Negative effects of reward systems in classrooms

A letter responds to our September 'New voices' article.

Following Laura Oxley article ‘Do schools need lessons on motivation’ (‘New voices’, September 2015), I wanted to discuss a method currently used at my children’s school: the ‘happy and sad list’ reward system. In a nutshell, if a child has done well their name is added to the happy list; if a child ‘misbehaves’ they are put on the sad list.

As a parent, I obviously actively encourage positive reinforcement at home as well as within the classroom. But I do feel it’s necessary to raise concerns about the negative effects that some reward systems could possibly have on our children. I wonder how helpful is it for a four-year-old to have his/her name added to the sad list… and possibly within days or weeks of starting their academic careers? To be publicly named and shamed in front of your peers and teaching staff for being the ‘naughty’ boy or girl, potentially for something as simply as not sitting still during story time (which would be difficult for most four-year-olds, especially boys just starting school).

What I find really concerning is the possible long-term psychological effects on that child’s future wellbeing. Take a child that already suffers from physical or mental abuse at home: they are already starting out with a possible disadvantage and potentially a low self-esteem. Our schools should offer all children a safe, happy and inclusive environment, a place where they should thrive and receive constant positive reassurance. Not a place where you are visually reminded every day that you are a ‘bad’ person. Isn’t the long-term effect more likely to be total disengagement? And aren’t the children that are more likely to end up on the sad list often the children that need the most help and encouragement?

I’m not really sure how putting a child’s name on the sad list ever encourages a child to improve his/her behaviour. In fact, I believe it’s more likely to do the opposite. What effect is this shaming going to have on the child’s self-esteem? And what effect is low self-esteem going to have on his or her behaviour? Surely children that are taught in a positive and inclusive environment are more likely to do well and feel good about themselves and enjoy being at school.

I would be very interested to hear readers’ views on reward systems in classrooms: from a psychological perspective, what works and why?
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