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Originally published Saturday, November 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Learning should be its own reward, but sometimes motivators are necessary

One family paid $20 for report card As (and $5 for Ds.) Another mom offers her son $1 a day for filling out his planner, to reward effort...

Seattle Times staff reporter

One family paid $20 for report card As (and $5 for Ds.) Another mom offers her son $1 a day for filling out his planner, to reward effort rather than results. Others dangle driving privileges as an incentive for teens to keep up their grades.

For students who don't see why they need to apply themselves in school anyway, rewards can kick-start academic interests. But for students in general, experts discourage conditioning students to expect treats for school work.

"I don't know about your boss, but mine is not waiting by my desk ready to give me a Game Boy every time I work hard," said Anne Rambo, professor of family therapy at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. "It isn't useful for them to get the idea that in adult life prizes are passed out every time you do well."

As parents increasingly fixate on GPAs, college admissions and WASL scores, some educators worry parents set expectations too high.

"I think it's important to convey that everyone in a family has responsibilities," said Linda Harris, a Spanish teacher at Inglemoor High School in Kenmore. "Children's job is to be the best students they can be."

That said, parents need to understand students' talents and capabilities, said Harris, who has three adult children. "Kids have told me their parents said they can't have anything less than an A. They're sobbing over a B+. Personally, I feel that's too much pressure."

A small study of 136 undergraduate college students, published this year in The Journal of Genetic Psychology, found 7 of 10 reported receiving some sort of reward from parents for academic achievements. With elementary-school students, the most common reward was extra privileges (television time, dessert), followed by gifts. By high school, money topped the list, with half receiving cash for good grades.

Beyond cash


Experts advise alternatives to rewards.

Celebrate hard work and improvement, not just grades.

Reward with special time. Acknowledge a child's success with a family outing or activity. Recognizing a child's effort afterward is different than offering an advance enticement, experts say.

Encourage children's dreams. This is the best way to encourage internal motivation. "Often these plans are unrealistic at first, but still they lay the groundwork for later life decisions," notes Anne Rambo, author of "I Know My Child Can Do Better." "After a certain age, the child will not 'perform' for parents and teachers unless they can see their own goals being met as well."

If a teenager says he wants to be a musician like on MTV, visit colleges with good music departments, she suggests. For a wannabe chef, send off for a few culinary institute catalogs and let her see the required GPA.

"Your child should ideally perceive you as an ally, someone who wants to help him or her achieve goals."

Find natural consequences. For example: Stop weeknight video-game time or friend visits until students can balance these activities with school work. Or have teens who don't qualify for a good-student discount make up the difference with the regular insurance rate. "Driving a car is the biggest leverage parents have," said high-school teacher Linda Harris, whose children got to use the family car as long as they maintained B grades.

See how kids perceive rewards. A recent study found rewards worked more effectively for boys; teacher rewards, even more than parent rewards', linked positively with boys' academic goals and motivation. Girls received more rewards, but that wasn't associated with higher motivation.

"It might be that boys find these rewards informal recognition of their abilities," said lead researcher Kelly Davis. "It's important to look at differences in how students perceive them. The same rewards may not work with girls."

Nearly all students received a myriad of rewards from teachers throughout school. In elementary school, 70 percent of students said teachers offered candy for good performance. Other treats included prizes, certificates, extra recess time, class parties and stickers.

"The really surprising part was how, even in high school, rewards were still prevalent," said Kelly Davis, the study's lead researcher and a PhD candidate at The Pennsylvania State University.

In her study, external rewards failed to show much positive impact on grade-point average. Overall, students thought rewards were good motivators. However, contrary to expectations, the students most motivated by rewards were the ones to cite them as bad. "Maybe those students felt dependent on rewards and realized that was not such a good thing," Davis explained.

Mixed message

That's the danger of starting incentives young, said Doug Hale, principal at Hollywood Hill Elementary School in Woodinville. "You don't want kids to think they should be rewarded for everything they do," he said. "Making them feel proud of their work is more powerful than giving $5 for a high score on a math test."

He admits, however, that teachers often rely on external motivators; the school, in fact, offers a company-sponsored program that supplies children with ice cream coupons for reading a certain number of pages. "It is kind of a mixed message," he said.

More students cited personal satisfaction and pleasing parents as motivators to work hard in school than getting paid for better grades, according to a 2000 survey by Public Agenda. Money ranked eighth out of 10 options offered. For high-schoolers, getting into a good college and earning a scholarship were top motivators.

By some definitions, grades themselves are external goals. Ideally, students "view learning as worthwhile to satisfy their own curiosity and thirst for knowledge," explains Douglas Lynch in a study published in the June edition of College Student Journal. His research found a link between college grades and internal goals, but not rewards.

"For us, it's never been about grades; it's been about effort," said Sabrina Friend, a Seattle mom to two girls, Julian, 14, and Cameron, 10. "The reason why they work hard is not to get good grades but to learn."

Shoreline mom Carol Lyons remembers friends who received money for each A when she was in school. "My dad was a teacher, and I never received rewards for good grades other than praise," she said. Besides an occasional celebratory dinner out, "we just let the kids know that the expectation is that they do all the assignments and do their best."

Developing good habits

Several parents said they focus on helping students develop good study habits.

"This year I changed my work schedule [so] I'm home with my 15-year-old son as soon as possible after he gets home from school," said Shoreline dad Mark Barnard. Until homework is done, his son isn't allowed to do anything else.

Lyons goes through her son's middle-school assignments to help him schedule his week. "He does all his own homework, but I remind him of deadlines and help him determine which nights he needs to focus on specific subjects," she explained. "In middle school, I'm finding it's not so much about the homework being difficult; rather, it's more about helping him prioritize and figure out how to manage six or seven subjects."

Still, some students just don't see the value in working hard, especially if they're struggling or not invested in school.

In such cases, "rewards do work," Hale said. "It can be a jump start to get momentum going in the right direction."

The key is to figure out why a child is underachieving, said Rambo, author of "I Know My Child Can Do Better." "The reward needs to somehow make sense in the context of what is causing the problem to begin with. Completely external rewards, such as 'Bring this grade up, and I'll give you a laptop' tend not to work for long because they don't address any of the real issues involved."

In her Spanish class, Harris gives students credit for raising their hand at least once every day. When one student was in danger of flunking, she told him participation was an easy way to raise his score. "He started to do it just to get the points," she said. "Then he found that when he was involved in class, he was more interested and understanding more." He ended up with a B-.

Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2091

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