by Beth Bruno
Good Job! Hereís Some Candy
Authorís note: I answered the following parent question online, and received many audience responses, which are summarized below.
Q: Iím writing to ask your opinion about a senseless practice in my nieceís school, namely using candy as a reward for doing homework, reading books or going to the library. My nieceís mother (my sister) discovered this was happening when she saw volunteers handing out jellybeans in the library. When she objected to it at a school forum, she was surprised that parents and teachers thought her objections were offensive and petty. It doesn'tít seem that way to me. I agree with my sister that candy rots teeth, lacks nutritional value and can lead to weight problems. Sugar can also boost hyperactivity. Rewarding children with candy can even lead to bad habits in adulthood. What do you think?
A: Iím not enthusiastic about candy rewards either, for the reasons you mention. Food rewards are generally a poor idea for any but the youngest of children (for example, I've seen Cheerios used effectively with preschoolers to improve listening skills).
When teachers use tangible rewards like food, stickers or trinkets, they run the risk that students will want bigger and better rewards in exchange for compliance. When using such rewards to shape the behavior of young children, itís advisable to switch to intrinsic rewards as early as possible. Mastery is usually reward enough, along with peer and teacher recognition for it. Older students will often improve work/study/prosocial behaviors to earn special privileges such as class messenger, reader to younger children, or assistant to the art/gym/or library instructor.
Iím curious about what readers think about giving rewards or tangible incentives to students. I read about a school in Chicago where attendance was such a major problem, that students were paid just for showing up every day!
Readers expressed strong opinions about candy reinforcers. Hereís a sampling from their letters to me:
- Children might think itís great, but as a mom and dental assistant, I suggest we rethink this practice. Dental decay is related to diet, and I donít think teachers hand out toothbrushes after the candy is consumed. Sweet treats just bathe the teeth with sugar, thus promoting tooth decay. Anyway, praise for a job well done lasts a lot longer than a quickly forgotten piece of candy.
- Iím 14 years old now and remember a time in kindergarten when the teacher told everyone to put the toys away and then return to the play area, NOT back to our tables. Well, I like most everyone else forgot and went back to my table. Only one boy followed the directions correctly. The teacher rewarded him with a red lollipop, and I love red lollipops. To this day, I hold a grudge against that kid. Maybe giving candy to young kids as a reward isnít very fair, even though I would have felt terrific, if I were that boy.
- My daughterís teacher rewarded students with candy for every completed assignment or good grade. She never took my daughter's weight into consideration, nor the effects of all that sugar on her tendency toward hyperactivity. I objected about it, but the teacher ignored me. So I took my complaint to the superintendent, who put a stop to it.
- Children have to learn to do the right thing because it's right, not because they'll get a prize for it. Children need to learn inward happiness for the good jobs they do and not always expect something at the end of the rainbow.
- As a recovering bulimic, I say that offering candy for a reward is a frightening practice. Not only does candy rot teeth and lead to weight problems in adulthood, but the larger issue is that children who are rewarded with food might learn to reward themselves in the same way during times of stress and upset. A child who is struggling with self-esteem issues might eat more to feel better, because it made the child feel better when a teacher or parent rewarded with food in the past. Rewards are fine, but we need to find less problematic rewards than food.
- Candy rewards should not be used in school to shape behavior. It's better to expect students to earn privileges, like we do at home. We have a box with slips of paper inside. When we "catch" one of our children displaying exemplary behavior, we let that child pick a paper out of the box. A special privilege is written on each slip, such as, "Movie outing with Mom" or "Two hours in the park with Dad." This approach gives our children incentives to behave and gives us quality time with each child individually. We love this system.
- Children must learn to respect authority and to consider it a mark of distinction to have earned a good grade or the teacherís approval, WITHOUT a tangible sign that this has occurred. Trust is at issue here, and candy as a reward trivializes the relationship that should exist between pupil and teacher.
Beth Bruno firstname.lastname@example.org
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