“Should I use a reward chart in the early years?”

A few weeks ago my best friend’s five-year-old came home from school very upset. She was terrified that her name was going to be put on the raincloud in her class. Her teacher had started a new system which aimed to encourage children to behave appropriately. If children behave well their name goes on the sunshine, if the behave badly, it goes on the raincloud. At a similar time, my own daughter came home from school distraught because her name had gone on the board… She hadn’t changed fast enough for PE.

Public praise and reward systems are commonplace in our schools and settings and many aim to praise children for positive behaviour. But there is a more negative side to these systems, in fact there is a more negative side to praise!

When we praise children it’s a bit like giving them a lovely sweet. They have a good feeling inside and want more, which it could be argued is a good thing because we want our children to behave…  However, you can have too much of a good thing. Too many sweets and our teeth with rot and we’ll become overweight. Too much praise and the praise may well become meaningless, children will lose interest in our rewards and we will have to think of bigger and better rewards and praise as much as possible in order to get them to conform! The incentive may soon wear off. Children can become reliant on the praise and begin to judge themselves according to extrinsic criteria. They become dependent on our approval and can lose their ability to think for themselves, for example, I didn’t get a sticker today and my friend did, perhaps I wasn’t good enough.

Encouragement is more effective in helping children to understand the impact of their behaviour and can feel just as positive to a child as praise. Praise often comes with a judgement, for example, saying, “Good boy, you’ve made a great tower!” sounds effective, however, it is giving the subtle message that it is only because he made the great tower that he is good. What if his tower wasn’t quite as great – would he still be good? Encouragement is non-judgemental, so we can say something like, “You must be so proud of your tower!” or “You worked so hard in building your tower today” which gives the message that the child should feel proud of themselves and their hard work was the important thing, not how great the tower is. So labelled praise, or encouraging statements, when we use description to let the child know which part of their behaviour we are pleased about can work very effectively, for example, “Sara you are listening really carefully!” This type of statement still helps children to feel good, but focuses on effort and not attainment.

In relation to behaviour charts, children may feel pressurised into behaving a certain way because they are scared of being publicly shamed or fearful that they will upset their teacher. So I think there is a moral consideration here - should we be making children feel bad, frightened even, in order to encourage them to behave a certain way? It seems inappropriate to me, that despite everything we know and understand about trauma and the affect that cortisol has on the brain that schools and settings still rely on these outdated systems.

Praise linked to behaviour charts is based on the theory that children can be conditioned to behave in certain ways through positive reinforcement. Research into this area has mainly focused on animal behaviour and has shown that if we do A, the animal will do B. It relies on rewarding desirable behaviour so that this will be repeated and sometimes it includes punishing undesirable behaviour so that this will not be repeated. It believes that behaviour can be modified by offering extrinsic rewards or sanctions. However, although to a certain extent these systems work with children, this behaviourist approach ignores the world of emotions, the theory of self-worth and the power of intrinsic motivation.

I want to think about different types of children that these systems will not work for and will potentially be damaging:

The invisible child

These children are in our setting and they never make a fuss. They are easy to look after, they are not particularly demanding of our attention because they are pretty compliant. For these children a behaviour chart is meaningless. They will never move up or down it because they are mostly obedient and submissive to the adults and their behaviour is un-noticed. The chart gives the child the message that they are invisible.

The challenging child

We certainly know that this child exists. Given 5 minutes in the room and this child’s name will already be on our chart. For some children, getting their name on the ‘raincloud’ will give them a bit of street cred!  To begin with, they might want to comply, but pretty soon, they realise that their best is not enough. They will never make it to the sunshine, so why bother. The chart gives the child the message that they are not good enough and never will be.

The high-achiever

This child works hard and always does well.  Their name easily goes onto the sunshine pretty quickly, just by finishing their activities on time, or helping tidy up. The chart gives the child the message that they don’t need to work hard, they will always do well if they please the person in charge and are compliant.

The child with low self-esteem

This child already feels like a failure. They try hard to please but somehow never manage to measure up. They feel unworthy and if their name goes on the raincloud this will reinforce this belief. The chart gives this child the message that they are worthless.

Maria Lungu (2018) asks what sort of adult we want our children to become? “Do we want to form some obedient, humble, subservient person, dependent on the approval and appreciation of others or do we want autonomous, independent, responsible people with a good image and positive self-esteem?” The way you are using praise and rewards will determine the type of adults we grow.

What we want for children is for them to be so engaged in what we offer, so excited by our provision and provocations in the learning environment that they can’t wait to get involved every day. We want to foster those characteristics of effective learning in our children, so that they become resilient, have a ‘can-do’ attitude and are happy to try new things. We want our children to know that with enough hard work or effort, anything is possible and we want our children to think for themselves, to challenge authority if they need to and not be blindly compliant.

My view is that there is a specific place for rewards and incentives when used sparingly and when they tap into children’s interests or intrinsic motivation and do not publicly shame children. I used potty training charts at home and have been known to reward my children for tidying their rooms with a curly-wurly! Whole setting/class systems which link praise and sanctions with social shame or isolation are inappropriate and should be avoided. These types of systems are very damaging to children’s self-esteem and undermine work around growth mindset.

So yes, we can praise too much! Instead, let’s focus on encouragement and tapping into children’s intrinsic motivation and then our praise or approval will not be needed and that reward chart can be thrown away! 

About the author:

Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written three books – “Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children” , “School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning” and “Calling all Superheroes: Supporting and Developing Superhero Play in the Early Years” and is working on a fourth looking at “Developing a Loving Pedagogy in the Early Years”.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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