skills and make it harder to reason through a problem.

One of the things I love about kids is their ability to reason. You wouldn’t think that a two-year-old has the ability to reason very well, but they do. They don’t understand general, abstract statements, but they do understand that we perform an action for a specific reason. We clean up our toys so that we don’t trip on them and fall. We walk when we are inside so that we don’t trip and fall. We don’t jump on the bed because we might fall off and bump our heads!

If we can assign purpose to our actions, we become much better at assigning goals to ourselves. Our brains become better at reasoning through the steps that we need to take to reach a desired end because we have trained it to think that way. In contrast, doing something for a reward does not train our mind to look at the bigger picture or the higher goal. We can’t even reason through the steps we need to take to reach that reward, much less the goal, because we are so intently focused on the reward. It is almost like tunnel vision. The process of learning how to reason through steps or creating a goal is a practiced skill, though. We have to practice using the reasoning part of our mind in order for it to work well.

Learning cognitive skills is vital for a child of any age, but especially so for young children who are just learning about how the world works. If we simply tell them that we don’t want them to behave in a certain way and bribe them with rewards, then they don’t truly understand why we are asking them to behave a certain way. Understanding leads to a change in behavior, but at the same time it is important to remember that it takes 21-30 days to create a new habit. That means that it may take 21-30 days of a teacher explaining over and over the reasoning behind a certain action before the child makes a habit of behaving in the desired way. Even with the added benefit of an explanation that fuels the reasoning skills, the child may not stop behaving in the undesired way right away. It takes time and a lot of patience on the part of the teacher to actually teach children the correct social way to behave, and do it in a way that stimulates the cognitive skills of the child.

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The Root of the Entitlement Mentality Part II

A long time ago I promised a sequel to my post “The Root of the Entitlement Mentality.” I never delivered on that promise, mainly because it was very hard for me to pinpoint exactly what is at the root of the entitlement mentality. And I feel that I still may not have gotten to the root of the issue, but I do have insights that I did not have during the writing of the previous post. This is mainly due to my research into classroom management, showing children respect, and the effect of punishments and rewards.

Showing children respect is a major pet peeve of mine, and has been since I have begun doing research into proper methods of disciplining children. I think that one of the major issues regarding the lack of respect afforded to children is a widespread misunderstanding as to what discipline actually is. The majority of parents and teachers today view discipline as a system where good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished.

Children tend to view all of the things they do as a means to a certain end. In most children, the task itself is the means and the end, meaning that they tend to get pleasure from doing the task itself. When teachers introduce punishments and rewards, the child’s focus when doing a task changes. The child performs the task as a means to receive a punishment or reward; the end becomes trying to please the teacher.Tasks that once were enjoyable to the child now have no meaning to them other than as a way to gain approval, and thus become unrelated to independent self-fulfillment . Because children are not actively practicing self-fulfillment (because they are looking for rewards from other people), they develop an intense need for attention, as well as an affirmation of self-worth from anyone around them. Because of their increased need for attention, either punishment or reward is validating because either makes a statement of worth to the child. Rewards, of course, send a message of positive worth and punishment a message of negative worth.

We may ask ourselves at this point: “Well, I see why punishment is bad, but what is so wrong with rewards?” Because children begin actively looking for rewards or punishments for their actions, they come to expect them. We perpetuate this cycle as children get older through giving out grades and extra credit. By the time these children reach adulthood, they come to expect some sort of punishment or reward for their actions, no matter how large or small the action is. The small rewards begin to lose their ability to offer the message of self-worth; bigger rewards are needed to provide the same feeling of satisfaction that the small rewards once did.

This is how the entitlement mentality is manifested, and it begins at an early age – at the age that punishments are rewards are introduced. This cycle can be stopped, or even reversed, as we discontinue the use of punishments are rewards. This brings us back to the definition of discipline. I was actually surprised when I looked up the word, because several definitions actually listed punishment as a part of discipline. However, there is another way to look at this word: according to dictionary.com, to discipline someone is to train by instruction and exercise. This means that if a child does something that is dangerous to themselves or others, we need to instruct them in the right way to handle the situation. This involves explaining to them what the proper action is, as well as explaining to them why their action was wrong. In this way we awaken in the child their own thought processes and allow them to own their own behavior. We also do not pass a judgement of positive or negative value when we offer our explanations, because that would put us back in the realm of issuing a punishment or reward. Our ultimate goal is to teach the child what the correct action would be in a given situation and help them to remember that action in the future. They will then continue to use the proper action and build upon it as they grow and develop.

We should also allow children a chance to play-act situations in the classroom. One girl in my class loves to pretend that her baby-doll has hit someone in the classroom, and it is amazing to watch her discuss problem-solving strategies with the doll. This is her way of internalizing what she has been taught; by practicing what she has learned through the use of a baby-doll, she will be better able to call upon her newly-learned skills when they are needed.

Doing away with the entitlement mindset, punishments, and rewards in the classroom is not easy. We almost seem programmed to say, “Good job” when a child does something (which is a positive value judgement). One thing that I have taught myself to do is make observations rather than statements that indicate a judgement. Pointing out the colors that a child used in a drawing, or indicating that you see the action that they are performing can go a long way in helping a child to develop independence and a sense of self-fulfillment through their actions. These types of statements also teach vocabulary and let the child know that you notice them or their work. Ultimately, it is up to the child to determine the value of their work; this will enhance their own self-actualization and their development into strong, independent adults who do not need approval from outside sources tot ell them that they are doing a good job. They will gain self-respect and self-fulfillment through their work because they enjoy doing it – which is also a topic for another day.

For more information:

Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism by Jerry Kirkpatrick

Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Interest and Effort in Education by John Dewey