A Teacher Defends Junk Food Classroom Rewards

Way back in November I received an email from a teacher named Paul in which he defended (to a degree) the use of junk food classroom rewards. I wanted to share his email with you right after Thanksgiving, but then I took my month-long mental health break from blogging and Paul’s email got lost in the shuffle. Now, though, I’m glad for the long delay since Paul’s email offers a perfect counterpoint to the discussion we’ve been having this week (both here — “The Junk Food Deluge: Is It As Simple as ‘Just Say No?‘” — and on TLT’s Facebook page) about third parties giving our kids junk food without our permission.

So here’s Paul’s letter:

I enjoyed the topic of junk food as a reward, and feel it makes a great talking point. That being said, I have some counterpoints I would like to make. Before I make my argument realize that my point of view comes from that of a childless former teacher.

alphabet candy rewards
Candy for big academic accomplishments?

The basic mindset behind giving kids junk food as a reward is they like it, and it’s cheap. Kids like junk food. The idea of a reward is to give them something they will enjoy. Also, all of the food rewards I have given my students came out of my pocket. Would I prefer to give them a low sugar granola bar? Of course. Part of being a teacher is modeling good behavior. But, I get more bang for my buck with junk food. If Whole Foods would offer me the same prices I would have given my students healthier rewards.

I completely agree with your point that students should not be rewarded for every accomplishment. It teaches students that they should only engage in something that offers an intrinsic reward and diminishes the value of what they are doing. A former coworker was asked by one of his students if they got a grade for taking notes. My coworker responded, “Do you get an allowance for putting on underwear?” Kids should not expect a reward for going through the motions of life.

However, I think students should be rewarded for major accomplishments. It would be hypocritical not to reward them. As a teacher I preached that hard work can equal success. And look at how adults measure success. We use objects: cars, boats, houses, clothes, etc. To expect kids to not see the world the same way would be a double standard. Also, kids cannot see big picture. They need a quicker turn around. To show them that you worked hard for 2.5 months, earned an A, and now you get a prize reinforces the good habits.

I was purposely vague with the use of the word “prize”. I empathize with parents when they want to limit junk food. And parents should hold the ultimate decision on what their children eat. And it must be horrible for your child to earn a reward that you need to take away.

But, give teachers another option. Junk food companies are the only ones giving away their product. And they make it easy. They drop off coupons, I hand out coupons. It comes at no dollar/time/effort cost to the teacher.

OK, TLT’ers. What do you think? If you want to share your thoughts below, I know you’ll keep in mind Paul’s thoughtful and civil tone and you’ll word your own comments accordingly. :-) Also, if you want Paul to see your comment, it’s probably best to leave it here and not on TLT’s Facebook page.

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  1. Nina says

    Lame, lazy and the easy way out, sorry. If you really cared about the children and their future, considering 1 in 3 now has diabetes and the proven main cause is SUGAR (including sugary treats and crap like doritos and cheetos which are all corn, which your body treats as sugar), you would have thrown a couple of extra bucks at the problem, asked for donations from the parents (my school does this, they get LOTS of stuff donated) or stop being part of the problem by not handing out FOOD as a treat. The dollar store and party stores sells plenty of stickers, pencil erasers, sparkly pencils, plastic rings and other items you can give out that are not junk.

    • says

      Odd, my endocrinologists (I have had 2 over the years) have told me that they are not as certain of the root cause of diabetes as you appear to be, and in fact it appears that mine came from a totally different source (not even food-related.)

      I would also caution against tossing out labels like “lame” and “lazy” – they could be mis-interpreted, and unless you are familiar with the particulars of this teacher you probably lack the context to make such judgements.


        • Kate says

          I also have type 2 diabetes. I believe that some of us are more sensitive to sugar and other carbohydrates because of genetic reasons. Right now we can’t really identify who those people are, but there might have been some indicators that I was at risk long before I developed diabetes. I don’t think I ate any more sugar than average…as an adult I’ve almost never drank any sugar sweetened beverages.

          Certainly being mindful of sugar and ALL carbohydrates will delay the onset of diabetes. I think much more research needs to be done in this field. For me as a diabetic, I need to be just as mindful about purchasing a carbohydrate containing food from the organic aisle as I do from the junk food aisle. Both will affect my body,

          As for your comment about plastic rings, etc…..once your kids age out of these things…they are indeed junk. The first smiley faced plastic ring is cute….after that they just end up going in the trash.

        • says

          When it comes to the professional medical opinions of two specialists (who appear to be in agreement in my case) vs. someone writing an op-ed piece for the NYT (or any other newspaper for that matter), I think I’ll put my trust in the former. As if my LIFE DEPENDS ON IT. Because, after all, it does.

          (Oh, and btw I do have to watch carbs – of all types – closely. Foods containing HFCS and other highly-processed carbs ever more so. However, in my case, diabetes is evidence of the unintended consequences of FUBARing your liver as a result of taking waaaay too much acetaminophen – under doctors orders – for too long.)


    • says

      I’d be interested to know the percentage of classroom junk food rewards that come from teachers who don’t have kids. I have talked to teachers who used candy incentives before having children and regret it now that they know what it’s like to deal with the junk food tsunami on a daily basis. And whatever happened to intrinsic rewards?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      I encourage readers to check out Casey’s link, which has a list of all the medical organizations that have come out against the use of food as a reward. It’s a great list to have in your pocket as you approach a teacher or principal to discuss this issue.

  2. says

    Rewards in the classroom? Yes. Rewards in the form of junk food/snacks? No. There are so many alternatives to food in the classroom. At our elementary school, students can earn rewards for different things like getting their work done on time or reading for a certain number of hours per month. Rewards include extra tech time on the computer, free dress days (we have uniform dress even though it’s a public school) and the most popular, extra recess. An extra 15-20 minutes once a month for a reward? Now that’s a win-win.

    • says

      I was thinking along the lines of these types of “rewards” myself. No cost to the teacher, something the students would enjoy (and might actually be good for them!) I totally understand the cost pressures, but the junk food companies aren’t “giving away their product” out of the good of their heart: it is a marketing practice, and is analogous to drug dealers handing out free hits to get users hooked.


    • mommm!!!! says

      Rewards in the classroom? No.

      I disagree with rewarding kids for doing what their supposed to be doing anyway. How did we even arrive here? Why do we feel the need to reward children for behaving properly and for doing their homework/classwork? I think kids have been doing it for decades upon decades in classrooms worldwide without being in a donkey carrot dangling type atmosphere.

      I think it speaks volumes about our culture when adults, childless or not, feel the need to bribe our children to the point where bribery is a norm for simple things like doing what is already expected of said children and I reject the notion completely.

      And my own child has questioned me about it and I nearly get offended. I do what I’m supposed to do in life and no one pats me on the back or gives me a treat every time I do something right. This is not to say that I never reward my child. However, I expect him to just do what he’s supposed to do without carrot dangling. I think we’re our children a huge disservice by treating them to death for every little thing. It’s absurd.

  3. Kristi says

    This is pretty shocking to read, actually. This comment, in particular, “The idea of a reward is to give them something they will enjoy.”

    This implies that kids won’t enjoy anything other than junk food, which is completely false. I realize cost is an issue, but I can think of 10 things off the top of my head that he could substitute in place of junk food that kids would love equally, if not more so.

    Giving out junk to kids completely subverts parental (and often school) goals of health and wellness. Talk about mixed messaging.

    My advice would have been to stop using junk food as a reward system. This is a bad idea at home and a bad idea at school, and sets kids up for a lifetime of unhealthy habits (“I had a rough day at work, so I’m rewarding myself with ice cream.) Alternatives are really not that difficult to find.

  4. CD says

    In the credentialing program, I had professors say that small candy is easy and cheap. Sadly, it’s actually taught. There is actually a book called M&M Math. Companies have woven their products into education and teachers without kids of their own do not see how often junk food is offered and truly, innocently, think if they give a little candy it won’t hurt anyone. They don’t see the junk at soccer practice, gymnastics, birthday parties, grandma’s house, the friend’s pool party, and everywhere else it’s offered within the week.
    When I as a teacher looked around and saw how my kids were being fed at home – the junk they were bringing and calling it snack or lunch – I couldn’t add to that and call it OK.
    When I became a mom, my first child developed food allergies. Those M&Ms her teacher “had” to teach math with became as deadly as rat poison to her.
    As teachers, we have a responsibility to educate all children in our classroom and to keep all children we come in contact with safe. One in every 13 kids has a food allergy whether it has been diagnosed or not. Do I want to be the one to feed him something and find out he’s allergic? Not on your (or his) life. I can buy a bulk bag of cheap little mini erasers at the party supply or teacher supply store. I can buy smelly stickers. I can buy smelly markers and draw funny faces that kids sniff all the way to their backpacks. But I do not buy junk food. Ever.

  5. Kristina says

    There are other options. I love the civility of his email, but it implies that food rewards are the only option. What do kids love even more? 1) FUN. Physical games, extra recess, a little free choice time; 2) FREEDOM. Extra recess, free choice time, being allowed to choose something unconventional (where to eat lunch, etc.); 3) RECOGNITION. Being class leader, having a coveted job, being allowed to make a class decision publicly, etc. I think these kinds of rewards are more appropriate.

    • says

      They do use those rewards. All but the extra recess time. All of that is regulated by the district. A teacher cannot take time from instruction to allow for more play. That is out of their hands. Especially for teachers teaching 3rd grade and up. They have state tests that they need to have EVERY child pass or it’s their job. I have extreme empathy for the public school teacher.

      • says

        Every state is different but Texas, where I am, devotes a lot of time to those standardized tests (my thoughts on that are for a different place! :-) ). That said, at our school all grades get to earn extra recess. We have the principal’s support and I think that is key. She realizes that an extra 20 minutes or so each MONTH is really not that big of a deal in the big picture but means so much to the kids. It can work.

  6. says

    I understand what Paul is saying about positive reinforcement, but the issue is that use of ANY food for ANY type of reinforcement — negative or positive — has been proven to have undesirable consequences for the child down the road, and many reputable organizations (many of which are linked in Casey’s excellent post in the comment above mine) have come out strongly against the use of food as a reward. So in short, I don’t care if you’re rewarding them with oranges and sushi — it’s not good practice. Don’t do it.
    My oldest child is in Kindergarten, and his teacher practices positive reinforcement with rewards. None of them are food-based. She has a “treasure box” in the classroom, and when one of her students reaches a goal, that child gets to pick something from the treasure box. It’s all stuff that either was donated or bought from discount bins at Target or the craft store — and it’s things like little bookmarks, foam craft kits they can decorate for themselves, glow bracelets, etc. As much as I don’t love cheap trinkets, I love that it’s not food — and my kid gets very excited about bringing home a special project to make.
    For older children, get a little creative. Figure out a way to give them a special privilege, like choosing one day where they don’t have to do their homework assignment, or picking teams in the class Jeopardy game, or whatever. Give them a pass to eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge with a friend. Let them choose an assignment where they get a one-day extension on the deadline. Create a “class bucks” program where they earn points towards being able to cash them in for a movie day, or for a trinket from the school bookstore. Because, frankly, in the adult world your rewards are generally tied to the environment — if you do well at work, you are rewarded with a raise, or a promotion, or more flexibility. It’s a reward that suits the tasks by which it was earned. Motivate your students to do well academically by making their life at school tangibly better in some way. Junk food is a quick fix that doesn’t do that, and it wears off — whereas the power to dodge an assignment because you’ve proven that you’re capable of keeping up with your work…? That’s powerful!

  7. Amanda says

    This is the view from many teachers Im sure but there are so many other options for all grade levels that dont involve food. My kids have a treasure box of pencils/erasers and other fun stuff much of which I and other parents brought it and cost less than candy. For older kids there are many other cheap rewards or a class coupon for getting a day without homeweork or some other ideas out there…maybe books donated. Our schools principal also has student of the month in each classroom and takes them to subway for lunch who gives them a great discount…so saying the only thing is junk, isnt true at all, and sometimes just have to be creative! Maybe 5 extra minutes of recess or extra art time…

  8. November Pandolfi says

    What ever happened to stickers or stamps or a handwritten “great work” from the teacher on a paper? I enjoyed that as a kid, it made me feel special.
    Paul, you are being purely irresponsible and lazy. You have a huge opportunity to make a positive impact on your students and to stop the perpetuated mentality of junk food=reward.

  9. Nancy Huehnergarth says

    Paul, I agree that it’s nice to reward the children in the classroom for major accomplishments. However, it doesn’t have to be anything that needs to be purchased or donated. And it certainly shouldn’t be junk food. Why not reward the children with things like extra recess, no homework, or even their name mentioned during morning announcements?

    Here is a list of no-cost to the teacher rewards, from the folks at Center for Science in the Public Interest, that I think are wonderful:

    Certificate in recognition of achievement or a sticker with an affirming message (e.g., “Great job”)
    Recognizing a child’s achievement on the school-wide morning announcements and/or the school’s website
    A photo recognition board in a prominent location in the school
    A phone call, email, or letter sent home to parents or guardians commending a child’s accomplishments
    A note from the teacher to the student commending his or her achievement

  10. says

    Have you heard the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”? I saw another that says, “I’ve seen the village and I don’t want it raising my child”.

    This being one of the many reasons we home school. Obviously I strongly disagree with what this teacher has to do and while we had our kids in public school I felt that sentiment so many times. For example when my first grader came home telling me which presidential candidate he was “voting” for. The same one his Democrat teacher was voting for. We don’t teach those values in our home and we absolutely voted Republican.

    That being said, a teacher has such influence on our children and honestly I just don’t want to give that right away. Hence our decision to homeschool. So teachers and their personal opinions don’t infiltrate or derail our beliefs and teachings.

    I honestly feel sorry for teachers. I really do. I don’t blame them for rewarding with junk. I blame the district and government. The teacher can only be as great as the institution will allow them to be. Like this teacher said, most extras come out of the teachers pocket. I really believe they give these treats not because they want to but because they produce some relief and it’s an easy way to motivate children. I have three children, not 20, in my classroom. It’s hard. Anyone can look from the outside and say what they would do in ideal circumstances, but unfortunately our educational system is not ideal and these teachers are just trying to keep their jobs and survive the day.

    At home parents use rewards almost everyday to motivate their children. The rewards we use are extra privileges, allowance, extended bedtimes and often food. If you want to control everything that your child is exposed to, don’t send them to a cinderblock building for 8 hours a day. I honestly don’t think this junk food issue is the real problem, it’s just a symptom of the greater educational issue.

    Just my opinion.

    • mommm!!!! says

      Have you heard the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”? I saw another that says, “I’ve seen the village and I don’t want it raising my child”.

      This made me laugh and laugh! Thanks for that :)

    • coolernearlake says

      Two things in your comment stopped me cold:
      “For example when my first grader came home telling me which presidential candidate he was “voting” for. The same one his Democrat teacher was voting for. We don’t teach those values in our home and we absolutely voted Republican. ” “Those values”–which in our Democratic home we see as honesty, hard work, fair play and compassion? Are your values really that different than mine?

      The other show stopper: “If you want to control everything that your child is exposed to” Wow–isn’t one of the purposes of school to help a child grow into a person who can function in the larger society, grounded in their family’s values but with a broad understanding of the world around them? Maybe you do value different things than that.

      We won’t always be there to make our child’s food decisions for them. Yes, food rewards in school can be an “easy out” and it’s best if they are minimal or grow naturally out of the learning task (learn to divide recipe fractions in two, get to eat the resulting muffins) But some day our kids will decide what to do about the doughnuts in the break room at work without me there to tell them. We need to focus on helping them be ready to make good choices all their lives.

    • Uly says

      For example when my first grader came home telling me which presidential candidate he was “voting” for. The same one his Democrat teacher was voting for. We don’t teach those values in our home and we absolutely voted Republican.

      Do you honestly think the teacher was telling the kids the best candidate? More likely, he had them hold a mock election and each pick a candidate, and the kids chose randomly.

  11. says

    I think what’s missing from Paul’s argument is the fact that junk food is actually HARMFUL to kids. If you subbed in something like cigarettes, or alcohol (or even the ability to throw water balloons at unsuspecting kids in the hallway!) as a special reward, the conversation would be ridiculous. This goes beyond whether kids need rewards at all, or economics – it’s about reframing our view of junk food as something that needs to be limited instead of a childhood right of passage to be enjoyed at every opportunity.

    • Cheryll R says

      Absolutely, this!

      The single thing that makes me the most uncomfortable with junkfood rewards anywhere (some parents do it at home, too) is that those things are not a “treat!” They are poison! Why would you want to harm the children for good behavior?

      I can think of a bazillion non-food rewards off the top of my head that cost little (especially if you send a note home to have parents donate a couple things at the beginning of every school session): new pencils, stickers, crayons, or heck – just sing them a song and take a’ picture to display! Let them be the first to leave the room when the bell rings… something that says “what an honor!”

      PLEASE, teachers of the world, think harder about what you’re doing – my son is only one now, but in 3-4 years, I am very nervous about putting him in a room with someone who will try to harm him with these kinds of “rewards!” I implore you to be more creative and do something that actually boosts their self-esteem, not just that hops them up on artificial dyes or whatever and makes them feel sick. We trust you to show us how to sculpt them… be the change you want to see!!!!!

  12. Amy says

    This could be simple. If teachers and parents communicated
    Then a healthy happy solution is easy. If the issue
    Is money for the teacher and the issue is healthy rewards
    For the parents- then parents could simply donate
    Heathy snack options :-) problem solved.

  13. says

    He said it himself—it is HORRIBLE for teachers to give kids a reward that parents have to take away. Or that parents don’t get the opportunity to take away and makes the child sick. I don’t care if he gives out non-food prizes, but junk food is something that goes IN THEIR BODIES. It is not the teacher’s job to feed them, period.

      • Sarah says

        Unfortunately, at times, it can be the teacher’s job to feed the child, but that’s a different issue and another discussion.

        The choice of food, if it is food, should be nutritious, not empty calories.

  14. says

    Kristina has the right idea. Rewards such as credits, extra free time, etc. Rewards can also be searched out at a local thrift store. Small, in-great-shape trinkets are likely available there. The teacher has the right idea, that a soon and tangible reward tends to intensify motivation.

  15. mara says

    wow, some of these responses are harsh. I feel for the teacher. I think his intentions are in the right place. I empathize that he wants to motivate this students and doesn’t have the budget to spend on healthier items that the kids might like as much. He didn’t say how old these kids are but kids grow out of being excited over stickers and little items like that at a fairly young age. I know we have had many a teacher that is shy about asking parents for donations and not every school has parents that are willing or able to give. yes, I would absolutely rather have teachers that do not provide junk food as reward. I totally agree with that, but i would not call this teacher lazy or lame. Just my humble opinion.

    • says

      Agreed. I think it is also to important to remember that rational individuals can (and most often do) disagree on matters of importance (to them), and the essence of civil discourse is the ability to separate opinions/positions on such matters from the people who hold them.


  16. Lisa says

    A couple of points:
    1-I have and continue to enjoy bringing treats into the classroom for my children’s birthdays and holiday celebrations. I bake them myself, so they are filled with butter, sugar and lots of love. I keep them nut free and provide alternatives for kids with allergies.
    2-I have always defended the right to bring in such treats, because I really don’t think the numbers add up to that many days of treats….UNTIL I saw how many other treat days there are in some schools. At my children’s last school, the kids were rewarded with bags of crappy candy for bringing in money for the dance a thon fundraiser. That made me crazy. Celebrating a birthday with a treat is expected and anticipated for most kids. Being rewarded with candy because you begged for money from your parents, grandparents and neighbors sends the wrong message. The reward was the dance a thon and the chance to make money to buy needed items for the school. I was also shocked at the amount of candy they brought home from school at Halloween and Valentines day.
    3-I am not sure what age group this teacher taught. If he taught at the middle school level, none of these non food rewards would be possible. I know my seventh grade son has a teacher who tosses out a jolly rancher now and then when a student knows the answer to a tough question. I see nothing wrong with that. You can’t add recess time, computer lab time, or other such things to a middle school schedule.
    4-If my children bring home any more dollar store crap (cheap pencils that won’t sharpen, erasers that won’t erase, or bouncy balls that my dog will chew up and later throw up), I may lose what little bit of my mind I have left. I don’t want any more of that stuff in house. And, having lots of Catholic guilt, it kills me to just throw it in the trash. Sometimes I collect it and give it to a teacher to use again as future rewards.

    • Nina says

      Agree with Bri, 100%. My kid is only 3 and we are already KEENLY aware when it’s someone’s birthday at school because my son refuses to eat dinner and acts like a crack monkey all night long. Homemade or not homemade is not the issue (and at our school, homemade is NOT allowed because of food allergies and liability – just because you say it’s safe doesn’t mean you follow strict nut-free baking requirements and the school is liable if someone has a reaction). Just don’t do it. Please. There are so many other ways to reward children than junk. It’s not doing them any favors.

      • CD says

        Thank you, Nina. Well-intentioned people put food allergic people in the ER. That’s how my anaphylactic daughter spent Christmas in the ER 2 years ago – “I made it safe for her. No milk, no nuts.” And then my sweet little 8-year-old couldn’t breathe, my husband was injecting an Epi-Pen into her leg, and I was praying. Cupcakes aren’t worth it.
        And as for “providing alternatives for food allergic children,” we call that separate but equal. We don’t do that to people anymore.

    • Uly says

      You can’t add recess time, computer lab time, or other such things to a middle school schedule.

      You can give out coupons worth five points on a test or a day off from homework, though. Or, better yet, you can stop treating your students like recalcitrant puppies and start treating them like the adults they soon will be.

  17. Christine says

    His intentions may be ok, but bottom line is, this is FOOD…that goes directly into their small bodies. And mentally, I see this as a huge problem as it starts the basis for emotional eating later in life. Dogs get rewarded with treats. Our kids are not dogs and shouldn’t be treated as such. Calling him lazy/lame may be a bit harsh, yes, but I do see junk food rewards as a cop-out to good teaching. There are better ways.

    In the more serious arena that is becoming more and more commonplace — ALLERGIES. Not to mention families who adapt their own way of eating, that could get thrown out the door while at school. Whether it’s allergies, intolerances (I deal with a son who doesn’t do well with dyes), veganism, or other diets, a teacher has no place to insert his/her own ideas of what a kid should eat. Only parents of THAT child — and not other parents, either. I really wish we would just do away with food rewards/class parties altogether.

  18. Marilyn says

    My daughter currently has a teacher that will allow students to request a song. My daughter likes when music is played and the kids like being able to request their favorite songs. I applaud this teacher for finding a way to engage the kids without food.

    I believe the teacher finds the songs on the internet and it does not cost her a thing.

  19. B Thomas says

    Two things–how about if all of Paul’s students get PopTarts and Hawaiian punch for breakfast everyday for a week and then sent into his classroom to contend with for the day? Perhaps that experiment would show him the impact diet has in behavior and if kids are given junk food as their reward, they will expect to consume it if they haven’t already consumed it at school. Second point is just that–a point. A teacher in our school started handing out points as rewards. A small slip of paper worth one point that the kids can attach to any homework, quiz or test when they think they need a little extra help on their scores. I read a great article yesterday about how rewards quickly turn into entitlements. Kids go to school to learn. That is their job and they should be good students. School is not a daily bingo session.

  20. says

    “It must be horrible for your child to earn a reward that you need to take away.” <- Yes, it sure must.

    Here's my thought on this – if you're recognizing the problem and you really do buy into the whole "the thing I'm rewarding these kids with is doing more harm than good for them," I don't really see how you can continue doing it, cheap or not.

    I don't accept the argument that teachers should get to hand junk out to kids because their salaries are low – I work for a non-profit organization and teachers in my area make far more than I do. And yes, I have to buy my own working supplies sometimes, so that's not a valid argument for me.

    I understood going into this type of career that 1) I have chosen a profession where my salary will be lower than average for the work I do and 2) I have chosen a profession where sometimes the things I use specifically for work will come right out of my pocket. and 3) I need to do my best to respect the client, even if it inconveniences me or even costs me a little more time, effort, or money. That's part of my reality, and I believe that the rewards of such a job make up for those things.

    I hear complaints from teachers a lot about all of those realities in their jobs, but can any of them honestly say that they didn't know all of this going into it? Even I know about those realities for teachers and I have never been a teacher! Surely at some point getting your four-year degree in education you realized those things.

    (Also, I don't necessarily believe that you need to provide a child a physical reward for major accomplishments in the first place – a good grade and praise should be enough, in addition to the reward the parent chooses to provide at home. But, I'll concede that point since, again, I have never been a teacher.)

  21. Crystal says

    before I had kidsI had no idea how bad sugar was. I didn’t grow up drinking water and I ate my body weight each year in sugar. especially at holidays. as a teacher yes we expect them to be informed about things that are best for our children, but are they spending every waking moment baking homemade naturally sweet bread or shopping for the fresh fruits like we are at home? no they are grading papers, mentoring kids, shopping for school supplies finding new ways to get your kid to pay attention oh yeah and answering your emails and phone calls about why they feed kids sugar. if your kid doesn’t need extra sugar but a bag of his favorite treat and donate it to the teacher at the beginning of the year. don’t sit back and hope the world conforms to your standard of living. if you want them to conform take more action.

  22. Jackie says

    I remember being rewarded with candy in school during review games for tests and such, but I also remember being rewarded with a single “mr. sketch” red marker that I don’t believe was even new, it was leftover from the art room. It was the BEST. THING. EVER!

    The point is kids love rewards (or really anything that differs from the norm- it’s what makes these things so special in the first place!), but kids will also rise to the occasion and will likely learn to appreciate the reward in whatever form.

    Saying sugar treats are cheaper is merely an excuse and, like most things, with creativity you can overcome that obstacle if it truly means something to you.

    That said, teachers rock and let’s help them! I’ll donate non-food treats for rewards for my daughter’s class when she’s older!

  23. Petra says

    I think before you even get into the problem of junk food as reward, teachers should be addressing rewards, period. I believe that ideally, a child should learn to feel personal pride and accomplishment simply in having successfully done something without the need for external reward or praise. Learning is more successful in the long run when it is done out of the simple joy of learning and at feeling of success, rather than merely doing what needs to be done to earn a jelly bean or sticker or the validation of someone meaninglessly parroting, “Good job!”

    • CD says

      We call these rewards intrinsic rewards and this is how to build a successful person instead of a person who expects to be congratulated every time they do something responsible.

  24. Petra says

    Oops, hit submit too early. I also don’t think that emotionally associating food of any kind or the denial thereof with reward and success or failure is ever a good idea.

  25. Paul says

    Yes, I’m the same Paul who wrote the letter. There are some great counterpoints and some responders who are really passionate about child nutrition which is fantastic.

    My letter was purposely vague on certain points because I was trying to protect my anonymity. But, certain details would give you a better idea on where I am coming from.

    I taught at a low income high school. I have had heard tales from elementary school teachers about how their kids go nuts over a 10 cent eraser as a prize. Older kids are not as excitable when it comes to trinkets. Also, the high school curriculum isn’t as conducive to giving free time as a reward. Some of my coworkers would use homework passes or bonus points as a reward. Personally, I think (especially at the high school level) that a student’s grade should reflect their knowledge of the subject, and not their behavior.

    More than half of my students were on free or reduced lunch, meaning their parents earned below a certain income level. I know donation for the classroom are common at more affluent schools, but they are few and far between at Title I schools. This isn’t fair, but it is reality. Maybe those of you who make donations to your child’s school could also match the donation to a Title I school.

    Juile VK (I promise I am not singling you out) said, “It is not the teacher’s job to feed them, period.” I know several elementary school teachers who provide snacks to their students because if they don’t, no one else will. (The snacks can be anything from animal crackers to pretzels.) It’s not the teacher’s job to feed students, but sometimes they are burdened with that responsibility.

    Perhaps I didn’t make my closing comment strong enough the first time. Rewards for students is a low priority bullet point on the long list of duties on a teacher’s mind. Yes, it’s a cop out, but sugary snacks which are 2 for 1 the day after a holiday are cheaper, easier, and go further than healthy snacks. Don’t put the responsibility solely on a teacher’s shoulders. Provide that teacher with snacks, organize a group or parents to promote nutrition, get students involved in their diets, set up a school wide reward system that is not food-centric. Teachers will accept any help you are willing to give. At the risk of sounding cliche, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

    • mara says

      Paul, Just wanted to say thank you for what you do. Teaching isn’t easy and teaching high school for kids that face challenges like living in a home with economic challenges is surely not easy. I like your suggestion to those parents who make donations to their child’s school, make a similar donation to a Title I school. My kids go to an inner city public high school with a full range of kids on the economic spectrum and the school store sells snacks that I’m sure readers of this blog would cringe to see. But truth is sales of these snacks pay for the books, uniforms and lots of other things for low income kids that the state refuses to fund. So its hard for me to criticize. I’m not one to sit back and lay judgement on those that choose to educate our kids.

    • CD says

      Paul, I teach. Inner city, low income. One of our fathers just murdered his wife and step son. It’s not pretty where I teach. But you know what my parents brought to my class for Valentine’s Day? An unlimited amount of red, pink and purple fruits and veggies for the kids to munch on so we could talk about how they grow, where the seeds were, which nutrients come from which food, and then we ate them. These parents would much rather see their kids eating healthy foods. Low income, bad neighborhood – it’s not an excuse. You have to put yourself out there and say, “I’d like to reward your kids with fruits and veggies when they do a great job. You’ll be tossing apples across the room and having kids popping grapes while writing essays in no time… if it’s what you really want.

    • mommm!!!! says

      Paul…..How about organizing an end of year field trip for all of your students that either achieve the highest scores and or show the most improvement?

    • Amanda says

      You have very good points, and have handled the press well! When I went to high school the only rewards we received were good grades, non of my teachers gave rewards at all, and I had some great teachers. I think it is possible to acknowledge kids achievements, and encourage them, without even giving rewards. Especially at the high school level where their reward is achieving a goal, grade, etc.

  26. Amy says

    I had my son late, at 39. So there has been a lot of time between me being in school and my son entering school (this fall). Most of my rewards for good school work were actually given to me by my parents, at each report card and one bigger one at the end of the school year if I got good grades. They weren’t food related.

    Sometimes we’d be rewarded in the classroom, in grade school. It was rarely food related but I do remember getting a couple of M&Ms here and there in very early grade school. In middle school and high school, there weren’t any extra rewards from the teacher or anyone else at school.

    We used to get by without constantly being rewarded for doing what was expected of us. At home and at school. There is a bigger problem going on here. I think the teachers are just responding to this shift in our society, where people expect an immediate reward or results and if it isn’t forthcoming, the task isn’t worth doing. This is not a good trend.

    We don’t eat processed food at all at home, so we are on the more extreme end of things. My son can have birthday cake at birthday parties, but I see no reason for him to be receiving candy/junk from people outside of his family, especially at the frequency I see you all talk about. That to me is the real issue. My ability to make sure my child is eating healthful food becomes compromised. My son eats very little, so if he gets other snacks and treats handed to him during the day he won’t eat the real food served to him later. The junk he’s given won’t be balanced out by good food at home.

    It’s like limiting the amount of TV they see at home only to have them end up watching hours of it at school, or having to deal with TVs being on at all gatherings, summer camps or sports practice. I know that is ridiculous, but you get the idea.

    • mommm!!!! says

      “We used to get by without constantly being rewarded for doing what was expected of us. At home and at school. There is a bigger problem going on here. I think the teachers are just responding to this shift in our society, where people expect an immediate reward or results and if it isn’t forthcoming, the task isn’t worth doing. This is not a good trend.”

      I think you said it better than I did. It’s good to know I’m not alone on this.

      • says

        “We used to get by without constantly being rewarded for doing what was expected of us. At home and at school.”

        True. However, we DID get punished – severely – each and every time we stepped the tiniest bit outside of the expected behavior norms. My mother carried scars on her, to the day of her death, that she “earned” as a child for something SHE DIDN’T EVEN DO (and, no, she never received an apology, either. It was just “the way things went”. You know, like “stuff happens”?) I myself carry more than my share of internal scars from such encounters (some of which were for transgressions I actually committed, btw.) I made the decision when my offspring was about age 4 that I was going to break that particular circle. You know what caused it? He did some silly little thing, and he started getting his “just deserves”, and I suddenly realized just how easy it would be to PHYSICALLY DESTROY THIS HUMAN BEING. Because, at the time, I was that. much. bigger. And, I decided I wasn’t going there. (For the record: probably the most frightening thing I have ever experienced, and that includes some stuff when I was in the military I *still* can’t talk about.)

        But now, a conundrum rears its head: if I don’t have the stick to use to compel good behavior, what other feedback mechanism is there? Oh, yes – REWARDS. So, I started using them. Things from a simple “Thank you” for relatively minor things, to special trips/treats (yes, including letting him decide where we ate dinner, even) for significant accomplishments. Not all involved food, of course, but certainly some of them did.

        You see, the punishment/reward thing is about providing feedback. When the main feedback was negative, then the behavior tended toward that direction (it seems kids crave feedback/attention, and will learn to do things that result in it, even if it is harmful to them.) When the main feedback is positive (a trend I think has been developing for the last several decades), then one would hope that eventually the behavior will trend more in that direction (it has with my offspring, who is now a grown, law-abiding, pretty well-adjusted adult.) Ideally feedback will consist of the proper mixture of both positive and negative reinforcement(feedback): however, if one must emphasize one form over the other, I’ll take the reward (as both the giver and the receiver) over the punishment any day.


        • mommm!!!! says

          Yanno, while I don’t reward my child for just doing what he’s supposed to do, I don’t have the need to severely punish my kid either. Sure, he screws up, but what kid doesn’t? He IS a kid after all. Somehow, I’ve managed to raise a kid, all by myself, without having to constantly bait him with crap or beat his butt. Imagine that! I just treat him like a person. It’s not hard. Frustrating at times, but not hard.

        • Sarah L says

          “You see, the punishment/reward thing is about providing feedback.”

          Indeed, but you illuminate either far end of the spectrum and hold them up as the only options. You are setting up a false dichotomy and tell parents that we have to choose whether children are to be beaten to show displeasure or fed to show pleasure in their behavior. In fact, there is the whole rest of the spectrum in between that we can (and should) utilize as parents and as educators.

          All of us give our kids feedback on their behavior and attitudes. For my eldest, it can be as simple as a smile and a nod, or a simple, “Thank you for your help.” My second-born is more vivacious. When she did the first really good job on a skill she has been working on, a high five and a “Well done! That was the most detailed answer I’ve heard from you yet,” was sufficient feedback for her. We use the same type of feedback for their schoolwork. (My oldest two are both home schooled.) When both kids were learning to read, they didn’t need food or stickers or erasers. We emphasized that they were LEARNING TO READ!! They were growing up, and there was a whole world of books out there that they were working towards. We kept out books that were a step up in difficulty for them to look at so they could remember what they were working for. When they got to the end of a passage, a smile and a “You did it!” was all the affirmation they needed. These natural consequences work in other arenas of school work as well. If they finish their work early, they have the option of being done for the day and taking their free time, or they can keep working, get several days ahead in their school work, and take extra vacation days or a field trip later on. Sometimes they choose an immediate reward, and sometimes *gasp* they choose to wait and keep working for a delayed reward. Yes, even small children are capable of delayed gratification. Those are all natural rewards. (Actually, they aren’t extrinsic rewards at all, in the sense that I give them out to the children based on my pleasure. They are natural consequences. If you finish a job quickly, you have free time to do with as you choose.) There are also negative natural consequences for the wrong behavior. We follow a routine in our home. Chores are followed by playtime. If they aren’t done with their chores in the allotted time, they have to work through playtime and they don’t get to play. If they choose not to clean their room, I clean it for them. If they help out around the house, we have free time to do something fun together.

          The idea that we have to choose the lesser of two wrongs ultimately serves to keep us locked into doing wrong. (Please don’t think that I am calling food rewards evil, because that is not my intent.) There are a lot of choices that we can make that don’t involve beating or rewards. In my experience, the healthiest alternatives lie in those in-between points.

  27. Samantha says

    I think Paul meant “extrinsic”. Intrinsic rewards are what we truly want our students to have. Adults also respond to extrinsic rewards such as objects, but also to food. And many adults, myself included, have used food to reward ourselves or let emotional eating become a problem. The first time I heard about this was when I worked in daycare in 19991. We were not allowed to use food (junk or healthy) as a reward or punishment. We were also not allowed to take away outdoor playtime (recess) as a punishment, the thought being that exercise was not only important it was also mandated by the state. However, I used goldfish crackers to reward the 4th grade students I tutored while I was in college. When I became a certified teacher in 2004 I never used food as rewards because the crackers didn’t actual work in the long run with those 4th grade kids and I didn’t want mice and roaches in my room. I realized that I didn’t really give out rewards at all as a teacher . I taught art and most kids see that as a treat. If a student misbehaved I would revoke privileges or not allow them to work on their project for a few minutes or not allow them to talk with friends while working. With some knowledge and creativity, better alternatives can be found. I wouldn’t assume that all teachers realize that food rewards are harmful and some just use them because its cheap and easy. I think that the majority of teachers really do care about the well being of their students. I didn’t really understand the damage that food rewards could cause, even though I had been told once, until I joined WW in 2008. Talk to the individual teacher first instead of going to her/his principal. Explain why you think food rewards are a bad idea without being mean and negative. Let the teacher know that you understand she/he is really on your side. Also offer several alternative ideas, since your first idea may not work for that particular school or classroom. For even greater impact, consider contacting the directors of teacher programs at local colleges and universities. Awareness of nutrition and the impact of junk food is relatively new in many places. As for Paul, I give him kudos for speaking his mind, giving his reasons, and participating in civil conversation on the topic. We can all learn and grow through reflection and constructive criticism. Those of us who feel junk food rewards should be abandoned need to listen to those who don’t agree so we can understand the heart of the problem and hopefully work together as a society to improve the situation.

  28. Emily says

    I completely agree with the writer. I am currently a 5th grade teacher and I give out Pixie Stix as little prizes when we play classroom games. The other day we did a fractions activity with M&Ms. I also bring in grasshopper pie on the last day of our fractions unit, and the kids adore it. I care very deeply about these children, and in no way think I’m contributing to childhood obesity. All my students are big skiers, hockey players, dancers, and participate in gym class and recess. They’re active and healthy. And just. kids. Sugar is not powder of the devil!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Emily: I can’t speak for all the commenters here, but in my house sugar is definitely not “powder of the devil!” We adore cupcakes from our favorite bakery, we have dessert without fail every Friday night (and sometimes more frequently) and I often slip some dark chocolate or a cookie into my kids’ lunches. But what bothers many of us is that when kids are fed junk food at school, it’s done without our permission and usually also without our knowledge. And that can get sticky. Taking the least serious example first, what if I was planning a trip to the ice cream store with my kids after school on the same day you pass out grasshopper pie? Now I unexpectedly have to either rethink my plan or load my kid up with quite a bit of sugar for one day. That scenario has happened to me many times and it’s pretty annoying. But let’s move on to more serious concerns. What if a kid has a food allergy to one of your treats? By using food as a reward, you might be putting that child at risk or requiring him/her to bow out and feel excluded. Next issue: you might think M&M’s and Pixie Stix are great, but many parents try to steer clear of the artificial ingredients in those candies. Some feel their kids are adversely affected by food dyes, some would prefer all-natural ingredients on principle. But, once again, your seemingly innocuous treat has overridden those parents’ desires. And finally, I agree that a Pixie Stick here and there does not an obesity crisis make. But while each treat-giver feels justified in giving out “just one treat,” no one is taking into account how many treat-givers our kids encounter in a single week. (See my post yesterday for more on this.) We parents, on the other hand, are perfectly positioned to tally up the total and it’s often astonishingly high. So that’s where parents like me are coming from. Does that make any sense? And whether you agree or not, I do appreciate your coming by the blog and sharing with us your perspective as a teacher.

    • Laura J says

      If my daughter were in your class, she would not be able to participate in any of those “rewards.” She is very sweet and bright and capable and senstive. She is also allergic to artificial food dyes. This type of “treat as reward” mentality is very hurtful to young children who cannot participate in the system due to no fault of their own. Personally, I think it is unhealthy for any person to use food as a reward or punishment, but for my daughter at least, she would be excluded for these special class activities and that is crummy.

    • JT says

      How many days of the week are you giving your students treats?? Are these rewards/teaching tool candies every day? Every week? Twice a week? Once a month?? Are all of your students 100% getting the 60 minutes of physical activity every day?? While the issue of rewarding kids for a positive behavior is a whole other topic altogether the issue that I have as a parent has to do with how many “rewards” my kids are getting outside the home on a regular basis. A lot of parents will echo me here and I did not read all of the comments on this thread yet but a treat is a treat….once in a while. Not every day…..teachers give treats one day and the next it’s the dance instructor, and the next day it’s a treat at the dentist (?) and the next it’s back to the teacher giving another treat, and then the trip to the grocery store where kids are offered a free cookie at the bakery dept, and and and, on and on and on. These treats everyday all of a sudden are not treats anymore….they are diet staples. And then you add on top of that, some of your students will go to school on a breakfast of fruit loops or pop tarts and may get unhealthy, sugary stuff in the lunch line and no you do not have any control over what happens in the home or the lunch line but you do have control over what happens in your classroom. Kids get candies at every holiday now from their friends and others because they are cheap and “fun”. And those who have the attitude of, ‘Well they are just kids, they are only young once, they are active they’ll be just fine” fail to realize that these kids will one day be adults…..potentially with metabolic resistance, pre-diabetes, diabetes, tooth decay, etc from all of the excess sugar. How fun is that?? Physicians are finding out now that the children that they see today have beginning markers for heart disease and they are getting rid of the term “adult on-set diabetes” because it’s no longer limited to adults but to children as well…..and these are DIRECTLY related to diet.

    • Amy says

      I can see that you really love your kids and that it brings you a lot of joy to watch them enjoy the treats you give them. I don’t doubt you are a good teacher, but what your comment tells me is that you feel you are doing nothing harmful by passing out treats so the parents’ wishes don’t matter. You should know that the only place where your opinion about feeding sugar to kids matters is with your own child. No one else’s.

      Why do you feel it’s OK to override a parent’s belief in what is good and healthful for her child? My concern is not with obesity. I want to limit my child’s consumption of processed “food” as much as possible. I want him to be hungry for nutritious meals and he won’t be if he’s eating this junk at school. I know what I’m doing is at the extreme end of things, but it isn’t your place to make that judgment and then load him up with sugar so he can preserve his childhood. Do I need to point out there are many other health concerns beyond obesity?

      It wouldn’t be OK to give meatballs to a child being raised in a vegan home because you think that lifestyle is extreme and you see nothing wrong with some lean meat now and then. I understand why sugary treats get the pass they do and parents who want to control the amount their kids get are shrugged off as nut jobs.

    • Uly says

      My niece has migraines. A probable trigger? Food coloring. They’re also a trigger for her asthma. These are not rare conditions, nor uncommon. Another likely trigger is disrupted eating patterns, as what happens when a kid eats sugar instead of her lunch.

      So are you going to make kids sick in your class, or deliberately exclude them by not giving them candy? Those are your options when giving out candy as a reward. Yes, the ONLY options. Even if you don’t think any of your students has a condition that prevents them from eating pixy stix, you very well may. Sometimes it takes a long time to track down these triggers, especially if parents assume their children aren’t being fed garbage in class.

    • Uly says

      Also, don’t forget that pixy stix are neither kosher nor vegan, nor yet halal.

      So the list of kids who can’t enjoy this little treat, and who are excluded include:

      Some children with asthma or migraines
      Some children with conditions such as ADHD
      Anybody else whose parents don’t want them eating food colorings
      Vegans and vegetarians

      This is a pretty sizable list! All so, what, you can teach them that when they are happy they should eat candy?

  29. Mara Panzarella Winders says

    I completely understand the temptation that teachers have to do this, and it seems so harmless in so many ways, however, I believe that if you took the option off the table, you would inspire yourself, Paul, with your creativity. I have a child that can’t have most treats, so I have to be creative as well. This interview with director Wes Anderson is a good illustration of a reward that packed a huge punch because it respected the child.

    “ANDERSON: And the other thing I remember from that age is that our – is my fourth grade teacher – maybe this is a little younger, but I must’ve been some kind of troublemaker, because she made this arrangement with me that each week that I did not get in a certain amount of trouble she was giving me some points. And when I added up enough points, she let me put on a play in our school because she knew I’d written this one little short play that we had done in our class and she let me kind of become a little theater person at that age. And I did many of these five-minute plays over, you know, over that year. And I feel like in a way what I do now is vaguely, you know, continuing something from then that she kind of got me going on.

    GROSS: That such a brilliant idea, to have the art, to have the theater be the reward, the gift, you know.

    ANDERSON: Yes. I remember on my folder she would put little stars and things. And then every now and then it said: Time for a new play, with exclamation points after and it was always like I was so excited when I would see that on the folder.”

      • Mara Panzarella Winders says


        I have personally fought this battle for many years, but have decided to handle it much differently that I first thought I would. I have decided to ask my children to forgo most treats that are offered by well meaning teachers. We homeschool, so these teachers are for activities outside of academics, and it is more limited than it would be if they were in public school. These treats are generally not offered as a “reward”, but as a “parting gift” after their class. They are always a small piece of candy, and because my daughter has problems with certain dyes, we have requested that plain chocolates be offered. My children know that if they choose to have that treat, that is the only treat they will have that day. If there is an opportunity for another treat that day, such as a trip to Starbucks, or a homemade baked good, they will not have it. We generally eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods at home, with very little excess sugar, but if they want to bake something themselves they have that opportunity and ability. They will usually choose homemade treats above anything else.

        What it means is that they are used to the fact that mom is not associated with sugar treats. The treats they get from mom are healthy, yummy, comfort foods. My 9 year old daughter hugs me excitedly and gratefully for finding more recipes for her to try with quinoa or lentils, instead of demanding candy every time we go to the store. My children beg for cauliflower in the produce department instead of Twizzlers in the checkout aisle. My 13 year old just asked me to make another loaf of the 100% whole wheat bread that she finished this afternoon, even though her dad will be going to the store tonight and could pick up a loaf of anything.

        It was hard to remove myself from the idea that if they ate junk given to them by other people I couldn’t give them treats myself, but it has worked out wonderfully. I can let the other teachers in their life feel good about giving them a little something that makes them happy, and I’m confident that my children will remember what I have given them even more.

        As for Paul, I see his situation very differently. It is likely that his students are given highly processed foods most of the time, and he is only adding to their burden. It is such a sad situation all around (academically and nutritionally) which I don’t believe can be solved by his simply not giving them candy as a reward. It’s the proverbial rock and a hard place. He and teachers like him need much more support than they are getting to be successful with their students.

    • says

      Food rewards are inappropriate in school today withe the number of allergies! As a nurse I would never give a food reward without specific parental permission .
      We have to be more creative…this teacher used her rewards to help foster the creative ability of her student ….and in the end it rewarded her as well, I am sure.

      • CD says

        Thank you so much for understanding this. Even the school nurse at my daughter’s school doesn’t have this simple understanding.

  30. Karen says

    The best person to raise your child your way is yourself.
    If you can’t be with them 24/7, then communication of what you want for your child to others would be very helpful.
    If communication breakdowns, perhaps the next step would be that your child does not participate in those activities not up to your expectations.

  31. Paul says

    I wanted to have the last word (which I know is not going to happen).

    Yesterday, I told Bettina that it’s obvious that her readers are very passionate about childhood nutrition which is a very noble cause. I do not take offense to the claims that I was lazy and not creative. There were a lot of very good non-food suggestions posted here. I do agree I should have used “extrinsic” and not “intrinsic” (Thanks Samantha).

    What I want the responders to take away from my post is that teachers have a lot on their plate (pun intended). Teachers are responsible for (In no particular order): crafting lessons, delivering the curriculum, assessing, reassessing, reteaching, creating individual learning plans, contacting parents (some are harder to find than others), grade assignments, and most importantly ensure proper classroom management. By the way, everything has to be documented. A reward, food or not food, is a subset classroom management, which is just one of a teachers numerous responsibilities. Also, teaching is heterogeneous, so each class comes with it’s own challenges.

    Your passion for your child’s/children’s nutrition truly warms my heart and I am relieved to know that when I become a parent I will have a community and plethora of information to turn to. But, as a former teacher, a piece of candy for a correct answer did not even register on my radar. For the followers of this blog, and many others, this is major point of contention. Most teachers are sensitive to the rights of parents and will empathize with you.

    I am asking for a two-way street. Empathize with the teachers. Realize that they might not understand that what their professors, peers, and lesson guides might have led them astray. And, when you do make your points, realize you are speaking with a professional who is open to suggestions, and not someone whom you can order to change their ways. Teachers will welcome any assistance. If you want to organize a PTA event to garner donations of healthy or non-food items, do it. If you want to propose a school-wide reward system, do it. If you want to organize the end of year field trip, do it. If you want to hurl insults at teachers and task them with finding new ways to do something, keep it to yourself.

    • Uly says

      Paul, when did it become our job to cajole and entreat you to respect parents’ rights? When it comes to kids who are not yours, yes, their parents and caregivers DO have the right to ORDER you to stop giving them garbage. Do you even inform parents that you will be doing this to their kids?

      • Paul says


        Because, although teachers provide a service, they are not in the service industry. You can order your child not to eat something. You cannot give teachers orders. If you would like to have a rational conversation with a teacher where you present your views and beliefs I’m sure they would listen like any mature adult would.

        Remember, a classroom is full of children from different social, economic, and cultural worlds. Parental rights are not universal, and should yours fall outside the norm (which is also in flux), be proactive an communicate that to the teacher. Don’t react when you are unintentionally offended.

        And, no, I did not inform parents that I occasionally passed out candy as a reward. Nor, did any parent ask me not to.

        • Uly says

          They probably didn’t expect you to do that at this level. Or, really, any level. You do not have the right to feed other people’s kids. No matter how highly you esteem your job, you do not have that right.

        • MJ says

          Thank you for your comments, Paul. It upsets me to see teachers regularly vilified on this site with no regard for their professional challenges. I especially appreciated your point that parent/guardians have the right to discuss their wishes about food in the classroom with you. There seems to be a running thread in this blog that parents have the absolute right to decide how their kid will be treated when it comes to food, and I think they should absolutely take the initiative to start a conversation with teachers if it is that important to them. (I know that Bettina has mentioned talking to teachers about her concerns).

          As nearly anyone who grew up in a public school system knows: ice cream, pizza, candy, soda, cookies, and chocolate are regular rewards used in schools. No one should be surprised when that continues without their saying so. And no one should talk down to a professional who has respectfully shared a controversial perspective that can help them better understand how to influence their childrens’ diets. Thank you for trying to start a conversation – sorry that it was so abruptly shut down.

  32. bw1 says

    Wow, where to begin?
    Long term, if the kid doesn’t value what is being taught on its own, he’s not going to succeed. One of the things they need to learn is abstract thinking where rewards are not always immediate and sensory. Yes, people are rewarded for performance with things like cars and boats, but they have to achieve for a long time and bank the compensation to have those rewards. Food is immediate gratification and it’s an impulsive base desire. Society needs kids to learn deferred gratification and impulse control.

    I get Paul’s frustration in looking for a way to motivate kids. The problem is, that’s not his job. It’s the job of parents to motivate their kids to learn – the teacher’s job is to give the horse water, not make him drink. The offensive part of this is that the public school industry and its teachers have for decades been trying to usurp parental responsibilities and authority with the message that “we’re experts, trust us over your own judgment” and then here is one of them essentially saying he has nothing more sophisticated to offer than the local dog trainer. It just reinforces my repeated message here that it’s ridiculous to hand over your kids to government and expect any better than this.

    Thanks Paul, for making my point about your industry.

  33. bw1 says

    Paul, your comments about teachers being open to parental input are not supported by the experience of most parents I know.

    To your description of how hard teaching is, I ask, since when did we CONSCRIPT teachers to their profession. More to the point, who told most of the bottom half of the SAT score pool at most universities to flock to education programs when it’s a shrinking industry, or did they just not get the news about falling birthrates in this country?

  34. n says

    I do not care about obesity or processed/unprocessed all that much, but these two things very irritate me:

    “And look at how adults measure success. We use objects: cars, boats, houses, clothes, etc. ”

    I do not measure success by how rich you are or how much money you waste on flashy goodies. It do not want my kid to be taught that. By that measure, all teachers are losers, because they decided to go into low paid job.

    “The other day we did a fractions activity with M&Ms. I also bring in grasshopper pie on the last day of our fractions unit, and the kids adore it. Sugar is not powder of the devil!”

    I’m sure kids love M&Ms. But, I do not want my kids to learn that they should participate in classroom activity because there are treats afterwards. I do not want them to do homework or learn math because of treats.

    They should participate in classroom activity, do their homework and learn math/history because that is what kids are supposed to do. I specifically do not want to teach them that only what bring immediate explicit reward is worth of their time and I do not want them conditioned to that reward. I want them to learn that learning and participation are “normal” behavior, not something special.

    Analogy: I do not give kids treats at home each time they wash dishes. Washing dishes is what we all do because it is necessary and we want something clean to eat from the next day.

    In real adults life, the reward for something is often in the future or not sure. I do not get salary raise for every single thing I do in work. If I wanted to finish university, I had to put up with with classes on topics I did not liked. There was no reward other then “will allow you to pass”.

    • Emily says

      M&Ms and grasshopper pie during our fractions unit = TWO days out of 180 that my students get to have a treat while learning math. It’s pure fun, not one parent in all my years of teaching have complained, and the kids always remember these days. I’m not throwing sugar at them as a reward for doing something they are supposed to, like worksheets. I do something out of the ordinary for them to remember the lesson, because whether or not Michelle Obama and others want to shield kids from sugar, they still like it. Those lessons are about learning and enjoying MATH, and not being rewarded for participating.

      Please remember that teachers always make decisions with the kids’ best interest in mind. If sugar occassionally in the classroom is your biggest problem, you’re doing pretty good.

      • CD says

        You are a lucky lady that, “not one parent… have complained” to you about the junk food in class. Sometimes parents don’t want to cause a fuss at school and say something about the food that is being served to their children at school. Sometimes parents don’t know it is being served at all because the teachers do it on their own. But I don’t think a lack of complaints makes it okay to serve junk food in an educational setting. If it is only happening twice in the year, I am truly happy to hear that. Twice is much less than a lot of other classrooms in this nation are wasting time filling bellies with junk food and exposing children to allergens. I feel compelled to state, however, that your last sentence, as well as the one quoted above, both concern me as a fellow educator. I am not sure that sugar is the biggest problem in your classroom. The culmination of our own education – the way we speak, write, and present ourselves as educators to our students and the world – is vital. It speaks to the quality of education we deliver every day to our students. We should be trying to do well, but also striving to give our students all we can in the limited time they are in our classroom, not “doing pretty good.”

      • n says

        @Emily I answered to two different teachers in the same post, so my apology: It was Paul who sounded like giving them sweets as a motivation for merely expected behavior, not you.

        Additional sweets two times a year are fine, except when two times a year sweets from different people accumulate into 3 times a week additional sweets or more. That is the main problem: any single sweet is ok, but when my kids are fed them almost every single day, then it is too much. Every one those who are giving them out feels that there is no harm, because they do not see all those other sweets.

        But honestly, I really believe that if your match class was fun with M&M, the same or similar math game would be fun without M&M too. It would be less tasty of course. The only bias I might have in that assessment is that I used to like math.

        Both food equal fun and food equal reward associations seem unhealthy to me.

        A bit off-topic: Some people gain weight easier than others. Given the same food and activity, two people do not necessary end up with the same weight. People that can eat plenty of cookies and sweets and stay skinny, often seem to think that anyone else can too. A lot of people can not.

        • Samantha says

          I don’t think you are off topic at all. I think this is one of the issues at the heart of the matter. I was one of those skinny kids who could eat anything I wanted. I even had to actively put weight on in my early twenties. But that all changed in my late twenties when I started grad school, stopped exercising, ate more and more junk and then entered into a stressful job. I also didn’t believe people when they told me my metabolism would slow down when I hit 30. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the healthy eating habits that I needed because I could get away without them when I was younger. Fortunately, I have lost 50 pounds and learned better habits with Weight Watchers but I am still working on it. I recently decided to work on my self control by purchasing a good quality (and slave free) chocolate bar with the intention of eating one square a day. That lasted two days. Maybe I’ll try again when my infant son is sleeping through the night and I’m not sleep deprived all the time! How much weight gain I would have avoided and how much better my control around chocolate and sweets would be if I had learned these habits as a child! True, my metabolism is still a lot faster than many of my WW peers but that just goes to show that even someone who is super skinny can’t always maintain a healthy weight into adulthood without a solid foundation of healthy eating habits. Even the super thin kids need to learn how to eat right!

      • JT says

        I think you’re kind of missing the point Emily, this is not about “if sugar is occasionally in the classroom is your biggest problem, you’re doing pretty good.”
        This is about the negative impact of SUGAR on children’s health, and how little control we have, as parents (and how little control our kids have when they become adults) over how much crap our kids are getting from outside the home sources…..not just their school teachers. Where does it end??
        I’m sorry but I am 32 years old, I remember how to do fractions and there were no M&M’s or grasshopper pie involved.
        I don’t doubt that teachers want to do what is best for their students, unfortunately passing out candies (which for some children affect how well they learn because of the sugar and artificial ingredients) is not what is best (in my opinion).
        I bet you could do fractions with apple slices and provide the same amount of “fun” factor to the kids.

      • Uly says

        I don’t particularly care about shielding my nieces from sugar. I do, however, care deeply about shielding them from migraines and asthma, conditions which make it difficult or impossible to learn.

        I also, incidentally, care about child slave labor, which is why I do not buy Hershey chocolate. And no, I don’t particularly want my nieces consuming something made by slaves. It’s just a moral issue.

        I wonder if you would have even heard them if a parent had complained to your face, or if you would have tuned them out so you could concentrate on being the “fun” teacher and how right you are sure you are.

  35. lindtfree says

    Having had various issues with many but not all of my Gen Y coworkers (I myself am technically Gen X, but have more of a Boomer/WWII generation value system), I am compelled to question why children need so many rewards. It creates shallow, entitled, sometimes downright obnoxious “adults.”

    When I was a child, school rewards on regular homework assignments were stars, clumsily drawn by teachers. Tests or “big” homework assignments receiving good grades were rewarded with stickers.

    For combined good work AND good behavior, my third-grade teacher had a small bulletin board decorated with homemade reward badges made from adhesive name tags, decorated with stickers and trailing crepe-paper streamers. She awarded these one at a time, only rarely, never regularly, and always at the end of the day (probably to prevent the winner from walking around with an enlarged ego). During the entire school year, I received only two. Like the cheap rhinestone tiaras crowning homecoming queens and the gilt plastic figures on high-school sports trophies, the point wasn’t the prize itself: it was what it meant.

  36. Samantha says

    I’d like to say one more thing about sugar. I used to know a photographer who did color photo retouching for a lab in the days before digital. She and her coworkers were not allowed to eat anything with sugar at lunch or before they came to work because the sugar changed their color perception. It does make one wonder what other perceptions that are less quantifiable might be affected!

  37. kstemm says

    Wow! I feel for these teachers and am fearful to even comment (I’m throwing myself “to the wolves”), but feel compelled.
    My favorite teacher was Mr. Martinez (5th Grade). I remember he always had a jar of Brachs Rootbeer candies. He would give them out once or twice a week and they were a little taste of heaven. The day was just that much more sweet. Home life and school were stressful during that time period.

    I am a mother of two daughters ages nine and ten and am currently a substitute teacher. I too am fearful of the amount of sugar our kids are ingesting, the influence of media on diet, and many factors listed from previous posts. I am thankful I do not have to worry about food allergies, and if I did, a note to my daughters’ teachers would suffice. Every teacher I have come in contact with, is more than accommodating to those with food allergies or an intolerance of any kind.
    As a family, we practice moderation with everything we eat and my daughters are aware of the harmful effects of sugar. My husband and I have pushed healthy eating practices at home, and educated them on the harmful effects of processed foods, sweets, etc.
    That being said, I’m alright with the occasional treat given by my child’s teacher at school whether it be lesson related or an extrinsic reward. Our daughters have been armed with the knowledge and practices at home to be able to handle the occasional treat handed to them at school.
    I found some of the responses towards these teachers to be ridiculously harsh. I’d love to see some of these responders survive in an inner city middle school or for that matter a regular ed kindergarten classroom. Use your might and wit and start attacking food manufacturers and advertisement agencies. Give me break.
    I hear your rally cry Betina, but you have attracted quite a radical bunch. Good luck with the mainstream!!!

    • Uly says

      Wait, wait, wait. Unless you personally have taught, you don’t have a right to an opinion on what is being done to your child in the classroom?

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        I do think parents have a right to ask for a food-free, or at the very least, a junk-food-free classroom, which is why I (never having been a teacher) wrote my “manifesto.” But at the same time, I think it’s important to at least acknowledge the conditions under which teachers find themselves wanting to reach for the candy reward.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Emily: Amazingly, given what I do, I had never heard of Meme Roth! I just read about her here. While I do agree with her positions on food-free classrooms, it does sound like her tactics (at least at the time that piece was written) were less than diplomatic at times. Thanks for letting me know about her!

        • Emily says

          You’re welcome :) While I do not agree with her positions or some of those on this forum, I do appreciate your passion and respectfulness, Bettina!

          • Bettina Elias Siegel says

            Emily: I’m glad you perceive a difference between me and her – I’m sure there are some who think we’re cut from the same cloth. :-) And I’m now curious to know what she’s presently up to and if her approach has changed at all. I’m going to investigate….

  38. Holly says


    I am a primary school teacher and, to be honest, I would never give out food as treats or as a reward. In the past I have had the odd activity that has involved treats, such as chocolate, but always with parent permission and only as a one off activity in the school year. And usually with an orange (we happen to be working on fractions and or division usually).

    As teachers I feel we need to encourage students’ to motivate themselves. Now this is not always easy, especially when the students’ are younger, but there are a variety of extrinsic rewards that do not involve food that can be given. An example; my students are earning themselves the right to watch a movie just before the holidays. They can also earn house points or stickers from myself.

    There are loads of ways, intrinsic and extrinsic, to inspire children to work hard for themselves and each other. Food is really not needed.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Holly: Thanks for commenting on this post. I really appreciate the perspective of teachers, since you’re on the front lines and understand better than anyone how rewards can and should to be used in the classroom. I hope you’ll participate in other discussions on TLT!

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