By: Lisa Cranston, EdD
Jenni and her mother pull up in front of the school. Jenni started kindergarten two weeks ago and every day when her mother drops her off, the separation is marked by tears and screaming. Jenni’s mom reminds her, “Remember – no tears today Jenni and you’ll get a sticker on your sticker chart. When you have five stickers, I’ll take you to McDonalds.”
In the grade 1 classroom, students enter the classroom and set their agendas open on their desks so that their teacher, Mr. S, can check to see if their parents signed yesterday’s entry. Four of his students are on a sticker program. “Good morning Michael,” he greets one of them. “Let’s try to have a good day today so that we can put another sticker in your agenda.” A “good day” for Michael means staying in his seat and completing his seat work.
In Ms. J’s grade 5 class down the hall, the sticker program is a whole-class reading incentive program. For each book they read, the students receive a sticker. When their sticker chart is full, students can redeem it for a gift certificate from the local pizzeria.
Sticker reward programs like these are problematic for many reasons. First and foremost, they are founded on a self-control paradigm, not one of self-regulation. When using a sticker reward system, the adult is assuming that the child has full control of his or her behaviour and could demonstrate the desired behaviour if they wanted to, but sometimes choose not to do so. The role of the adult becomes one of incentivizing and rewarding appropriate behaviour. The belief is that if the adult rewards the desired behaviour with stickers and other incentives, then the child will work harder to demonstrate those behaviours and repress the undesired behaviours. Ultimately, the hope is that the child will develop stronger willpower and will eventually be able to fully control their behaviour.
In self-regulation, we always start by examining the behaviour we’re seeing in order to determine whether it is misbehaviour or stress behaviour. Misbehaviour is within the child’s control; the prefrontal cortex is running the show. But when a child is demonstrating stress behaviour, they are not able to control their behaviour; the limbic system is controlling them and their behaviour. As the adult, our role is to lend children our calm, to use our knowledge of self-regulation to support the student, to help turn off those limbic alarms, and to co-regulate with them as they develop their own self-regulation skills.
In Jenni’s case, she usually settles into the classroom routines a few minutes after arriving. The teacher, ECE and parent can work together to determine what stressors are impacting Jenni each day at drop-off time and how to reduce those stressors for Jenni. They will lend Jenni their calm and co-regulate with her during arrival time, until she is able to self-regulate during this transition.
As parents and educators, we also need to look at the expectations we have for children. If a child is demonstrating stress behaviours, they may be telling us that our expectations are too much for them. Reducing the stressors may mean changing our program or our routines. If we are asking young children like Michael to sit for too long, listen for too long, or complete too many worksheets, then no number of stickers is going to be enough incentive for a child who is not developmentally ready. These expectations are creating stress across multiple domains for Michael and students like him.
Instead, we may need to rethink our program. How can we make it more developmentally appropriate? Rather than a worksheet where the child is circling all the pictures that start with “B”, we can have students go on a scavenger hunt for things in the classroom that start with a “B”. Instead of cutting out pictures of a story and gluing them in order, we can have them retell the story in sequence using puppets, felt board pieces, or using acetates on the light table or overhead. By reducing stressors across the domains, students can demonstrate the full range of their learning and understanding.
Whole-class reading incentives like the pizza program used by Ms. J have been shown to have a negative impact on student attitudes towards reading. (Cunningham, 2005; Kohn, 1999). When we incentivize behaviour, we run the risk of extinguishing pre-existing intrinsic motivation. Instead, we can look to reduce stressors for those students who seem to be reluctant readers. Some students may need alternate seating – rather than reading at their desk, they may prefer to lay on the class carpet, read while seated on a cycle seat, wobble seat, or on a soft cushion. Some students may need to find a quiet spot or wear headphones to reduce distractions; other students prefer reading as a social activity. Once a week, my grade 3s could read with a partner or small group and some of the most reluctant readers suddenly became the most engaged.
Another strategy to reduce stressors for reluctant readers is to provide access to a range of genres and to demonstrate to students that reading different genres is not only acceptable but desirable. Many students in primary and junior grades (K – 6) perceive reading chapter books as ‘real reading’ yet for some students the type of reading required by chapter books – sustained, beginning to end reading – is a cognitive stressor. Some readers prefer books that allow them to dip in and out of the book, where they don’t necessarily have to read the whole book from beginning to end, such as non-fiction books, joke books, books of facts and lists, or books of poetry.
By viewing behaviour through a lens of self-regulation rather than self-control, we shift our view of the child from one of a child who won’t or can’t to a view of a child who needs the adults in their life to help them and support them develop skills and strategies for self-regulation. This is a very different role for the adult than being the person who doles out punishments and rewards, including stickers.
Don’t get me wrong – stickers are fun! I’m not saying that teachers and parents should never give children stickers. But we need to be thoughtful and purposeful about when and why we use them. Just last month I got a sticker when I donated blood and I wore that sticker proudly for the rest of the day. But I don’t donate blood so that I can get a sticker; I donate blood because it makes me feel good to help others. I do it for the intrinsic reward, not for the sticker. For our students, the intrinsic reward may be feeling calm, feeling regulated, or feeling immersed in a good book. It may be the feeling of mastering a new concept, become a stronger reader or better mathematician. Creating a culture that views behaviour through a lens of compassion, empathy and self-regulation will help students to reach their fullest potential as learners while developing their own self-regulation strategies, far more than any sticker program could ever hope to achieve.
Cunningham, P. (2011). If they don’t read much, how are they going to get good? The Reading Teacher, 59(1), p. 88-90.
Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise, and other bribes. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Lisa Cranston has over thirty years of experience as an educator in Southwestern Ontario. She spent the last eleven years of her career in education as the educational consultant for kindergarten and primary grades, leading the implementation of Full Day Kindergarten for her school board from 2010 – 2015. Now retired, she is an online course facilitator for the MEHRIT Centre. Lisa believes that Shanker Self-Reg® has changed how she views both her own behaviour and that of others, and her goal is to help others to ‘lend their calm’ to those around them.