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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, April 02 2018

Consequences neither Punishment nor Reward

The formal awareness about behaviour modification came from Pavlov’s experiment on the digestive process of dogs.  Inadvertently he established the connection between delivering a targeted stimulus and the following response in an extended environment.  Eventually, just the presence of the environment without the targeted stimulus generated the response.  In his classic experiment, he measured the level of saliva when presented with food, the targeted stimulus along with a ringing bell, the environment.  Eventually, the dog would salivate at the sound of the bell even though there was no food. This connection was referred as operative conditioning.

Operant conditioning was linked to learning, and later Skinner with his famous experiments on rats and pigeons extended this work.  In simplistic terms, he demonstrated that learning behaviour occurs to either gain a reward or avoid a punishment.  Skinner’s work was at the vanguard of a drive to have psychology accepted as a science.  In support of this Skinner and his peers claimed that the only thing that was significant about psychology was that which is able to measured.  This belief excluded the impact of a person’s internal world - their memories.  Of course, there is the direct connection between pressing a lever and getting a food pellet or an electric shock, and this will be ‘learned,' but this simplistic view excluded the complexity of human behaviour.

Skinnerian psychology soon had a significant influence on education theory.  At the time the dominating technique for teachers to get their students to behave was to either punish them for inappropriate behaviour or reward them when they conformed to the teacher’s demands.  As a young teacher, I remember students being hit, canned when they misbehaved and given early marks, certificates, etc. when they did the ‘right thing.'  This idea did meet Skinner's requirements but limited moulding the behaviour of students.  Of course, most students will act to get a reward or avoid punishment, but the driving force of a student's internal motivation can over ride this.  If we want to change this internal motivation, it will require the child to take responsibility.  The only real discipline is self-discipline.  


Punishment is an imposition of power over ‘another' person, the teacher over the student.  This intervention is an expression of authority by the teacher who assumes the responsibility for behaviour in the classroom.  This power over limits the options for the student when modifying their behaviour. The student is disempowered, and for those students with severe behaviour disabilities, this reinforces their feelings of inadequacy. For those students who are struggling, the use of punishment is associated with blame and only reinforces their weak sense of self.

In my experience punishment is often used because the behaviour of the student has threatened the teacher.  Students’ behaviour can be very offensive and can threaten those around them.  Often the punishment dealt out is a form of revenge resulting from the teacher’s open or concealed anger.

What punishment does do is teach the kids what not to do.  Their attention is focused on not being caught misbehaving.  The result is the students will behave when the teacher is present, but when they are away, the kids will revert to their habitual behaviours.  They will not have embraced the desired behaviour.

Another problem with punishment is that teachers model behaviour and if the student ‘learns’ that if you want them to do something you do this by punishing them, then the kids will learn to become punitive themselves to get what they want.

Finally, if the teacher controls the class through punishment students will only learn what they can and can’t do. For the child, it is just too risky to behave outside the known set rules. This approach eliminates initiative, risk-taking and the development of creativity.


Criticizing teachers for using rewards to motivate students is not a straight forward proposition.  In the past, when I challenged teachers for using rewards, I was invariably met with enthusiastic protests.  Giving kids something they like for doing something you want them to do seems to be a win/win situation, and I agree that in the short term it probably is.  But I challenge this practice to have a long-term benefit for the children. 

Using reward as the goal of the lesson significantly changes the focus of the lesson.  The real objective of any lesson, including learning how to behave appropriately is the value of what is learned not what you get if you ‘behave.'  Reward focus management, in reality, is no better than the use of punishment.

The elemental message is that the subject of the lesson has no intrinsic value.  The kids do the work for the reward not to learn the content.  Instead of becoming inquisitive they become reward driven.  This approach eliminates risk-taking, stifles creativity and like punishment the teacher is the focus of the behaviour, not the student.  Students will not become self-directed learners in the future.

Having said that I am fully aware that working with students who are disengaged from learning the use of rewards, certainly not punishment can be used to ‘capture' a student’s interest.  Rewards at least can make the student feel good for a short time, and this gives us a window of opportunity to begin to engage them in education.

For extremely damaged students the most simple of rewards can be enough to begin this process.  In the illustration below there is a hierarchy of rewards that start with ‘payments’ that satisfy their primary needs.  This type of reward would not be of any use but for the most extreme cases.

The use of tokens, certificates are the most popular reward systems and are used extensively even in the Senior Years of schooling, and this method of motivation is used in the very highest levels of the academic world.  Every year we see the awarding of Certificates of Achievement most of which remain in the filing cabinet only to be accessed when constructing a Resume.

Ask any successful self-directed student how important these are you will most likely get a ‘not very’ response.  All too often the Certificates’ are for the parents and grand parents.

The next level, activities or privilege moves from a token-style reward to a reward that provides a benefit for the student.  This type of reward is still toxic but is consumed within the immediate time and not kept as a reminder.

Above this, we move into the relationship zone where any reward depends on the connection between the teacher and student.  On the surface, this is not a ‘bad' thing, but there is a real danger that in this one the teacher's approval can become the prize.  There is a temptation that the teacher will exploit this.

But as I said at the start of these reflections, I am for anything that will engage the disconnected student, and the final type of praise in the hierarchy is intrinsic reward the real goal of motivation and the one that is self-administered.  Here the lesson becomes the personal ambition of the student.  For behaviour this means the students behave appropriately because of the value they find in that behaviour.


Consequences are not rewards or punishments they are what will happen when you act in a certain way.  As mentioned in the previous Newsletter consequences can be natural, logical or chosen but the qualities they do need are to be delivered in a manner that does not directly attack the person but is wholly related to the behaviour.  This depersonalization allows this to be expressed in a friendly way that doesn't threaten the relationship between the teacher and the student.  The responsibility for the consequence is with the student, and this can be a result that they want.  If they behave in a way that brings them an unwanted outcome they can choose another option that they can try if the situation reoccurs. 

Consequences are not rewards or punishments but they are the results of behaviour and when you can have the student understand that the only power they have to get the consequences they want is to control their behaviour!

Posted by: AT 11:10 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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