Leading and Caring for Children

Using Rewards Effectively

Actions people take that are followed by a pleasant consequence are more likely to occur again. This is a provable truth.

drywallFirst, I want to acknowledge Alfie Kohn for the clarity he has brought to the terrible problem of the misuse of rewards in his book Punished by Rewards, but rewards themselves are not one simple idea, and the worst part of this is that people are using rewards, like praise, manipulatively.

I don’t want anyone to misuse rewards, for warmth and positivity are the drywall taping knives of teaching and parenting. If you have ever tried to tape drywall and compared yourself to professionals who do it, you can see directly what it means to skillfully use a tool. Just as knives are a drywall taper/finisher’s livelihood, and had to be practiced over time, the educator’s use of positives requires physical practice doing it well.

I’d like to take us through the kinds of rewards first and then delve into how they are used. As described in Enterprise Talk, No Praise is an essential prohibition, and non-verbal recognition, intrinsically phrased responses and narration are essential tools of effectiveness in leadership and care.

Types of Rewards

Nutritive Rewards

Nutritive rewards are food rewards, such as candy and ice cream. The first ones I ever used were sweetened cereal. We called them primaries then, because one didn’t have to learn to enjoy them. This new labeled “nutritive” is a bit better, I think, because it calls to mind healthy food: granola bars, energy bars, dark chocolate, fruit, fruit juice, trail mix, pretzels, etc. The word guides me to think better about them.

elephantFood rewards are powerful. Orca whales leap high into the air for food rewards. Elephants can balance on their forelegs for food rewards. When one is hungry — really, really hungry — one will do almost anything for food.  I know because I did regretful things to get food when I had not eaten for two days.

Social Rewards

These are the myriad things people can do that send positive messages to other people. A major distinction must be made among the the kinds of messages sent socially, because personal opinions and personal judgments are not facts.


praise1Praise offers judgements or opinions. “Good work.” “That’s nice.” “Outstanding!” “I like the way you did that.” Praises are evaluations spoken in words of one person’s personal reality. That distinction is one of the reasons the Behavior Management Protocol started with how we language reality. Personal reality is unreliable, yet our culture assumes that any positive expression given to someone is a good thing to do. In issuing a statement of praise the evaluating person implies that he or she has a right and a privilege to pass judgments and determine worthiness. However well-intentioned or upbeat, the very utterance itself establishes a power differential between the position of the speaker and the position of the receiver. It is as if the speaker stands on a chair and looks down at underlings and judges them or their work. Despite most people’s opinion that praise is good (sic), it’s not.

Praise is weird. For example, the children are moving from free play to circle time. Two darlings have come to circle right away, Ellen and Maggie. The other children, especially “those wilder boys,” keep running around being silly. The adult says in an effort to be positive, “I like the way Ellen and Maggie are sitting at circle time.” Ellen and Maggie look at each other and smile. I think most dispassionate observers of the scene would see that “those wilder boys” could care less. They are having lots more fun NOT going to circle. It’s possible to imagine them thinking, “She is trying to manipulate us. We don’t stop doing what we enjoy doing, because we want her to like us. We have our own lives and we want to make our own choices in our own time.” The dispassionate observer can see the clear evidence that “I like the way…” doesn’t work, yet the adult continues the practice. It’s crazy. I have seen this over and over again, and each time I feel sad for Ellen and Maggie, who seem locked in the unfortunate trap of seeking approval. In effect, in trying to manipulate the boys the teacher’s praise is, in my opinion, contrary to the girl’s best interests.

To be fair, praise can be effective when it is NOT directed at the individual but at another person — a colleague, boss, or parent. To Mom, “I wanted to show you Ellen’s clay sculpture she made today. Isn’t it amazing?”  When I have watched sideways praise, as if the child is overhearing a conversation not meant for them, I have found children listening carefully to what is being said.

Also to be fair, praise is better than destruction. It is a step up for people with habits of discounting and criticizing to say anything positive at all. That ought not apply to educators, who, although they might start out with praise, have a professional obligation to stop using it and move on to recognition.


Recognition offers an observant regard. Included here are both verbal and non-verbal messages that convey one’s noticing. No judgment is involved.

winkNonverbal: wink, pat, smile, gestures, falling on the floor in a faint, hitting oneself in the head.

Vocal: laugh, make odd sounds, whistle, zuppa zuppa, wow.

Description: “The floor is clean. You found a way to do that. I saw you brush your teeth.”  These are facts everyone can see.

Narration: “You are adding an additional color. Marsha gave Emily a pen. The gang comes to the rescue.” An action that is presently occurring is described by a narrator, like a sportscaster’s play-by-play offering a picture of what is happening.

activityActivity Rewards

These are fun things to do, especially getting to do things together. Getting to go to the park. Playing catch.  Throwing water balloons.
Included also are toys and other tangible gifts, such as a matchbox car or a new hair ribbon.  More about activity rewards comes later. These are quite powerful.

General Rewards

tallyGeneral rewards are as meaningless as the word “general.”
Marks on a chart.
Tally counts.
Stickers on the refrigerator.
Teddybear markers in a jar.
None of these have any inherent value; their worth arises from what you can do when you cash them in. For example, “When the jar is full of teddybears, we’ll have a pizza party.” “If you get three checks this week, we will go to the park on Saturday.” “If you have $10,000,000, you can buy a yacht and moor it stern first in Monaco. I’d be honored to visit you.”

Considerations in Using Rewards

Natural Versus Artificial Activity Rewards

It’s interesting to think of activity rewards very broadly. Activities are the daily flow of life. Some things during the day one enjoys, such as listening to music, calling a friend, cooking, or taking a nap. Some things one may not enjoy, such as cleaning the bathroom, washing dishes, or paying bills. All of these are activities; some could be thought of as rewards. Rather than artificially add an activity, one can simply make a already enjoyable activity contingent upon completing a non-enjoyable activity. This is the Premack Principle, since David Premack was the first to research it. I call it Grandma’s Law. After you eat your peas, you can have dessert.

This is making a contingency, and therefore, an application of power. Therefore, we are immediately drawn into ethical issues. If an enjoyable activity is made contingent by someone else, we have a reward being a manifestations of someone else’s agenda. An example might be when Mom mandates piano practice before outside play. Outside play is artificially attached to manipulate, for better or worse, the child’s practice on the piano. It is a contingent reward. If rewards are non-contingent — such as hugs, love, affection, admiration, fun, a new tie, a Valentine card — without an agenda, the message doesn’t come with a manipulation. The way a reward is used is an ethical decision.

I invite you to do this exercise. It’s Not the Reward PDF

Hopefully the distinction between contingent rewards and non-contingent rewards should be clear. You should also be able to see how hurtful one can be with rewards.

Intrinsic Rewards

If you consider your own life, you might be able to see the most powerful kind of rewards. You probably do things that are hard to do or take a skill you had to develop over time. I can bake bread; it took me a long time to learn to do it well. My partner can knit amazing clothing. Where is the reward in baking or knitting?

If you are studying Leadership and Care with others, I invite you to list out a couple of skills you have that others admire, and then write down the answers to these two questions.
1. What is in it for you? Why do you keep doing these things? Where is the benefit to you?
2. What was it like in the very beginning when you first tried doing what you now do so well?

It may be hard to describe, but below are examples of the kinds of things people have said when I asked them to do that task.

  • satisfaction
  • independence
  • competence
  • pride
  • feeling capable
  • feeling of growth
  • achievement
  • feeling of making a difference
  • happiness
  • evidence of having added a new skill or ability
  • being more mature or established

Note that these are not given to you by anyone else; they are internally perceived and real. Externally given rewards are called extrinsic rewards. These internal rewards are called intrinsic. Some people have listed money as one of the rewards for them; that’s a general reward. Others have said they enjoy the thanks of others; that’s a social reward. But it’s these intrinsic rewards that most often maintain diligence, excellence, and contribution, even though the work may be hard.

Work is usually hard in the beginning of anything when intrinsic rewards are usually not be present. My initial bread making was horrible. One time I forgot the bread was rising in the oven. When I finally remembered, it had filled the entire oven. As you may have listed above, the beginning of a new kind of endeavor is full of mistakes and disasters. Skill development requires a certain a level of doggedness in the beginning. It is easy to give up, which is one reason people find the support of educators to be so valuable.


Five Kinds of Rewards

We have identified the five types of rewards — nutritive, social, activity, general, and intrinsic. Now let us look at avoiding the traps of manipulation and artifice. Most of the time in education we don’t have to use arranged rewards. Like in Enterprise talk, we simply notice what we value, without judging it. Recognition by non-verbal, vocal, descriptions and narrations works just fine. For extra special moments we can describe the intrinsic feelings we have had in our own lives. That’s normal.

For example, a child shows me a painting she has done, looking expectantly for a reaction. I could just look and enjoy it, smile, whistle, describe it, or say, “You’re showing me what you’ve done.” All of these are social rewards offered without manipulation. I can be authentically present using any of them. If I wished to go further and add some spice, I could talk about myself using the idea of intrinsic motivation. I call these Intrinsically Phrased Responses.

  • “That sure looks like fun to me.”
  • “I enjoy painting because I discover something about myself each time I paint.” 
  • “I like inventing new things, probably like you do, too.”
  • “The more I paint the better I get at making colors work the way I want.”
  • “I get happy doing that kind of stuff.”

Not everything is normal. You probably reached this page through the sequence of the Behavior Management Protocol, after reading about Sandy, Jeremy, and Charlie. It is one of the interesting things about tough behavior challenges that the child usually is the one doing the manipulation. Children, especially those with high social intelligence, rapidly learn to make adults very angry very quickly by playing games with social attention. Arguing is a game. Running away is a game. So is screaming or hurting someone in order to get noticed. It often works, for most people are at a loss about what to do when social rewards don’t work.

Since we are addressing difficult behavior using the protocol, we are facing the problem of using arranged rewards in an authentic, caring, systematic way that not only avoids being trapped but also is in accord with our values.

Avoiding the Traps of Arranged Rewards

A trap. I don’t want to be locked into artificial arrangements, such as always having to give children stickers and lollipops for doing what they ought to be doing for their own benefit.
A value. I view the child as strong and powerful as someone who leads their own life in accord with their own possibilities.

The following story of Donald helped me understand a way to use arranged rewards that solves this problem.

Donald dashed into the house. “Hey! Where is supper?” No answer. “Anybody home?” No answer.  Donald went into his bedroom. He found a bright yellow sheet of paper on his pillow. It had this on it.

.- / -.-. .- -. -.– / -.. .-. / ..-. — .-. / -.– — ..- / .. … / .. -. / …. .- .-. / -.. . …- .- /

Donald knew his father wanted him to learn various outdoor skills, but with so many things to do he just couldn’t find the time to study knots or learn Morse Code for emergencies. Unable to read the code, he threw it aside. He wandered aimlessly around the house, but his curiosity grew, and he returned to the note.  He found the handbook with Morse Code and gradually deciphered the note.


Several days later Donald found another message which when decoded told him of the family outing to a campground on the weekend.

His father left him a series of longer messages which when decoded led him from one message to another message over a period of weeks to finally discover the gift of a headlamp.

Donald began to translate the messages easily. He began to read the code as if the dots and dashes were letters. Having found this skill he became interested in tying different kinds of knots.

When I first read Donald’s story, I had one of those “ah-hah” moments. Note the series of reward types:

1. nutritive (candy bar); 2. activity (family outing); 3. general (series of decodings, like tally marks over time leading to an activity reward of a headlamp); 4. intrinsic (competence).

Note how many nutritive rewards — one. Note how many activity rewards — one. Then general rewards are used without any tangible cash-in until after a number of events which had no reward attached. Number of rewards earned — one. The procedure of moving quickly in that order has been my guide. Most of the time I start with an activity reward and skip the nutritive reward step.

I have occasionally started with nutritives. I taught my preschool class to walk safely across the very busy Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to get to the park. I used the residential street crosswalk that had no traffic Each person who held their partner’s hand, stayed close to the pair in front, and stayed within the lines of the crosswalk got one Cheerio. Those who lost out going over didn’t lose out crossing back. After that, no Cheerios needed. We were in normal conditions, where I only commented on the successes. Those two little Cheerios were an indicator of my seriousness.

The other thing I learned from the story of Donald was to be extremely careful to talk constantly about the intrinsic rewards. “Doesn’t it feel good to hold hands and cross the street safely? You are getting big. If I were you, I’d be very proud to be in this school.”

Rules for Arranged Rewards

Here are the guidelines whenever you find yourself having to use arranged rewards, which are usually part of the Management Protocol in (1) choosing a new behavior to reward or in (2) a contract for non-occurence.

Rule #1

Use a series of activity rewards, immediately moving to general rewards.  Begin with nutritive rewards if it seems necessary to help the learner connect a reward to his or her actions. A food treat makes it clear that the manager means business.

Rule #2

Talk about the intrinsic rewards, the good feelings inside, whenever you can.  I refer you to Enterprise Talk chart for  intrinsically-phrased responses. I keep this posted on the wall of the classroom as a reminder for everyone.

Rule #3

Avoid social rewards. As you saw in the stories of Sandy, Jeremy, and Charlie, attention, a social reward, was maintaining the difficult behavior. Often these difficult children are adept at manipulating the social situation, so avoiding social rewards is essential when using arranged rewards.

Rule #4

Choose rewards that convey your values. Donald’s father chose rewards related to outdoor experiences which he valued. You can do this for yourself. For example, reward yourself by buying comfortable exercise clothes as a reward for exercising. You can reward a child with a trip to the library for reading conveys your values.  If you offer food or candy, you are saying food is a comfort, which may not be a good message to send. If you say, “I like it when you clean your room,” you are saying that my approval is important. This is another reason to avoid praise!

Non-contingent Social Rewards

I don’t mean to imply that we avoid social rewards for the manipulative children. Our attention, interest, non-verbal and vocal actions are essential. We give them non-contingently along with our constant, unconditional positive regard.

Recalling the Optimal Way twenty-eight pages ago on the What We Want page, the people who are unlikely to have children with troubling behavior are fountains of warmth and good cheer. As with the drywall taper/finisher’s skill with a drywall knife, it can take the rest of us years to learn to use positives well. It’s the center of the craft.


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