“I Guess We Reward Bad Behavior Now”

Even if you don’t spend a lot of time with children, you’ve probably had this thought at some point. It seems as though some kids find a way to both act out and get rewarded, and people wonder why they do it again. Am I right?

It looks something like this. A student throws a tantrum because he didn’t want to finish his turn using the iPad. The other children must now wait while the teacher addresses his behaviors. The student is oppositional and disrespectful to the teacher as she attempts to calmly, but firmly hold the boundaries in place. As his behavior escalates, support staff are asked to intervene so that the class may continue their learning. The child storms out with an adult in tow, and the classroom activity resumes. But then, just 20 minutes later you see that same student enjoying a special snack, laughing and playing with the school counselor, and you think, “What’s up with that?!”

This is the exact point where you must be careful. There is a certain satisfaction in the administration of punishment because it resonates so sweetly with our sense of justice. It seems right that one should be rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad ones. And so it is, but this is the only true resemblance between justice and the proper care of children. In the legal sense, we measure consequences according to the damage caused to individuals or society. The greater the damage, the greater the punishment.

This approach simply does not work for children (Arguably, it doesn’t work so well for convicts either, but that’s another topic.). Each child brings different emotional skills, challenges, and experiences to the table, and while matching the “punishment” to the “crime” might appear just, it is often not effective. If you administered the same punishment to three different children, most likely you’d get three different learning experiences. One child might think, “I get punished every time I need help!” another, “Well, it was worth giving her a piece of my mind,” and another, “Maybe I should have tried a different approach.” Only one of those is helpful, yet all of them are possible.

In order to be effective, punishment (or a “consequence,” as we like to say now) requires two conditions. First, there must be a strong rapport between the adult and child. You can make all the right choices for a situation, but without a good relationship, the child has no reason to trust you. Without trust, you have no respect, and without respect, you have no influence.

Second, the reinforcement or consequence must be determined according to the individual needs of the child, NOT the needs of his peers (aka the “damages”); your needs don’t count for much either, in case you were wondering. Students with learning differences or emotional disturbances bring additional challenges to the table. It may seem as though they are manipulating adults or choosing not to comply from spite when, in truth, they are simply doing the best they can to cope with what’s in front of them. The same conditions apply if you are ignoring bad behaviors.

It is so easy to be deterred by our own feelings of irritation and injustice when children act out, leading us to react according to our own needs first. To truly individualize your approach with children, you must look beyond your feelings and attempt to understand what they are experiencing. In each situation you must ask, “Is this child in control? Is he angry, scared, or just confused? Is he in distress? Is he truly able to meet my expectations in his current state?” When you ask these questions, the answers may indeed lead you to give praise when it seems at first that punishment is in order.

How will you know? Some children need to be rewarded simply for calming themselves down or responding to an adult when, normally, they wouldn’t have. Let’s say you are working with a child in distress. Through your extensive rapport with that child you know that, once upset, he almost always fails to return to his usual state of functioning (i.e., baseline) within the hour or even the day. Today, however, he successfully returns to a general state of calm after a brief, but intense meltdown. What’s more important: the punishable grief and stress that he caused or his praiseworthy recovery? The answer here is the recovery. This child needs to be acknowledged for how upset he must have been and how hard he must have worked to calm himself down.

Children are not robots to be programmed or pets to be trained, and so it takes a lot more than rewards and punishments to help them change their behaviors. More than the right consequence, children in distress need the buffer of a supportive relationship, empathy, and our capacity to truly listen. Start there, and the rest will follow.

Image Credit: Lotus Carroll

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