Behaviour, Rewards and Learning: 

By John Bayley

John has authored numerous programmes on behaviour management. He is one of our Lead Consultants and is widely acclaimed for his 70+ videos for Teachers TV. For quite a long while, I was an ‘Assertive Discipline’ Trainer. The Assertive Discipline approach was often regarded as the ‘Rewards and Sanctions’ approach, but in its original intention it was much more than that. It focused on techniques that would help adults to think about steering a line between being over-authoritarian and being a walkover.

Another important thing about this approach was that it introduced the idea of the ‘behaviour plan’ – having a structured whole school approach to behaviour. While the Assertive Discipline movement went on to become somewhat prescriptive, it was fundamentally right in its focus on the whole school culture. Assertive Discipline recommended having a system of rewards so that adults acknowledge appropriate behaviour and in some cases that worked very well.

The most important reward however, I think, is teacher approval and also home-school contact, so the child is getting a clear steer of what is expected of them. Structured rewards and sanctions can be a bit more problematic.

They definitely have a role in some settings. I spent part of my career working in a pupil referral unit. When children arrive in this setting they are in a very low place emotionally and likely to present with challenging behaviour.

The structured system of rewards sanctions helped to demonstrate that we were consistent and could be trusted to do what we said. The rewards, with fair and consistent use, helped to build relationships of trust between the teacher and the child. Particularly when you are starting out as a teacher and you are trying to stand your ground and let them know who you are, the apparatus of these systems can be enormously important.

There are a couple of important caveats though. The first one is that we know that rewards-based classrooms can interfere with learning. I once saw this dramatically demonstrated by a presenter at a large conference, where half the audience was asked to solve a problem and were told they would get a bag of sweets on completion, and the other half is just asked to get on with it.

The problem was solved first by the group who weren’t expecting the reward. The presenter told us that the section of the audience going for a reward never completed first. Those working for the sweets get too distracted by trying to win and lose sight of the complicated task of solving the problem.

The second caveat is that classrooms based on prizes tend to create self-defined groups of winners and losers. So we should use rewards judiciously. There are times when they are appropriate, but the most rewarding thing for children is a sense of belonging and a feeling that they are making progress. I would add here the importance of positive psychology.

I have never seen a lesson go badly when a teacher appeared glad to see the children in the room and glad to teach in that lesson. Of course, for this to happen, a teacher must feel confident and supported in what they are doing. Similarly with sanctions, they need to be light, but certain. You’ll never be able to beat children into behaving properly but you can let them know where they stand and where you stand.

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