The rationale behind reward-free schools

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  Published on Wednesday, 10 July 2019

The rationale behind reward-free schools

Library Home  >  Approaches to Early Childhood Education
  Published on Wednesday, 10 July 2019
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'Good job' is a catchphrase heard at many a playground, and as young children grow into school children, parents and educators take an active role in supporting their endeavours and praising their successes. There is a fear amongst some, however, that this reward focus has gone too far.

Peter Fahey is the co-principal at St James' Parish School in Victoria and he says, 'The diet of constant reinforcement and praise – where children are told they can do anything, they are bubble-wrapped, cotton-woolled and pampered in an attempt to raise their self-esteem – is having dire consequences.'

In response, Mr Fahey's school has done away with rewards entirely. Let's see what this means for students and if it is actually a winning strategy.

What happens when rewards are removed?

St James' Parish School started phasing out classroom and whole-school rewards such as stickers, prizes, and merit certificates, 15 years ago, and became entirely reward-free five years ago, when it stopped awarding ribbons at its annual sports day.

As a result, the focus has shifted from competition against others to competition against oneself, and Mr Fahey says, 'There's a wonderful sense of collaboration and community,' rather than pressure, amongst students.

Day-to-day, teachers encourage their pupils to work hard and enjoy learning, instead of chasing a prize. At the annual sports day, children are encouraged to practice, try hard and achieve personal bests – both as individuals and as a group.

The school is pushing back against a 'culture of constant praise' and encouraging behaviour that is rewarding in itself. The result, Mr Fahey says, is 'simply inspiring’ and he's not the only teacher to dispense with awards, ribbons and formal fanfare.

Where else is this reward-free approach being rolled out?

At Westmead Public School in Sydney, rewards are also on the wane.

In a bid to reduce feelings of anxiety and competitiveness amongst students:

  • The school has stopped giving out achievement certificates at regular assemblies
  • A 'celebration of learning' event has replaced the Kindergarten to Year 2 end-of-year awards ceremony, with the Years 3 to 6 ceremony under review
  • Some teachers give feedback with post-it notes rather than stickers.

So far, things are looking up and Deputy Principal Emma Smith says, 'It's not about the removal of awards, it's about maximising student engagement and intrinsic motivation … We really want our kids to be focusing on their own individual race, giving them feedback about where they need to improve, rather than them worrying about how everybody else is going.'

What do other education experts think about the reward-free approach?

Dr Helen Street is a wellbeing advocate and author who supports the removal of rewards. She doesn't see any need for any rewards in schools, and is particularly critical of rewards for things like 'kindness' and group prizes, which can cause non-winning students to become resentful of others in their team.

In Dr Street's view, 'The temptation of rewards distracts children from focusing on the process of learning academically, socially and emotionally,' which in turn affects their motivation and self-determination.

That said, the reward-free approach isn't universally supported. Everyone is different and many parents and children like the idea of 'Well Done' stickers and gold ribbons.

Dr Glenn Savage is an Education Policy lecturer at the University of Western Australia and he says that there's no 'one-size-fits-all' approach when it comes to different students. Dr Savage says that, 'Some [pupils] will respond extremely well to a rewards-free environment, whereas others will respond positively to rewards.'

He's also cautious about the longer-term effects of this approach. Dr Savage says that a reward-free school experience might fail to prepare children for the reality of a highly competitive world; and he also notes that primary school children may be put at a disadvantage if they can't rely on rewards and prizes when applying for high school and university scholarships.

So, what do you think? Is the reward-free approach a winning strategy for schools? Or do stickers, ribbons and certificates still have merit?


This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 30 December 2019

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