What’s so wrong with rewards at school? (Part 2)

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Yesterday we looked at what we reward children for …… today our second question – why do we feel the need to reward children?

We are told that what you focus on is what you get and I can see that. The more you comment on the negative things and complain about how awful something is the harder it is to get yourself out of that place. However for children who’ve experienced trauma especially we must always put their needs before ours. I think as adults we feel that if we don’t praise every single thing we’re not supporting and encouraging children. I’m not saying of course that we should pick on their difficult areas and make them feel rubbish. What I am saying is that we need to look at why we struggle so much with this whole area of rewards. Whenever I’ve spoken about this on training invariably someone struggles with this concept of giving low-key praise and not linking it to the action. We feel that the point of rewarding is so that they do the desired behaviour again – behaviour modification, but the key element to remember with these types of children is that their behaviour is communicating a need – they are not naughty children, they are scared and anxious children showing that in ways that we find difficult and that are unacceptable in our societies.

What I will say about praising children is that we need to make sure we are building up their self-esteem. This will take a long time and baby steps – when we go in all guns blazing and tell them how fantastic their singing is and they should be on X Factor you have no idea how that information will be received. They need small doses of praise and affection that builds their resilience and gives them a sense of who they are and who they can be.

One of the examples around rewards that all my children have found difficult is around fountain pens. In our school once a child can get their handwriting to a desired level they are given a fountain pen. This is the coveted price apparently which every child aspires to. I understand why this has been put in place and realise that for the majority of children it probably acts as an incentive to work hard to improve their writing. However for my children it only acts as another thing to be disappointed about, another aspect of schooling where they stand out as not being the norm. For my middle son who is now in year 6 he is one of three children who still don’t have their pens while all the others do. When I hear him talk about this it upsets me as there are reasons why his writing is delayed and that he struggles that are not down to him being lazy and not trying. He missed out on all those years of attention and stimulation when you learn to write. His fine motor skills have been impaired as a result of his early trauma – I know that the fact his handwriting is messy and not to the level of a ‘normal’ 10 year old is a result of his past.

Of course it does act as an incentive for him to try and improve but I also know he receives the message that he is not good enough (and may never be) to fit in with everyone else. That he has failed and he internalises that to mean HE is a failure.

So why do we feel the need to reward in this way? To encourage children to try, to improve, to succeed. And what of improving against your own standard? Maybe a better way would be to reward on improvement in writing, or effort to improve instead of reaching a level that is unobtainable for them. When we learn to walk as a toddler we are encouraged and praised every step and every fall and every wobble – you see adults with their children clapping and cheering as they stumble and fall. Then later on in life we just seem to praise on achievement – what happened to praising effort?

So whilst I understand we do have an inherent desire to reward and praise children I just want to challenge you to think about how that is received by a child who has experienced trauma. The messages they receive will be different to what a nurtured child may feel, regardless of how long they may have been out of that initial trauma environment. Think about how you can build a child’s self esteem based on who they are as an individual and not about meeting a standard of performance that is out of their reach. And be conscious of how your normal reward system may actually damage and hinder these children’s development.

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