Needs Focused Teaching

The danger of using rewards

I just want to briefly mention the issue of rewards here because they are often considered, along with praise, to be an effective strategy for positively reinforcing good behaviour. The Needs-Focused Approach does not advocate relying heavily on rewards to change inappropriate behaviour, for several reasons.


One of the main problems with reward programmes is that they don’t take into account students who lack the capacity or skills to complete a designated task or meet a required level of work – they just assume that the only rea aren’t working is because they don’t want to do so.

Consider a boy who is offered rewards to bring in his homework. If he lives in an acutely chaotic home where school is viewed negatively by other family members and he has never been taught even the most basic of time management skills, the reward won’t help him – it won’t make his family members give him support, and it won’t teach him the required organisational skills to find time to sit down to do his homework.

When I deliver live courses, I use the promise of a cash reward for a series of impossible tasks to hammer this message home. Participants are offered increasingly valuable cash prizes if they manage to complete a series of puzzles. They can’t do it, no matter how much they want to, and no matter how much they would like to further deplete my bank account. It makes no difference how much I increase the potential prize money, they can’t complete the task. If the skills are lacking, the reward won’t help

Another problem with rewards is that they provide, at best, only a temporary improvement. Once the treats (or the person giving them) have gone, the behaviour resumes. At worst, they help build and sustain a society of young people who will only do as they are asked if they are given something of value in return:

“Sure, I’ll do as you ask but what are you going to give me in return? What is it worth?”

Our aim must be to TEACH appropriate behaviour and encourage students to behave appropriately for the right reasons, and for the intrinsic rewards that such behaviour brings – not because they have been promised a treat or a reward for doing so.

Now – I need to be clear – this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give kids rewards now and again. We just need to get the timing right.

You see, when rewards are promised in advance (“Do this and I’ll give you this”) they are nothing more than bribes. But when they are unexpected and given after an increased effort or positive change in behaviour they can ‘mark the moment’ very well, and reinforce the behaviour we want to see. Student efforts should be recognised and celebrated – and rewards can be used to this end – but we can do better than to rely entirely on bribery where they are promised in advance of an achieved target, as is the case with most school reward systems.

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