Why Rewards are More Important than Punishments

Having a well-managed classroom is one of the most important parts of being a good teacher – if you’re constantly battling with your students just to stay in their seats or not talk over you, it can feel like you never get anything done. 

Photo by Yellow on Flikr

Photo by Yellow on Flikr

While trying to manage a classroom, most teachers’ first instinct will be to simply punish students for disruptive behaviors.  There is definitely a space and a need for that – some behaviors are simply too disruptive or even dangerous to not address immediately and decisively.

However, there are a lot of compelling reasons why rewarding and reinforcing good behavior is a far better long-term strategy than just using negative consequences.

First, let’s look at the problems with relying on punishments and negative consequences too much as a classroom management technique. 

The more you punish bad behavior, the more you are calling attention to it. Click To Tweet Kids like to be recognized, and it’s common for kids who misbehave to enjoy being the center of attention.  When you stop class to make a big ordeal out of putting them on time out, you’re giving them exactly what they want: recognition, attention, and a disruption of the lesson.

Often, the more you try to get someone not to do something, the more they want to do it.  Trying to drive out negative behaviors and getting students to stop speaking out of turn, getting out of their seats, or disrupting class means you’re constantly going to be waging a battle of wills with your students.

Another problem is that relying on consequences for bad behaviors leaves no room for good behaviors to come out.  It also often neglects to recognize the students who don’t cause you any problems: Those students who work hard all the time, who always finish their homework, always raise their hands to answer questions, always volunteer to help you or their classmates out.

They want to know that their efforts are appreciated and recognized.  The more of your focus is on punishing the ones who are misbehaving, the less time you will have to recognize good behavior, and the more the students who you want to encourage will feel neglected and unappreciated.

This is where rewards come in.  Rewards put the focus on students who are a productive, contributing part of the class, and communicates to students that those are the behaviors that are going to get attention and recognition.

They motivate students and give them a reason to be at their best, rather than “make” them behave out of fear of negative consequences. This is why it’s important to reward not just those students who are always well-behaved, but also the ones who frequently misbehave.

If, instead of just removing a student from class or putting them on a time out when they are being bad, you look to find a role or activity that will actually bring out the best in them and allow them to feel like a valuable part of class, then reward them for their good behavior during that activity, you are actively encouraging good habits.

Don’t just try to get rid of the problem behaviors – try to replace those behaviors with ones that benefit the student and the rest of the class.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t enforce consequences for bad behavior.  Sometimes it’s necessary.  Kids will push you, and they need to know that you are going to hold them to certain expectations as far as behavior goes.

The important thing is to do so calmly and with as little attention on the student as possible; to view it as a simple consequence of their behavior, not necessarily as a punishment; and to always seek to bring out good behaviors rather than squash the bad ones.

Even the most difficult students have a strong internal need for validation.  We all do.  It’s human nature to want to feel useful, needed, important. If you are only emphasizing the things that students do wrong, you are missing out on a lot of opportunities to help your difficult students – and the class as a whole – develop their potential.

What are your thoughts about this article? Do you agree with this technique? Do you have a technique you like to use that works better? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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