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Q. My third grade son recently came home in tears saying he didn’t want to go to school anymore because he was punished for talking during silent reading. The teacher kept him in from recess. I think this is horrible. It isn’t a teacher’s job to destroy a child’s love for school. Instead of constant punishment for every little infraction, what about using positive reinforcement?

A. He was in tears for having to miss recess? Ah, sweet innocence of youth. Let’s hope he never gets a really tough consequence. Or a boss. Or a job.

I don’t see what the teacher did as either horrible or tear-inducing. My advice would be to have a conversation with your third-grader on the topic of “coping skills.” Because if being kept out of recess has destroyed his love for school, I shudder to think what’s in store when he gets to algebra.

“Positive reinforcement” is a polarizing topic among teachers. Many of my elementary school colleagues tell me it works very well. I’ll take their word for it. But I’ll tell you something that doesn’t work in middle and high school: positive reinforcement.

I’m not saying it’s all bad, of course. Compliments and certain rewards are very good for the spirit. I’m talking specifically about the widespread use of extrinsic rewards as a means of instilling good conduct.

One problem is that the rewards for good behavior can’t keep pace with children’s changing desires. I remember in first grade being highly motivated to get a colorful little handmade award every week. Can you imagine that kind of thing being a serious inducement for a kid who just got 48 “likes” on his latest Instagram post?

At a certain point, all of our little trinkets, tchotchkes, gewgaws, kickshaws, and surcees just can’t match up to the thrill of clipping your friend in the back of the head with a stinger, socializing with the girl next to you during a history lecture, or chillin’ in the hallway while everyone else is in class. The “positive reward” would need some serious bank behind it to seduce eighth graders into glorious conformity en masse.

I had an education professor who once told the story of an old man who was annoyed by some teenagers who walked home every day by cutting through his yard and stomping on his grass. They ignored his yelling, so one day he decided to try positive reinforcement in reverse. He offered the kids a dollar for every day they walked across his lawn. The kids were happy to do it, especially since they had already been doing it anyway, and for a month, the man made good on his bargain. One day he suddenly stopped paying them and called the deal off. The kids became so disgusted that they refused to walk on his lawn ever again.

That’s what tends to happen to positive reinforcement when extrinsic rewards are removed. The behavior you want to maintain doesn’t always stick. It was tied to a reward. Now untethered, it’s free to do whatever it wants. If a kid was earning a candy hit for keeping his locker neat, it’s likely that his locker will go to rot as soon as the sugar train stops rolling.

And that leads us to a second problem: Schools shouldn’t prepare kids for a world that doesn’t exist. In real life, citizens aren’t rewarded extrinsically for being good citizens. You don’t get a bonus check for paying your taxes on time. Cops don’t pull you over and hand you a $50 gift certificate for going the speed limit. Nobody throws you a pizza party for not firebombing your neighbors.

In real life there are many things we do simply because they’re the right things to do. Does anyone remember the adage “Virtue is its own reward”? For our children’s benefit, we should bring it back into vogue.

As for the recess thing, it’s not that every school infraction deserves a punishment. It’s that children should learn that actions have consequences. Your son has learned that boys who read when it’s time to read have the freedom to go play at recess, and those who want to talk at the wrong time lose that freedom. That’s basically how it works in the real world, right?

Are there some people who don’t rob banks because they’re afraid of losing their freedom? Sure, and I’m okay with that. Ideally, though, people don’t rob banks because it’s the wrong thing to do. Most of us are probably in that category. Even if we knew we could “get away with it,” we still wouldn’t rob banks because it’s morally wrong. And that’s what we should be teaching our kids.

But do you know anyone who wouldn’t rob a bank solely because their name would be entered in a drawing for a free set of Beats by Dre? I don’t. But get ready because that may very well be the future if we don’t get back to the paired basics of teaching students that virtue is its own reward and that bad actions have bad consequences.

So if it were my child who came home crying that he hated school because he lost recess for talking during reading time, I’d firmly inform him that tomorrow he should stop talking and read. And if he hates school because they took away his recess, he’d better get ready to hate home, too, because if he disobeys the teacher again, there will be consequences here as well.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pay some kids to get on my lawn.

This article originally appeared at Moultrie News

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Jody Stallings

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston, South Carolina, since 1992. He currently teaches English at Moultrie Middle School and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He leads a local youth group, is finishing up a series of novels, and has a family of four. His "Teacher to Parent" column appears weekly in Charleston's Moultrie News.  

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