If you were allowed to use only one behavior management strategy, I would recommend that you choose "Catching 'em being good".  Because we have so little to hold over kids' heads anymore, and coercing kids into behaving doesn't really build inner control or help us connect with our students, we have to "go positive".  By developing stronger bonds with your students, and making them feel valued, you will have to deal with less misbehavior.  If you want kids to listen to your message, they have to like the messenger.

    However, there can be pitfalls to using praise, rewards, recognition, and other forms of "positive reinforcement" (as the behaviorists [BOO!] like to call it).  For example:

1. Concrete/tangible rewards can create materialistic kids who ask: "Why should I do what you ask?  What's in it for me?"

2. Extrinsic reinforcement can destroy inner motivation.  These rewards focus on outer control, and kids learn to "kiss butt" rather than think for themselves.  They may become dependent on the adult.  The youngster does not internalize the appropriate reasons for engaging in the desired act.

3. Kids who don't get rewards may act up out of resentment toward you for not noticing their prosocial behavior.

4. If you use a limited administration of rewards (e.g., winner of the week, best essay writer), this contest pits kids against each other and creates conflict, resentment, and rebellion.  Most kids also realize that the same two or three kids will keep winning, so why should they even try to excel?

5. Kids' self-esteem becomes dependent on the approval of others, rather than their own self reflection.  In our efforts to build self esteem and independence, we instead create "approval junkies" who constantly judge themselves by the approval of others rather than self-evaluating.

    "Why do kids act up when I reward them?"  That's a question often asked by teachers and parents.  Here are some possible explanations:

1. The kids view you as a judge/evaluator who likes them today, but could give them a "thumbs down" tomorrow.  The reaction could be their way to retain autonomy and self-dignity.

2. Perhaps you've praised the character of the youngsters rather than their actions.  When you say "Good boy/girl/student/etc.", the youngster might think "I'm not always good.  My teacher didn't see me push Kenny in the hallway."  Believing the exclusive label to be inappropriate, they rebel against it.  So don't put labels on youngsters, good or bad.  Describe the actions that pleased you.  Let them label themselves as "good boy/girl", etc.

3. The youngsters might be from cultural groups or homes that do not praise children for appropriate behavior.  The American middle class home is one of the few in the world that uses this strategy.  Youngsters from homes unlike the middle American may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the receipt of praise.

4. Maybe the youngsters think that they have accomplished their goals and can now goof off.

5. Rewards tend to be given after structured tasks.  Unstructured times often follow.  The lack of structure, not the reward (e.g., sugary foods/candies), might be setting them off.

So what do we do to avoid the pitfalls?

Try these suggestions:

1. Pair material rewards with social recognition (e.g., smile, positive touch, encouragement, stating the goal that was achieved).  In that way, personalized contact gains reinforcing value.  Then start to remove the material rewards slowly.

2. Give verbal recognition along with material rewards.   Be sure to recognize or describe the action/product, NOT the character of the youngster (Instead of "You're such a good artist.", try "Wow.  That beach scene you've painted is really eye catching.  I love how the dark clouds add an ominous tone to the sky.  How did you decide to paint a stormy day at the beach instead of the usual sunny pictures we see?") Identify the criteria they have met.

3. Ask youngsters what they did that deserves recognition.  Have them identify the desired behavior and self-congratulate, thus fading out our external evaluation.  Link praise (your's and their's) to positive attributions such as strong effort and effective study strategies

4. Encourage youngsters and express belief in their ability to accomplish or continue the behavior ("I expect more of this class.  You are capable of producing better work." and when they show it..."Now this is what I expect from you folks.  I'll expect to see this quality every day because with hard work you can do it.").   Kids try to live up to the expectations of those individuals they admire and respect.

5. Prepare students for positive feedback.  Give advance notice by saying something like "I have something nice Id like to tell you.  Would you like to hear it?" or "Im about ready to give you a compliment.  How are you going to handle it?"  This practice gives students an opportunity to reflect and answer.  They start to change to reflective rather than automatic responding.  If they are awkward with receiving recognition, teach them to say Thank you.

C'mon pooch.  I know you can do it.
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Updated on 5/10/04                            Author: Tom McIntyre at