Rewards In School: Good Or Bad?

Giving kids rewards such as an allowance for doing chores isn't a new idea, but what about giving a kid a new car or thousands of dollars just for going to school?

There are some programs around the country, like in Hartford, Conn., where school districts are doing just that. The Early Show has a report Friday.

Gift cards and boats are just a few of the rewards 9-year-old Fernando Vazquez could have won simply by going to school every day last year. In fact, his perfect attendance at a Hartford elementary school won the fourth-grader a new car.

Jackie Hardy is with the Hartford schools' superintendent's office. Both she and Fernando's principal believe the program is inspiring kids, not just teaching them to expect rewards for going to school.

"The Spotlight On Perfect Attendance program has been in existence for about five years," Hardy says. "Perfect attendance is the first step toward successful students. It's not the incentives as much as it is the achievement. To go to school every day is a big achievement."

But should school attendance warrant mega-rewards such as a car or thousands of dollars? While she's excited about the prize, even Fernando's mom, Gina, isn't so sure.

"When I was a kid, they didn't have that," she says. "And I went to school just about every day without it. I mean, they don't really need it."

Fernando exchanged the car for $10,000, which he has put aside for college. But the question of whether or not these rewards are tantamount to bribes in order to get kids to school remains.

Virginia M. Shiller, a clinical psychologist at Yale, wrote the book "Rewards For Kids!" and she dropped by The Early Show to suggest how to use incentives appropriately, and how to judge when it might be going too far.

Her three main suggestions:

  1. Keep expectations reasonable. If you want to get your children to do their chores, set up a weekly program. Track progress with a chart and don't expect perfection. If they're not doing chores at all, and then they do five out of seven days without a reminder, that's improvement and they should get a reward. If you allow some room for slippage, the process will be more successful. You want them to earn the reward, so you take into account the fact that they're young, forgetful and get involved in other things. But if they're making the effort, they can earn the reward.
  2. Consider incentives other than cash and material objects such as a special outing or privileges, like being allowed to have two friends to sleep overnight instead of just one.
  3. Remember other things kids will learn along the way. Don't rely simply on the reward. Point out the benefits of changing their habits. If Grandma noticed the good manners, emphasize it so kids learn there are lots of reason to do these things, and eventually they won't need the reward anymore.
Shiller says that if rewards are carefully chosen, then it's fine for schools to offer them. For instance, instead of offering children $10 for every A at the end of the school year, it might be more appropriate to offer a short-time reward every time your child practices the multiplication tables three times a week, or improves.