Should Kids Be Rewarded for Schoolwork?

My three "kids".

I’m almost embarrassed to tell you this because is some homeschooling circles this seems to be frowned upon.  I’ve set up a reward system for my kids’ learning activities where they can earn tickets and go “shopping” for things I’ve pre-purchased, in exchange for them completing their work without fussing, whining, complaining, refusing or otherwise making my ears bleed from listening to all of that.  Mostly this applies to one specific child. The other one has been known to say, “I don’t feel like doing that, I’m gonna color.” Which is fine sometimes, as she pretty young, but now that she’s in kindergarden, we’re going to be doing a bit more.

Why is this frowned upon? Well, here are a few lines of thinking that I’ve read, some between the lines, some more direct. We’re homeschoolers. Our kids are supposed to love learning. They shouldn’t need to be rewarded. That’s too much like public school. Learning is their job, they’re kids, they shouldn’t get prizes for it. Reward systems don’t work, just look at the research.

I’m not saying that any of that is wrong. Well, except for the homeschooled kids are supposes to love learning all the time and use their math books for pleasure reading before the age of four blah-blah-blah. 

Personally, I’ve always had mixed feelings about reward systems. I’ve read Alfie Kohn’s stuff on rewards actually being counterproductive and much of it makes sense to me but if I have another year of my son oozing out of his chair into a puddle of whining, complaining, tantruming mess at the mere site of well, it could be any subject, it just depends on the day– I am going to have to check myself into a mental institution.

Now, I go to great lengths to make learning fun in my house. Much of the time, my kids don’t even realize we are “doing school” but my personal philosophy is that there are certain things you have to learn, whether you like it or not (how to read comes to mind).  There are also certain things that I think kids should be exposed to, that may develop into deep interests, or may not, but a well-rounded education is valuable to me.  There should also be some amount of child led learning for sure, letting them follow their interests and dictate their learning. This is a great advantage to homeschooling, something that cannot happen in a brick-and-mortar school. As they grow older, I envision  my kids and I as partners with regard to  curriculum plans rather than me selecting most of it for them.

For now, we seem to have phases of fussiness with my oldest child. And I’ve spent many an hour re-examining my curriculum choices, trying to gain a better understanding of his learning style, encouraging him to make choices about what he wants to learn about and how to do so, but I came to this conclusion. Sometimes, he is whining not because the curriculum is not a match with his learning style or because I am expecting too much from him but because it is a habit.  Or he wants to play the Wii. Or he doesn’t know what he wants he just wants to not do math or reading right now. For much of last year, I tied his attitude about schoolwork to screentime. Good attitude during schoolwork earned him screentime afterwards.  We had some mild success with this approach but still an awful lot of attitude. I would like this year to be different.

So one night, we went to a Chuck E. Cheese-esque place and my kids were winning tickets by playing games and cashing them in for very minor (but to them, exciting) prizes and I realized, hey, that’s what I’m going to do.  So I went to Target and I got some stuff from the dollar spot, and some super-duper on sale school supplies and a few other regular items that they need anyway.  I took them home and made little “price” tags for them. I bought a packet of star shaped cut-outs at the dollar store, laminated them, and those served as our “tickets”.  I set up the whole shebang in the main learning area in our house. The kids noticed it and were intrigued. They wanted to shop. They asked if they could “do school” on Saturday. They asked if they could do more so they could get more stars and go shopping.

So it is working for now.  Although I am sure the newness of it will wear off and who knows where we will be at a few weeks or months down the road. Will I be able to keep it exciting without breaking the bank? Will they stay invested in this system or will I be back where I started? Will it benefit their learning or impede it in some way? I honestly don’t know but I hope it works out in some way or another. Because mental hospitals are expensive.  I’ll keep you posted.

This entry was posted in Early Elementary Years, homeschooling, sanity. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Should Kids Be Rewarded for Schoolwork?

  1. Anna-Marie says:

    Good luck with the reward system I know of a few others who use this system, although I haven’t yet. I usually have one (sometimes 2) days a week that is absolutely torture to do school. Nice to know others have the same difficulty. My oldest is now teaching my youngest to dislike “school” by her bad attitude on these day:(

  2. Dawn says:

    Sounds like a fun start. I say, if it works, great!!! We all need some motivation to make it through activities at times.

  3. Diane Kirkwood says:

    We all work for rewards all of our lives! Would most adults continue to go to work if they didn’t receive a paycheck? For some children the rewards can be as simple as praise, others need a more tangible reward for their work. I say go for whatever works!

  4. Rivka says:

    I like to use small, unpredictable rewards as motivators, particularly with the ear-bleeding whining/fussing/complaining when it’s math time. One thing that works really well is to bring out seven tiny pieces of candy (M&Ms, chocolate chips, Smarties) and line them up on the table. Every time Alex whines or refuses to try or otherwise tries my patience, I eat a piece of candy. Whatever’s left at the end of the lesson is hers to keep. It is REALLY motivating for her to see those candies disappear into my mouth!

    I think rewards work better when they’re not an every-time thing. I don’t ever want us to get into a transactional mindset where she feels entitled to a reward for doing schoolwork. I would rather have it be an intermittent arrangement, where sometimes I recognize that she needs an extra boost and she gets one.

    We do have a tradition of going out for sushi when she finishes a math book. Boy, does she get dedicated when she’s down to the last ten pages!

    • Siggi says:

      Yup – we used to count chocolate chips, then eat the props.

      Also, “catching them being good” rewards worked great with my middle schoolers, and smiley stickers on good work appealled even to my jaded high schoolers. I found that the perfect balance was to sweeten the pot, not replace the meal with dessert. Keep the rewards small, and randomly rewarded, and the whole thing becomes about joy, instead of about rules lawyering and just-getting-it-doneness.

      Good luck!

  5. I’m with Rivka – we also use small rewards at random moments pretty often – M&Ms, a few chocolate chips, jelly beans or stickers on the paper sort of rewards. I have done the more formal reward thing when I was teaching school and have almost always found that it was more trouble than it was worth. Dealing with the lawyering and grubbing about it was too much hassle and too disheartening to make it worth it – at least for me. But I’ve seen people make it work for them.

  6. Kristina says:

    I think rewards are great. When we tell children that school is their job we often expect them to understand that “knowledge” is the payment. But the fact is that children cannot understand such an intangible concept. Children don’t see the bigger picture and are not really mentally ready to grasps the “long term” meaning of things (hence the Romeo & Juliet outcome). And none of us adults would go to work if we were told that instead of money (which we earn) we are going to get the satisfaction of knowing that we did it! I think it is great to give kids a reward for doing the things that we want them to do. It’s a tangible result of positive behavior and once they understand the concept, you can make it harder and harder to earn rewards (which will be better and better)

    When I was teaching 9th grade English, my students were very well behaved because of my rewards system. They were able to see that doing the right thing = positive results. I had a very detailed system that left little room for interpretation and out of 175 students, I maybe had issues with 5-7 of them… in the long rund, totally worth it!

  7. Stephanie says:

    Great idea. We have similar whining/moping issues here and plan to try a similar reward system. What I haven’t figured out is how long it should take them to earn their ‘prize’ (Dolllar bin-type stuff). Every week is too often (for us), but waiting a month is a long time. What time frame are you using? Thanks!

    • Well, to start out, I put a few things like sticker sheets that they could earn in about three days. We aren’t doing our full schedule yet, so when that happens, they could actually earn something small in a day and a half. Most things will require them to save up their reward tickets, though, for days or weeks. That will probably work fine for my 7 year old. May have to put a few more “lower priced” items in their for my 5 year old. She was thrilled with the sticker sheet.

  8. Love this! I’ve been having the same issue and I go between feeling guilty about too much structure swinging to feeling guilty to too little structure! LOL

  9. Julie says:

    I love the “shopping” aspect of it! We struggle with compliance too. My son has Autism and we’ve been homeschooling for 4 years. When we are doing something he’s not interested in, sometimes he needs and incentive to stick with me. 😉

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