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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Use rewards carefully & sparingly

In Montessori schools ( 3rd year to 12th year), there are no stars, merits, honor rolls or grades. It is believed that offering rewards to motivate a child is not useful for long term development of child. If you  understand why, it will help you decide when to reward and how.

Rewards are of two types: intrinsic & extrinsic. Extrinsic rewards motivate when someone is not motivated to do something. However, if a person is intrinsically motivated, expected extrinsic rewards actually interfere with the subsequent interest.(**) As young children are 'intrinsically motivated' in Montessori, they therefore do not need any extrinsic reward. Have you seen a four year old 'motivationally-deficient' child?

In a Montessori this can be observed whenever an inexperienced Montessori Adult (teacher is called an adult) repeatedly offers an extrinsic reward such as patting on the back or praising a child. When such an adult  pats on the back after a successful performance of an activity, the child takes up 'easy' activities which he believes he can accomplish with certainty.  He keeps on repeating the same activities that he can do easily to get the extrinsic reward. More detrimentally, the child avoids 'new activities' because they are inherently challenging. When he takes up new activities, he gives up easily when he encounters the smallest of difficulty. He has to be persuaded to take it again. Even if the Montessori adult repeatedly requests him to take up the new activity by using innovative methods, the child sensing the adult's urgency, resists it more.  In a Montessori house, where a child is supposed to choose his own activities, this can derail the child's development. Therefore, any form of extrinsic rewards is are not offered to the child in a Montessori house.

In a Montessori, if you watch a child finishing an activity successfully, you will find him contended and satisfied. For him, accomplishing a purposeful activity through his barely developed coordinated movement is a great intrinsic reward. His first reaction after accomplishing a purposeful activity in Montessori is therefore to do nothing for a while or take a tiffin break, or do a relaxing activity such as drawing with a metal inset . He does not 'seek' any extrinsic reward, because he is intrinsically motivated.


Metal insets ( also called as Drawing insets) used in Montessori House of Children

After understanding the dynamics of reward and how it affects the child's behaviour, following rules may be helpful in deciding when and how to reward child's behaviour at home:

1. Do not offer rewards to the child for normal expected routine behaviour

Offering rewards for normal work like waking up early from the bed, brushing teeth, or eating food sets up a a vicious loop of behaviour, as the child starts expecting reward for every normal activity. For instance, if the parents offer reward for eating food, you will find that the child wants reward for eating food every time. Vicious loop sets in. Changing the behaviour of child now is very difficult ! Later, we shall see how to alter such patterns of behaviour.

Parents also offer rewards for doing homework in a traditional school. Research has shown that child's intrinsic motivation in traditional school declines every year. In such a low-motivation situation, extrinsic reward paradoxically do tend to motivate the child to perform the homework. This is a catch-22 situation for parents whose children are in traditional school.

2. For performing a challenging activity, like walking on a rope or walking stairs downwards, offer 'smart help' to the child.

Here the intrinsic reward rule applies. For the child, doing the challenging activity itself is a big intrinsic reward. Do not spoil his real enjoyment. At the most, give a tap on his shoulder or show your affection that is commonly used.  If you want to encourage him, praise his 'act' to others subtly in his presence.

3.  Use rewards to show your 'affection' and love, not for producing successful outcome in an activity

By their very nature, efforts is not linearly proportional to outcome. Sometimes, effort produce the desired outcomes, sometimes it does not. There is a whole 'science' to explain why. But, by offering 'rewards' for successful outcomes, we unknowingly push the child in believing that  'outcomes are entirely in his control', which is not true. This belief causes so much 'stress' in the child that it directly impacts his performance.

In other words, give rewards as 'gifts', not as rewards. Find occassions to give gifts and let the child know that you 'love' him irrespective of anything. That assurance to child is more helpful than any other  reward.

4.  If you want to shower praise on your child, always praise the 'behaviour'.

Very often we praise the child by saying he is 'good boy' or a 'good girl'.  Such 'global praise' does more harm to the child, because it makes him see himself as either 'white' or 'black'. Instead, praise the child's behaviour, such as ' I liked your sharing of chocolate with Rinky'.

Girl using metal inset for drawing


** This is surprising to many, but the research support is very strong. For more details, read this summary in Angelina Lillard's book " Montessori, the science behind Genius" 

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