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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, August 23 2021

Rewards and Punishments

Controlling people’s behaviour has been a quest by those who seek to have others behave the way they prefer.  Throughout time punishment was seen to be the preferred option, being able to punish infers you are more ‘powerful’ than those you wish to control.  This feeling of superiority is intoxicating but unrealistic.  You are never better, or worse than anyone else!


Throughout history punishment was often extremely cruel particularly in the dark ages where the most hideous forms were handed out to ensure the peasants conformed!  As we became more ‘civilised’ those ‘in charge’ witnessed the malice in punishing and started to try the opposite approach, reward those who conformed.  Even today you hear managers say things like ‘we’ll take the carrot/stick’ approach to solve the problem.  One of the best bits of advice I every received was you can’t make anyone do what you want them to do so, unfortunately, both rewards and punishments will fail in the long run.


It was easy to believe that rewards and punishments work, after all if I had to do my homework or get the cane, doing the homework seemed a choice that suited me.   But, that’s the reason rewards and punishments are only marginally successful.  I know plenty of times I didn’t do my homework and got the cane.  The reason was I chose to spend my time more productively while understanding the cost involved – stinging fingers.  


In the 1960’s, Skinnerian psychology developed a significant influence on education theory, particularly in rewards and punishments.  He believed that changes in behaviour are the result of an individual’s response to events that occur in the environment.  I agree with this observation with one significant difference and that is with Skinner the manipulation is based on the idea that the person who wants control defines that environment.  The student will conform to the beliefs of the teacher.  I contend that our memories and beliefs define the environment and that is the way we decide what is best to do for us in the presenting circumstances.


As a young teacher, I remember students being hit, caned 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 of 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. 


Using punishment as a control mechanism will result in the following:

  • Teaches the student what not to do
  • Diverts student’s attention from intended lesson
  • It focuses the student’s attention on how not to get ‘caught’
  • Teaches students to be punitive towards others
  • Eliminates risk taking, students will not take a chance on getting things wrong



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 rewards 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 conform.  Reward focused management, in reality, is no better than the use of punishment.


The use of rewards results in the following:

  • Creates an attitude that learning has no intrinsic value, you only learn to get something
  • Stifles creativity, as with punishments it eliminates risk taking essential for creativity
  • Creates reward driven people, what’s in it for me
  • Validates manipulation, you can buy anything
  • Decreases self-directed learning.  Students give the teacher what they want


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 simplest of rewards can be enough to begin this process.  In the illustration below, based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs there is a pyramid of rewards that start with those that satisfy student’s 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 praise is used, any reward depends on the connection between the teacher and student (See Newsletter - The Danger of Praise - 12 September 2018).  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.


Of course, we need to teach he students that their actions do have consequences but these need to be linked to the behaviour not the person who ‘delivers’ the ‘consequences (see Newsletter - Consequences not Punishment or Reward – 2 April, 2018).

Posted by: AT 09:07 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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