Decades ago the church I attended gave out pins for meeting various goals in Bible class. They were professionally made and you could move up a hierarchy of sorts. I seem to remember there were points for attending, bringing your Bible to class and memorizing scriptures.
You may have seen something like that program. Or perhaps you have a chart where students can earn stickers or points for reaching certain goals. Some public schools have even experimented with paying students money to get good grades.
Before you start buying out the dollar store, there is actually quite a bit of research that has been done on incentivizing learning. Here’s what studies have found.
- Incentives are external motivation. This means stickers and prizes don’t necessarily teach them how to encourage themselves to come to church or read their Bibles. Often the desired behaviors last only as long as they continue to get rewards.
- Recent studies show they may do more harm than good over a long period of time. The study measured rewarding students for school attendance. The study found once the reward was given, attendance actually got worse – students missed more to either make up for the days they wanted to miss during the program or to not stand out from the crowd – a way to compensate for attending so much during the program.
- Incentives work best with children. They appear to have little impact on teen behavior – even temporarily.
- Incentives set up an expectation that they will be rewarded for every “good” thing they do. Life isn’t like that. When the rewards stop coming, the positive behaviors often disappear, too.
- If you must use incentives, those rewarded only for large goals reached or given irregularly and at unexpected times seem to work best.
- Recognize that you may be rewarding (or not) students for things over which they have little control. If parents have decided to miss Bible class to go to a ball game, there is often very little a child can do to change the parents’ minds.
- Think carefully about whole class rewards. They can work better as the entire class works together to reach a large goal. This can mean a child who is struggling to earn points, but really trying, can still receive the reward. On the other hand, some children may become overly competitive or blame other students if the goal isn’t quite reached.
- If you use incentives, pick them carefully. Parents often get upset with candy given as rewards. Many also aren’t fond of junky items from dollar stores. Most parents would prefer their children receiving less incentives and having them be nicer Christian items, like books.
Not all incentives are bad. Used carefully, they can motivate some students to establish good habits. They just aren’t as helpful for students as we think, so use with caution.