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To Reward or Not to Reward

What harm could it do?

What harm could it do?

To reward or not to reward, that is the question.  At some point, all teachers, parents, educational therapists, and, well, pretty much anyone who works with kids, find themselves in a place where they are tempted to trade a bag of M&Ms, some sparkly pencils or a pizza party for compliance.  It’s just a small _____, what harm could it do?

To answer that question, we need to look at the two types of motivation a person can have: internal and external.  Internal motivation is what we feel when we want to do an activity, or to have done an activity, for its own sake or for the affect it brings us. In either case, the motivation comes from within.

External motivation, in contrast, is what we feel when someone else is furnishing our motivation, either through reward or punishment.  A kid quieting in a grocery store for the promise of a chocolate bar, a student working hard to earn ten dollars for an A, a class completing its work to get stickers, all are examples of external motivation.

We can all agree that our ideal is for every child to grow up to be internally motivated, right?  Phrases like, “lifelong” and “independent” learner mean just that: we want to raise kids who love to work hard.

Here’s the thing: offering external motivation for a task does not produce internal motivation.  In fact, it destroys it.

Rewards to Motivate?

Rewards to Motivate?

In a classic study on motivation done in 1973, two groups of preschool children were asked to draw some pictures.  One group was simply asked to draw; the other group was told that if they completed X number of pictures, they could earn a reward.  Both groups drew fine.  But here is where it gets interesting: researchers left both groups alone and observed their behavior.  The non-reward group went back to drawing, as it is an intrinsically motivating (read: fun) activity.  The reward group?  Wouldn’t touch the drawing stuff.  Why should they?  They wouldn’t get anything for it, right?  In short, giving a reward made an intrinsically rewarding activity into a chore.

Another problem with using rewards to motivate students, or even adults, is that eroding internal motivation sets up the need for a never-ending system of increasing rewards.  Employee of the Month isn’t good enough.  We want to be recognized for Employee of the Day.

Both in the classroom and in one-on-one work, I have students who ask me what they will get if they win a given game.  I always tell them, “The satisfaction of having beaten your teacher.”  They usually role their eyes, but they never refuse to play.  Why?  It’s fun.  You know why?  Nothing motivates like success.  In fact, successful problem solving releases dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, in a student’s brain.

Internal Motivation: All You Need

Internal Motivation: All You Need

I have one student in particular who, when learning a new concept, tries to avoid the work like the plague.  Her anxiety over failure makes her want to play it safe.  The moment she has  the new concept, she practically yells at me to let her do it herself, followed by requests for more and more of the same type of problem, often to the point of arguing with me that she needs more homework sheets to take home and do independently.

This is the behavior we all wish for all our students.  You want me to give you more work and more practice?  Heck yeah!  And this amazing situation arises without any external reward at all.  My student doesn’t need it; she’s got all the internal motivation she needs.

Dissolving Writer’s Block

Some kids love nothing more than being told they are allowed to write about absolutely anything they want to for an assignment.  Freedom!  Choice!  Stories of slumber parties on deserted islands and basketball games won in the last seconds flow from young pens.

What do you mean, what do I want to write about?

What do you mean, what do I want to write about?

But for a few students, choice means stark terror.  The blank page, the blank mind.  What do you mean I have to think of something to write about?

One fourth-grade student came to my private practice because, despite being a voracious reader, an amazing speller and an impeccable grammarian, he froze anytime he was asked to write.  The more open ended the assignment, the deeper the freeze.  We spent an entire session early on in our work together with me vacillating between cajoling, encouraging and being tough, and him emitting an almost continuous, monotone Uhhhhhhhh…for forty-five minutes straight.  Stark terror.  Mental deep-freeze.

Luckily, after talking with his parents, reflecting on my interaction with him and poking about the internet, I realized he was not being surly, stubborn or defiant; he was frozen with anxiety, the anxiety of facing an open-ended assignment: the threatening question, “What do you want to write about?”

There are many reasons why that seemingly innocuous question might be difficult for a student, from not understanding what makes a good story, to expressive language difficulties, to rigid thinking from an Autism Spectrum Disorder or another disorder, to just being too tired to think of anything interesting.

The approach that I have found the most useful for getting stuck kids going on their writing is a series of forced-choice questions: Do you want to write something real or fictional?  Funny, scary, realistic or fantasy (or if the answer was something real, I replace the last two questions with embarrassing or awesome)?  Is the main character a boy or a girl?  Human or animal?  Kid, teenager or adult?  In school, at home or somewhere else?  What problem are they facing?  Is it with their parents, their friends, themselves or nature?

I have never had a student not be able to answer these questions, and answer them almost immediately, to boot.  So, what is going on?  You as the teacher are scaffolding the decision-making process for the student.  Suddenly, instead of trying to think of all the possible stories in the whole wide world, the student just has to make one decision at a time.  Whew!  Anxiety goes down, processing goes up.  Further, the questions create images in the student’s head, so that slowly a whole story begins to emerge in their imagination.

Notice also that you are helping them choose all the main elements of a story: character, setting, plot (problem); you’re simply making each one easier by narrowing it down to two or three choices.  As an added bonus, you can weave in any other literary choices you have been working on, “First person or third person?  Past tense or present tense?”

Like all good scaffolding, you will want to slowly pull it away.  The next time your student needs to choose a topic, you may ask him or her to remember what questions you asked the last time.  The two of you can make a graphic organizer with the questions on it.  Eventually, once the choices are internalized, then the more common graphic organizers with a box each for setting, character and problem should be enough.

Ideas Flowing

Ideas Flowing

So the next time you ask a student “What do you want to write,” and they become a deer in the headlights instead of an excited, empowered author, try guiding your their decision-making with a series of forced-choice answers.  Your student’s nervous system, and yours, will thank you.

Two Birds with One Stone: Adding Tens

            Just recently I have had three older elementary school students come in for help with math, and I realize they need help on addition math facts and place value understanding.  Always looking for work that gets the most bang for my buck, I have used the following process to build both a much stronger understanding of place value and an ability to add ten to any number, an ability that will help so much but is often skipped or just wafted over.


2-digit-white-board from Making Math Real

First, I get out my trusty hundreds chart, a bag of ones and tens from the base-ten blocks, a hundreds chart puzzle and a color-coded recording sheet for two-digit place value from Making Math Real.

I ask the student to build a low, single-digit number (it should be easily subitized so they don’t have to keep re-counting it).  We use a green dry-erase marker to circle the number on the hundreds chart and then we record the number in green on the place value sheet.  Then I make a big deal about putting the green away because we won’t be needing it for a while.  I grab a ten block and also make a big deal about putting down one ten.  I have the student tell me how many blocks we now have.  We find that number on the hundreds chart and circle it in red, and then record the 1 in the tens place.  We go all the way tone hundred and whatever.  Depending on the severity of the disability, it may take a while for the student to see the pattern, but as soon as they do, I ask, totally shocked at their understanding, how they knew that?  What?  You mean when you go straight down on a hundreds chart, you’re adding 10?!?  From then on, I ask them to predict what will be the next number.  Throughout, I ask them how many tens each number has, and then how many ones (not necessarily in that order).  Again depending on the severity of the student’s disability, we may do this for a few days before introducing the hundreds chart puzzle, or it could be later in the same session.

I bring out a sheet of hundreds chart puzzles and build the first single-digit number that is on

Sample Hundred's Chart Puzzle

Sample Hundred’s Chart Puzzle

the sheet.  We go through our now familiar rigamarole.  Then I stop and show them the puzzle and explain that this is the piece of the hundreds chart we just circled and ask them if they can fill it out.  More shock and awe at their amazing ability!  Eventually, I ask if they can predict the answer to the hundreds chart puzzle before we build anything and without even looking on the chart.  Ooh.  “How did you know that?” I ask when it turns out their prediction is true.  Lots of high-fiving ensues.

After a few more days of this procedure, I then bring out the first ten-to-teen sheet (another Making Math Real product).  I reassure them that this is exactly like what they have been doing.  If we need to, we go back to building the numbers.  Most likely at this point, they can do it as a hundred-chart puzzle and then do the adding.  Whoa!  Very exciting.

I take them through a sequence of worksheets that goes from ten to teen to double digits plus ten, to double digits plus multiple tens (23 + 10 + 10 + 10) where we count by tens as they tap each ten (the obvious connection to adding dimes to any amount is worth pointing out and practicing here), to double-digit numbers plus multiples of ten, including crossing over 100 without the procedure of carrying.  Don’t assume that students will be able to generalize to subtracting ten: I go through the whole sequence (hopefully abbreviated) again when we are taking away a ten.

About day six of this procedure with one particular student, he exclaimed, “Wait!  I see a pattern!  We’re just counting by ones, but in the tens place.”  These are the moments that give me chills and make me feel blessed to be a teacher.