Rewards for Academic Performance

Parent Q&A

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  • I am helping my kindergarten son to learn how to write. He can sound out and spell rhyming words after some thought (for example, cat/bat/sat; ball/call/hall; say/hay/lay) and he can write them as well, but his handwriting is what we call "wobbly" (a Winnie the Pooh reference). He doesn't like the activity books that we have that are supposedly for his age and he thinks they're a chore. However, he's got a big appetite, and beyond his regular meals he asks for at least a couple of snacks a day, so we've gotten into a habit of negotiating snacks/treats in return for spelling and writing. For example, if he wants 5 chocolate covered blueberries, I'll say he needs to spell 20 words, and after he spells 20, if he feels confident, he'll up the ante and say he'll write 10 more words for 5 more chocolates.. My sister tells me I'm treating him like a dog and using food as incentive is bad. But it works for us, and I would've given him the snack anyway... Besides chocolate covered blueberries, we also might use mochi ice creams, chocolate covered strawberry, yogurt pretzels, etc. 

    So I guess my questions are (1) how do you motivate a child to write, and (2) is using snacks a good or bad way to motivate? 

    We are low screen/TV/video games family, so that can't be used as the reward. 

    Oh my! That sounds like a very dangerous practice in so many ways! Isn’t he getting enough writing practice in school? If his kindergarten teacher has specifically asked you to work on writing with him at home then you should ask them for advice about how to motivate but DO NOT use snacks! If your teacher has not asked you to work on writing at home with your child, then let it be! Kindergartner often have wobbly writing but it will get better! If he has serious writing challenges (again, ask his teacher), then consider an Occupational Therapist for help.

    I’m not an expert so take this with a grain of salt, but this doesn’t seem great to me. Kid’s and adult’s relationship with food is a complex one, but I know some adults struggle with weight/food when food is viewed as a “reward” that gets deserved for things. It feels like you are setting your kid up for this. I think what type of food it is (healthy or not) doesn’t really change that. Food should be viewed as something we eat when we are hungry. It also seems like he is hungry so he in theory needs these snacks, so making him “earn” them also seems a little weird. Not that there is never a time and place for a snack or dessert as an occasional reward for something extra special, but as a daily thing seems a little risky.

    You mention no screens, but there must be something he does for fun? Can’t it just be that he can’t do the next fun thing until he has done the task?

    Hi there, we had a son with poor pencil grip, poor writing, lack of desire to write and a Fondness for snacks. I don’t think using treats as rewards is good in this context. Ideally what you would like is to encourage a natural desire to write and get better and giving rewards can get in the way of that. Using food as a reward can also make food even more appealing which can lead to eating issues down the road.  Also, kindergarten is just so young to be worrying about it.

    We took it on as a serious project in the summer after third grade and explained to our son that writing is a skill that he has to get better at so that he can progress in his education and we set aside regular times for him to work on it. We started really slowly with pencil grip and coloring and making sure his hand was comfortable and moved on to letter formation and writing words. I’m not sure he was ever super motivated to do it but we just explained what we were doing and why and made it part of the routine and at 9am we told him it was time to sit down and do it and the sooner he starts the sooner he will be done and we sat with him to do it.  Over time his fear decreased and his confidence improved and he became less reluctant  

    After two months he was doing great and we stopped it. The following summer we tackled free form writing (writing a few paragraphs answering a prompt). Again we started slow and easy (one paragraph on what you did last weekend type thing) and ramped it up over a few months to writing an essay with 3 or 4 paragraphs and a conclusion on different topics. Again he made so much progress through the summer he was in great shape heading back to school. 

    So my advice would be to give it at least another year, then pick a short time period (1-2 months) and pick an exact time when your child will work on it each week then let them make progress and end it. Don’t make it something you nag about constantly for months on end. At that time sit down with them and work on it together, do a high five then let them go play.  

    Hi there, what a great question. I highly recommend not using snacks or food as a motivator. I know how hard it can be to find motivation, but I’d be concerned this could lead to complicated feelings around food or even disordered eating behaviors later on. Does their teacher has recommendations? What else motivates your child? Maybe there’s ways to make it more fun or engaging? Does he have ideas for ways to make it more fun? Wish I had some more ideas but the take away would be to find another way to motivate. 

    I don't think it's "bad" to use snacks as an occasional motivator but I would also suggest you not put so much pressure on improving his writing. Most kindergarteners have "wobbly" writing and also don't like to do repetitive practice for anything. 20 words seems like a lot and he already sounds "advanced" in his skills for the average kindergartener. My basic understanding of developmental skills is that writing will naturally improve by 7-8 years old and putting more pressure on it too soon won't actually accelerate that.

    My only other suggestion would be to have someone else (family friend, babysitter, etc) be the one to help and to make a game out of it, instead of pressure from a parent. This helps my kindergartener. Writing (very basic) letters to family to send in the mail or adding captions to pictures to make a "book" (with help from parent) can make this more fun.

    I use prizes a lot to motivate my son to do "extra" work. He'll do his homework because his teacher requires it, but it is like pulling teeth to ask him to do one extra worksheet, or practice his handwriting. The idea is to offer temporary prizes in the short term to develop a long term routine, and then slowly take away the prizes till your child is self-motivated to do the work himself without being offered a reward. This works for almost all behaviors, not just extra homework. So for example, I'll put up a chart on the wall and every time he does a worksheet/practice/brushes his teeth, he gets a check mark. At 3-5 check marks, he'll get a small prize. (You need to start your prizes very small or else "prize inflation" will get you.) After a while I'll say, "You did so well on this, we need to raise the price." Then I'll ask for 10 check marks to get the prize. I keep it up every day until he forgets to put a check mark on the chart for a while, and then I'll say, "You did so well you don't even need prizes to do your work. Good job!" Since you're using something as small as a blueberry, you could start with one worksheet = one blueberry, and then delay the prize for 3 check marks = 3 blueberries later. The idea is not to reward the child one-to-one for every behavior, but allow him to earn the prize over time.

    One thing I would say: I would not call a chocolate covered blueberries a snack. I'd call it a treat, along the lines of ice cream and candy. Feed your son a filling snack when he gets home from school, like fruit, crackers, cheese, yogurt. Children work much better when they are well fed and their tummies are full. Then you can offer him a "treat" to do some work. Over time he might get tired of chocolates, and then you can try stickers, cheap toys from Daiso, etc. But the idea is to phase out the prize but keep the behavior.

    Good luck!

    The basic problem with using any kind of reward to get children to do things is that it doesn't give them a chance to develop intrinsic motivation to do those things. They will learn to look for external rewards as motivation. I would suggest that the reason you have to bribe your child to write is that because developmentally he is not really ready for tasks like sounding out words and spelling. Give him a chance to develop a natural interest in words and writing. Toss the workbooks and give him lots of paper and pencils and encourage him to write his own stories and let him write away. At kindergarten age they need open-ended, hands-on learning experiences and lots of opportunities for play. The writing and spelling will come easily when he is older, especially if he has been given the chance to develop his own motivation for learning to do these things.

    Former preschool teacher

    Food is a pretty basic and primal reward. If your child is capable of a higher level reward, use that, with the ultimate goal of an intrinsic reward.  I think of it like food is the first level (may be necessary for kids with severe intellectual or neurological differences, but most typical kids can move beyond this by toddlerhood), then stuff (a sticker, etc), then non tangible rewards (listening to their favorite music, a 5 minute dance party, 1:1 cuddle time, etc.), then praise (verbal- "you did it, super speller!", physical- like a high 5, or written- like a star on their paper), then it starts to move intrinsic. By kindergarten, he's probably ready for non-tangible rewards- 10 minutes where you just play with him and give him 100% attention or helping you make dinner when he's done, listening to favorite music while he works (but only while he's working, not taking a break), a wiggle break after every 3 words, etc. For my kiddo, who has ADHD, I made sure there was a visual right there so he could see what he's getting after X words- my phone for music, the toy he wants to play with together, the cutting board, etc.

    Also, consider that using food may be teaching him an unhealthy relationship with food- that it's for rewards, rather than for nourishing and fueling our bodies- which could lead to eating struggles later on, especially if he's already a big eater. AND, if he's that hungry at homework time, he may need some fuel for his brain so he can sit and focus. Try offering a healthy snack FIRST so he can concentrate, or doing the work after dinner.

    I got a bunch of beads from a bead store and used them as rewards -- our kid could exchange so-and-so many beads for something she wanted. The on-hand exchange items were sparklers and something I don't know the name of, little paper-wrapped things that come in boxes of 20, each one a bit bigger than a pea, makes a bang when thrown on a hard surface like the sidewalk.  Both sparklers and the banging things are available at paper&party stores and maybe places like Mr. Mopps.  You can suggest a bead "price" for a desired toy --for example,  if he gets one bead per day of doing his worksheets, maybe 10 beads buys a small ball.

    Some parents use beans; when the bean jar fills up to a certain line, the kids can trade them in for something they want.  You can also use stickers as a trade-in item -- as a reward in themselves, stickers get old, but they could be used like beads as currency.

    My kid is 16 now, and hasn't "bought" anything with her beads for a long time, but she still has them. 

    A big part of giving rewards is that they tangibly express your appreciation for the kid's work.

    This truly sounds like a recipe for food issues later in life -- there's a massive body of child development research that warns against using food as an incentive because of the psychological links it creates. You wouldn't force your child to eat food he hates as a punishment, right? And if your son has a 'huge appetite,' it's probably because he's growing and burning a lot of calories in his muscles and his brain. And denying food to a growing child for any reason sounds, uh... Well. You get the idea.

    You also don't mention why it's so important to you that your son's handwriting gets de-wobblified so quickly. It sounds like he's already at or ahead of the curve in terms of reading and writing skills. And even if he's behind the curve right now, so what? He's in kindergarten for a reason. Unless your son's teachers have said that drastic action needs to be taken, this seems like the sort of thing that will work itself out with time.

    If you are absolutely determined to push him on this, there's plenty of non-food and non-screen motivators: stickers, for example. Or check the local free groups to see if someone's giving away a bag of old Hot Wheels that can be meted out one at a time. Artist & Craftsman on Shattuck has tiny rubber animals for about 50 cents each. I'm sure you can think of something that your kid would be into and that wouldn't take up too much space in your home!

    And I know you said you're a low-screentime household, but if the problem is that the workbook is boring, I will say that there's a few great handwriting practice apps for kids out there. Duolingo has Duo ABC (free, no ads), and our 4yo loves "Writing Wizard for Kids" by L'Escapadou ($5, free to try).

    Just my thoughts. Hope this sparks some ideas!

    I think the real issue is that rewards for behavior of any kind aren't beneficial for children. Your child isn't intrinsically motivated to learn how to write better, but is instead relying on external motivation (treats). He's going to start expecting treats whenever he doesn't want to do something at school, as that's the association you're setting up for him now. Is his teacher concerned about his legibility? What if his handwriting is a wobbly for a while? To be honest, my husband has TERRIBLE handwriting and it hasn't hindered him at all in his life/career.

    Also, this practice can create an unhealthy relationship with food.

    I am no expert at this, but one approach might be not to make the snack an explicit reward for doing the spelling exercise, but simply scheduling the spelling before the snack --  say 2:30 for spelling then when the little hand points to the 3, time for snack.   Sounds like he is ahead of expectations for kindergarten.  Best if you can make the spelling and reading  a game in themselves.  Like you draw pictures of a cat, ball, dog, and he writes underneath what they are.  Wobbly handwriting -- standards of handwriting have deteriorated in the last 40 years (in the 1950s they taught "penmanship", but he should improve with practice and muscle development.  Maybe get him a fat pencil that is easy for him to hold.  Check how he is holding the pencil -- I see a lot of people using strange hand positions that look difficult to me.  You also should be reading to him from books while he can see the words on the page so he will recognize the connection. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Paying for Grades

July 1998

A question for the parents of older kids (12 and up):

Do you pay your kids for report card performance? Does it work? Do you do this in addition to allowance or instead of? How much do you pay for A's & B's? Do you deduct for Ds and Fs?

(Not that anybody *I* know makes Ds and Fs ... I was just idly wondering whether brib-I mean financial incentive- works for improving kids' grades, since for certain people very little else seems to ...)

From: Eleanor

Rather than paying money for grades for my older child, we used an incentive that was meaningful to him. In middle school he wanted to have a TV in his room, something I was not in favor of but his dad thought we could let him have if he kept his grades up. He had to buy the TV with his own money, but we still set the standards for being allowed to watch. He had to maintain an A average or the TV went back in the box until the next marking period. We left him to budget his own homework time with no nagging or reminding, but the box was standing by as a silent reminder. Now that he is in high school he manages his time very well, but the box is still there. We would not try this with our younger child though; you have to fit the incentive to the child.

From: a MOM

* Do you pay your kids for report card performance? We pay $50 for straight A's. Our notion of straight A's is quite liberal. Only academic subjects are included (not P.E. or extra type classes such as yearbook or band), and we consider a B in honors classes as an A.

* Does it work? I can't say for sure. This reward system started in the 6th grade when grades are first given in our school district. Report cards are sent quarterly. Our older daughter (entering 11th grade) earns the $50 about twice a year. Our younger daughter (entering 9th grade) used to earn the $50 regularly but her academic performance really dropped in 8th grade and the money reward was not enough to make a difference.

* Do you do this in addition to allowance or instead of? This is in addition to an allowance.

From: Joyce

I teach intro psych, among other things, and just finished lecturing on learning through reward and punishment. Here are the research findings on the effects of using rewards.
1. Rewards do entice people to do things that they wouldn't normally do, at least while the policy of rewarding the behavior is in effect. (Skinner)
2. Rewards are a form of extrinsic motivation, as opposed to personal interest, which is a form of intrinsic motivation. a. If you are starting out with no intrinsic motivation, you might as well use extrinsic motivation. Sounds like this is your kid's situation. b. If there is some intrinsic motivation to start with, you should watch out, because work driven by intrinsic motivation leads to greater creativity than work driven by extrinsic motivation (Amabile). Furthermore, extrinsic motivation tends to kill whatever intrinsic motivation was there in the first place (Spence & Helmreich), specifically when the reward i) is expected, ii) is something important to the person, iii) is tangible, and iv) is given regardless of the quality of the work. (Cameron & Pierce, Eisenberger & Cameron) Some of this is counterintuitive, like (ii), but it's what happens, and the reason is that the person starts thinking that the only reason they're studying is so that they can watch TV and not because of any internal desire to do well. (Of course, if there wasn't any internal desire to do well in the first place, this is irrelevant.) Anyway, be careful with this.
3. Because it has been found that what people normally think of as talent is actually due to practice (Ericsson, Charness), having some practice even if it's not intrinsically motivated can give people a degree of skill that they can use, and which can be the basis of further learning. This fact is unintuitive to Americans but seems self-evident to people from other cultures. In any case it's a robust research result. 4. Because some intrinsic motivation depends on one's skill level (Czikszentmihalyi), a policy in which practice is rewarded even if it is not YET intrinsically motivated may eventually lead to intrinsic motivation later, when skill has improved to a point where they can be proud of what they can do, and it starts being fun. (as in, when the violin stops being squeaky, and starts making music).
Hope this sheds some light. Joyce post-doc in psychology at Carnegie Mellon Univ (Pittsburgh PA) about to be asst prof at Alverno College (Milwaukee WI)

From: John

My usual reward for good grades is a trip to Cody's or Black Oak Books (yes, I'm pretty smug about the psychology in that trick). Add ice cream or other sweeteners as desired.

About underachievers and bribes and punishments -- bribes and punishments turn the whole grade-getting thing into something the kid is doing for YOU. Sometimes it helps to make the kid look at it as something they need to do for THEMSELVES because they want/deserve a happy future. I have an underachiever, and bribes and punishments worked in the very short term but not in the long run. She's 16 now and most days I think she really has internalized the notion that she's responsible for her future and better get moving. Mommy won't always be around to clean up the mess and pay the bills! (5/99)

Positive Reinforcement

June 1999

My 15-year-old says I'm not good with positive reinforcement. I guess she doesn't think that my, The A is terrific in Math; did you ever turn in that English essay? is sufficient. How/what do you do to reinforce your kids? I really resist paying $$$ for grades, but that's what she'd like.

I have found with my three teens (16,14, 13) , that it is really important to be effusive in your praise of their good work. Spending 5 sentences on the A in math before adding that 1 sentence about the English essay produces better results for me. Another possibility is to ONLY talk about the good stuff in one conversation, then asking about the essay at another time. (Hard to do, but worth the effort, I have found). BTW, this works with all people I think, not just teens. (June 1999)

Leave out the second part. The A is terrific in Math period. Ask about the English essay at another time. I learned the hard way. (June 1999)

In your example, The A is terrific in Math; did you ever turn in that English essay?, your positive comment is overshadowed by the negative the negative comment until another time. Let your child bask in one brief moment that's all good.

You mention monetary rewards. I find them too short-term in their effectiveness. I get more mileage out of noticing and commenting on the small good things about my kids: saying, You look really nice today; Thanks for your help with [whatever]; Look how your little sister got her hair cut just like yours -- she admires you so much that she wants to be like you, I really like this school project you did, and so forth.

I continue to try both positive and negative reinforcement, but the older my kids get (7, 10, and 12), the less the negative reinforcement works. So I wait (sometimes a long time) until they do some little thing right, then I thank them briefly and matter-of-factly. I know that they appreciate it, becuase sometimes they actually say so or give me a hug. I also tell each of them once in a while how glad I am to have him/her as my child. When I do, they look relieved and happy, as if they needed to be told.

Re. Positive Reinforcement and Limits, I reward my 12-yr. old daughter with $ for A's, since I really want her to get them and she doesn't realize their importance as much as I do. I am hoping the money will motivitate her a little more and I want to give her something she really likes for all her hard work. But I do wonder if I'm giving her the wrong message, putting too much importance on grades, or interfering with the development of internal motivation? I'm interested in what others think about this. -- Cynthia (6/99)

Why resist? The real world pays for performance. Do you just give them an Allowance (entitlement or welfare)? I pay heavily for for A's and moderately for B's. No allowance at all. They have to budget their expenses between report cards! (6/99)

Last year I stopped paying allowance to my teens. Instead I pay big bucks for A's and B's, and subtract for D's and F's. I'm sorry to say that it didn't have much effect on their grades (C averages) and the D's and F's cancelled out most of the A's and B's! This summer I am paying $10 per book they read (books must be pre-approved) and I have a list of $5 and $10 chores they can do posted on the fridge (irregular chores like washing windows and polishing wood - they still have to help with the everyday chores for free). The chore thing is working out pretty well - each chore includes an estimate of how long it should take, so they know in advance and we can adjust for time run-overs. No books read yet, though. I'm not giving them any other spending money!