Saturday, February 19, 2011

Punishment or Consequences?

Can rewards exist without punishment? Are punishments synonymous with natural consequences?

I recently commented on a post by Mrs. Pripp (Put Your Name on the Board) that I don't really do a lot of punishment/reward type activities because I haven't seen a significant change in student behavior and it is exhausting to keep up with it all. I do, however, think that sometimes students need to be rewarded (see Mrs. Watson's post, "The Day 'Reward' Became a Bad Word.") and that there should be consequences, whether negative or positive, that directly relate to students' actions.

A recent email from my principal regarding the use of rewards and punishments for Accelerated Reader goals has prompted me to re-evaluate rewards altogether. He maintains that we should reward students who achieve their goals, which is "above the line" behavior. He also stated that we shouldn't punish students who don't achieve their goals (below the line). So as not to take his comments out of context let me say that he was talking about the practice of having students who had not achieved weekly AR goals sit at the silent lunch table and read. But, the comment made me think...does the same concept apply to other situations? It sounded good to me at first, but then I tried to see it from a child's perspective, and wondered what's the difference between not receiving a reward and being punished?

Take the following situation for example:
Each 9 weeks students have AR goals that they are expected to meet with 85% accuracy. In my room there is an abundance of books and ample time to read. Reading is encouraged and expected during the day. At the end of the grading period, those who achieved their goals are rewarded by participating in the AR party. The ones who do not are sent to another teacher's room to read and get a head start on their goal for the next 9 weeks. Seems logical to me...They didn't meet the goal this time, so I'm allowing them extra time to get ahead for the next grading period. That's the way I look at it, but to a child, isn't it the same as being punished? Is there a way to reward the ones who do as they should WITHOUT punishing (in their minds) the ones who didn't?

Another example:
In my area students all have at least 30 minutes of Physical Education every day, so recess is not a common practice within most schools. However, in  my classroom I instituted a "reward break" for 10 minutes at the end of the day for students who behave appropriately, finish class assignments, and move speedily through transitions. It is a well-deserved reward for those who work hard, but an additional work time for those who do not. Everyone would be working during this time anyway, but instituting a reward break allows most students to be recognized each day for doing their best. How do you do this without some students some of the time not participating? Some may consider this "punishment." I consider it a common sense consequence to specific behaviors.

In real life there are positive and negative consequences for our actions depending on the choices we make. If one of the main goals of schooling is to prepare students for the real world, I think the concept of common-sense consequences is just a natural way to do that. Which leads me to ponder this---are consequences the same thing as punishment? Does it really all depend on how one looks at the situation? Is there any real way to reward one group without the appearance of "punishing" the others?


  1. I'm afraid I see little difference between not receiving a reward and being punished. It is also possible that the rewards are doing more damage than good for those who reach their goals. Please see #5 of Alfie Kohn's "How to Create Nonreaders -

  2. Sue, thanks for your comment. I totally agree with seeing very little difference between not receiving a reward and being punished. That's one reason I'm rethinking the system. I've also read Alfie Kohn's articles and find them very informative. I, too, am concerned about the rewards doing more harm than good. Great point! I'm sort of stuck in a hard spot---we must use Accelerated Reader. In my school it is a separate grade on the report card. While I can't do anything about the grade issue, I CAN stop rewarding. That's sort of the path I'm thinking about taking. Today I read an interesting post about rewarding kids:

  3. I understand your situation. Accelerated Reader is also used in one of the schools where I sub. Have you presented articles like Kohn's to your administrators? Do you know how the parents feel about Accelerated Reader? Do other teachers express their opinions? If we require reading logs and reading for points, can children ever believe reading is an enjoyable endeavor? Your post brought rewards and intrinsic/extrinsic motivation to the forefront of my thinking today. This resulted in some reflection and a new blog post -

    Thank you for the jump start.



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