My Response To The Teacher Defending Junk Food Classroom Rewards

Yesterday’s letter from Paul, a former high school teacher who defended the use of junk food classroom rewards, received an overwhelming response.  And, as you might expect given this self-selecting readership, most Lunch Tray readers didn’t take too kindly to Paul’s position.

I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight just two or three of the most compelling comments on the post and I also wanted to add a few thoughts of my own.

My Thanks To Paul

First, I want to thank Paul for letting me share his letter with my readers.  As I said in a private email to him yesterday, I hope he doesn’t feel like I threw him to the wolves!  :-)  I appreciated the thoughtfulness of his first letter and his follow-up comment yesterday; usually the defenders of junk food rewards just call me a Food Nazi or a weak-willed parent who can’t tell my children “no,” but clearly Paul has given thought to the issue and is trying to see both sides.  And I think we all can tell that when he was a teacher, he genuinely cared for his students and was trying to do right by them.

Furthermore, I’m a proud and committed public school parent in a state that now ranks second to last in the nation for per-student spending.  (Thanks, Rick Perry!)  So I’ve seen it all, from middle schoolers sitting on the floor for several weeks because there weren’t enough teachers to go around, to a tiny “temporary building” (if a building has been around for years and will be around for years hence, how is it “temporary?”) crammed with a teacher, 27 desks and 27 large fifth-grade bodies.  I have nothing but sympathy and respect for public school teachers, particularly those working in lower income populations as Paul did.  And if we’re being honest with ourselves, I suspect that many of us, after teaching for about a week in such conditions, might find our minds drifting toward the Hershey’s Kisses as a surefire means of keeping order and motivation in the classroom.   So let’s not be too quick to judge, unless we’ve walked in a teacher’s shoes (as some of you have.)

(By the way, another teacher, Emily, also came by to endorse candy rewards.  See here.)

Blogger, Heal Thyself

sweet letters helpAs you know, I’m the parent of two kids, now 10 and 12.  And you can well believe that in twelve years of parenting, I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes when it comes to misusing food.   Does anyone remember how, on the advice of my then-four-year-old daughter (really), I started giving my toddler son candy to get him to sit still while I cut his nails, and this routine persisted for years on end?  Yeah, not good.  I’m sure there were many instances when I handed my toddlers a snack (healthy, we hope) from my diaper bag or purse just to keep them occupied.  And even now — even now, people! — I sometimes find myself holding out food as a reward in less obvious ways, like reminding a distraught kid on a particularly bad day that we’ll be having his/her favorite dinner that night, or letting the “winner “of a game or challenge be the one to choose our dessert on Friday night.

Food has a profound hold on all of us, an allure that’s hardwired into our brains to ensure our very survival.  So it’s no wonder that even the most self-examined among us might turn to food as a reward, a comfort, a distraction or for other reasons having nothing to do with nourishment.

OK, now, let’s turn to the comments.

Why ANY Classroom Rewards, Food or Otherwise?

One issue that came up repeatedly in the comments, and which I alluded to in my Food in the Classroom Manifesto, is whether we ought to be providing extrinsic rewards of any type – food or otherwise — for academic or behavioral achievement.  One representative comment came from reader Mommm!!!! who wrote:

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.

This is a question beyond the purview of this blog, but my gut feeling is that extrinsic rewards can actually undermine a child’s motivation.  I’ve seen this in my own home when I resorted in desperation to a sticker chart or similar system to reinforce a desired behavior.  Inevitably, my kids soon developed a dismaying, “So, what’s in it for me?” attitude toward any future task they were expected to perform.   I know others have had real success with such systems, and I’m certainly no education expert, but I can only share my own negative experience with extrinsic rewards.

Alternatives to Food Rewards

Assuming you buy into the idea of rewards, many readers shared creative ideas for non-food options.  Paul rightly pointed out that the sparkly eraser isn’t going to get a bunch of high schoolers excited and he doesn’t like the idea of homework passes for philosophical reasons.  He wrote:

 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.

But even taking Paul’s point, readers offered other ideas that might work well with high schoolers.  Bri of Red, Round or Green suggested:

For older children, get a little creative. . . . . 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.

A Heartwarming Story of a Unique, Non-Food Reward

Finally, I wanted to direct you a comment left by reader Mara Panazarella Winders, in which she excerpts an interview with film director Wes Anderson.  I promise you it’s worth taking a second to read it.  I don’t expect an overburdened public school teacher to be able to devote that kind of time and attention to all of his/her students, but it’s a remarkable example of one teacher showing unusual creativity and sensitivity in motivating a child.

Thank you to all who commented and continue to comment on yesterday’s post.  This is a conversation I know we’ll continue to have and I appreciate everyone’s insights.

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  1. says

    On the subject of “why ANY classroom rewards for behavior”, I would suggest you look at two other areas: the workplace, and the prison system. In the workplace, many of us are paid for performance: we perform, we get paid. That is our “reward”, though it is provided under an agreement with our employer, so maybe it isn’t a reward as much as… well, payment for services rendered. HOWEVER – some (many?) employers are known to give out raises and/or bonuses for sustained performance at a high level, which is definitely analogous to the concept of a “reward” as expressed by Paul.

    Second, look at the prisons. One of the things that drives folks NUTS is the who concept of “parole”. Because, dangit, if the jury sentenced someone to a gazillion years for jaywalking, then by Gum he needs to do the ENTIRE GAZILLION YEARS and so on. On the other hand, prison officials say that not only parole but other “rewards” such as rec room/TV time, family visits etc. are very valuable as a behavior management tool, otherwise about the ONLY recourse to keeping order would be to shoot, hang, whip, and otherwise abuse the folks in their custody wholesale – and the only people in favor of that are those with weird personality disorders/fetishes and those who have never had to deal with a prison environment before. Even though the schools aren’t prisons (yet), the need for behavior management (and tools to facilitate same) are every bit as important in the school environment.

    Sure, in the past we didn’t have rewards – but we DID have a lot of punishments, including such wonderful things as: whipping – with belts or switches cut from green wood – children until they bled; group beatings, where every student in the class got whipped for something one or two students did; “run till you puke” exercise, where the coaches had the class do some form of exercise until the weakest fell out, then in some cases had a classmate start punching and kicking them until they got back up and continued (this is the reason that, to this day, the very thought of physical exercise causes me to have a severe, visceral reaction); and [this happened to a relative of mine] a teacher who had a novel way of getting a noisy child to shut up, she simply STUFFED A DIRTY SOCK IN HIS MOUTH AND TAPED HIS MOUTH SHUT WITH DUCT TAPE. Yumm-O [NOT!]

    Bottom line: it is oftentimes easier to use a carrot than a stick to manage behavior. Also, would you rather just give the teacher a Taser and tell him/her to use his/her better judgement? HMMMMM!?!?!?!?

    BTW, I am not unsympathetic to the plight of parents having to fight the schools regarding shoveling junk food into your kids. In my day, it wasn’t sweets (though we did have some “candy days”), but we DID have teachers and administrators pushing Ritalin (a Schedule II controlled substance btw) at the kids (in those days, ADD/ADHD was the diagnosis du jour for antsy, squirmy little ones), and I had my experiences with this (I ended up having to threaten to bring a lawyer, as well as the DA, into the discussion as the principal and counselor insisted I utilize a doctor OF THEIR CHOOSING who would of course agree with them and over-medicate my offspring to keep him quiet and focused. It worked, but his education suffered until the middle school years as a result.)


    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      EdT: This is somewhat off topic but I just finished reading a novel written by a friend and college classmate called Accelerated, a mystery story of sorts about the pushing of Ritalin on school kids. You might want to check it out!

    • bw1 says

      Wow, Edt, where did you go to school – 19th century Prussia? To paraphrase John Cleese in The Meaning of Life, how about a detention, boy? What’s wrong with a demerit, a detention, or having to do chores in the school, before we stampede to waterboarding and flaying? Back in the mainstream real world, schools have numerous punishment options that fall short of your school run by the Spanish Inquisition.

      As for rewards, my understanding since about the first grade, was always that decent grades and advancement to the next grade were the primary reward for performance, along with a good record that would allow one to attend college, and get a better job and standard of living. When I didn’t perform initially in school, my father took me for a ride through the worst slums and housing projects in our city and said,”take a good look around – this is where people who don’t get an education live. A friend who as consistently out-achieved me often speaks of how worn out and broken down his father looked upon returning from the steel mill every day, and how he decided then and there he’d do whatever it took to go to a good college and not have to do physical labor for a living.

      Of course, now self-esteem is all the rage, and schools have awards ceremonies where everyone gets a prize, and there are soccer leagues that don’t keep score, and kids expect a treat for every act of compliance, like a rat running a maze. Look where it’s gotten us – a population mired in dependency and learned helplessness, with entitlements bankrupting the country as a shrinking portion of the population struggles to work hard enough to support the a growing portion on the dole.

      • says

        Actually, I went to school in a major urban school district in the 1960s. My offspring went to school in a major suburban school district in the 1990s/2000s, by which time corporal punishment wasn’t quite so favorably looked upon. And I suspect that then, as we see even now, those quick to reach for the paddle/switch/belt would quote Scripture (“spare the rod, spoil the child”) as justification (in fact, I heard that a whole lot from “grown-ups” back in the day.) There were other punishments as well: from losing recess (which is now falling out of favor) to being put in the corner/hallway (not conducive to learning, when done for an entire semester.) The point was that punishment for bad behavior was the norm, and rewards tended to be given short shrift. Which, IMO, helped to drive bad behavior, in a quest for some sort of attention. This is just not healthy, like stuffing kids full of sugary crap every day of their lives.


        • bw1 says

          Your description is more like Gitmo. I have yet to meet anyone who went to school in the USA who would describe anything like what you did. Seems like you have an axe to grind from attending an aberrant school,

  2. CD says

    EdT., I do not know where you went to school or where your children went to school, but I can assure you that the world you are speaking of is not the current world of public education in the United States. We, as teachers, naturally reward children with high fives and “way to gos” all day long. We actually like children and have chosen to work with them for that reason. We are educated people who do not go to work to do harm, but to open minds and fill them with the knowledge that will make their lives and worlds better in the end. We work very hard every day. To release my smiling students on Read Across America Day after reading Hop on Pop and Green Eggs and Ham, covering them with Dr. Seuss stickers and sending them on their merry way, and then to turn to the computer and see these comments about your views of education when the topic is nutrition… wow. Maybe you need to curl up with a good book?

  3. says

    Ultimately, it should be a medical decision and the recommendations are clear and consistent.
    From the Yale Medical Group: Using food as a reward or as a punishment, however, can undermine the healthy eating habits that you’re trying to teach your children. Giving sweets, chips, or soda as a reward often leads to children’s overeating foods that are high in sugar, fat, and empty calories. Worse, it interferes with kids’ natural ability to regulate their eating, and it encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry to reward themselves.

    From the Mayo Clinic : As a general rule, don’t use food as a reward or punishment.

    From the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry : Do not use food as a reward.

    From the American Academy of Family Physicians: Food should not be used for non-nutritive purposes such as comfort or reward. Do not provide food for comfort or as a reward.

    From the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Do not use food as a reward. When children are rewarded with sweets or snack food, they may decide that these foods are better or more valuable than healthier foods.

    From the American Academy of Pediatrics: Food should be used as nourishment, not as a reward or punishment. In the long run, food rewards or bribes usually create more problems than they solve.

    • bw1 says

      Heck, even most umbrella organizations for canine training speak of a dog being food-motivated as a bad thing.

  4. mommm!!!! says

    When my son was a toddler, I was guilty of using “fruit snacks” as a bribe to get my son to sit still in the barber chair….ONCE a year….mostly because, let’s face it, the kid has bad hair. If you knew him you’d agree. It doesn’t look good unless it’s military short. Anyway….the point is we all do or have done it. But I’ve also had the “What’s in it for me” attitude thrown at me when I’ve asked my son to take out the trash or whatever. And I’m always just so indignant about it….I tell him that I feed him, I clothe him, I cook for him, I scrub his toilet, do his laundry and on and on. If he wants to eat in THIS house then he has to pull his weight and that’s the bottom line. I shop at the thrift store when they have 70% off sales for my clothes and he gets brand NEW clothes two or three times a year. He’s never worn anything from a thrift store in his life. I am not his maid or his personal chef and he lives here for free. The end. This is one of the reasons I taught my child how to cook at a young age. I think it’s important that children can do things for themselves.

    Then we send them to school and their given constant ongoing rewards for every little thing from not talking to actually turning in an assignment. What?! We teach our kids about food at home…at least I do….I feed him wholesomely and well. Then I send him to school and he has “nachos” (read chips with a processed goo posing as cheese) for lunch. What?!

    Thankfully, I do not equate constant and incessant rewarding with beating my child. I’m not even sure how one makes that connection. And to be clear…I don’t beat my kid just in case anyone was wondering. Also, I was not beaten as a kid nor did I grow up in a spanking household. Soooo…yeah.

    I guess my overall point is that I have a raised a kid to not expect rewards of any kind just for living his life. I think this incessant rewarding nonsense sets up future adults for some pretty rude awakenings to say the very least. We also don’t subscribe to this new thing about how everyone wins at a game and everyone gets a trophy so that no one has self esteem issues, blah blah blah. No. We stay out of that nonsense. Failures are lessons to be learned from, not emotionally scarring melodrama to be avoided at all costs. Where did this crap even come from? Parents. Parents who can’t let their kids do anything wrong or bad or lose because they are living through their kids. Get a grip. A child who is raised expecting to be rewarded even when they fail is missing out on some serious coping skills. It’s no wonder teachers have resorted to candy bribes.

    • bw1 says

      We got our hair cut at home, and the enticement to sit still was that during haircuts was the only time we were allowed to watch those ridiculous Japanese Rubber Monster (Godzilla, Mothra, etc.) movies.

  5. bw1 says

    Bettina, you let Paul off way too easily. You certainly weren’t as sympathetic to the people who wrote to say their livelihood was threatened by your attack on LFBT. I get the disturbing impression that you’re less willing to hold the feet of public school teachers to the fire those of private sector employees.

  6. Benjamin says

    The famous “Montessori Method” of child education considers ‘Rewards & Punishments’ to be ” the instrument of slavery for the spirit ”… and that the individual child’s process and discovery in learning itself would be reward enough. An occasional external reward might be a smile from a teacher or a quiet acknowledgment of an appropriate behavior.

    The Montessori Method is a culmination of Maria Montessori’s life work in studying, observing, and experimentation on the education of children. But Montessori’s approach focused on each child as unique and free to follow his or her abilities and interests. By observing children closely, you are able to identify when a child is most willing and ready to learn a specific skill. The method is based on the freedom of the child to explore and learn, mostly, through self-direction.

    In contrast, American public schools focus on groups, “classes”, and “grades” (K-12)… rather than as individuals. One-Size-Fits-All once the system assigns you to the “appropriate group. The primary purpose of public schools is social control of budding citizens and workers. Controllers use B.F. Skinner style positive/negative reinforcements to modify behavior.

    ‘ EdT ‘ has a valid point about prison and work comparisons.

    ‘ bw1 ‘ will be shocked to learn that the American public school system was indeed (and still is) closely modeled on the 19th Century Prussian command & control public education system. Google “Horace Mann” and “John Taylor Gatto”.

    • bw1 says

      Very loosely modeled. EdT’s description bears no resemblance to reality in the vast majority of schools.

      There’s a reason the Montessori method is only used in high end elite private schools – society doesn’t have the resources for widespread application. American schools are not one-size-fits-all, but they are off-the=rack, and for good reason. To continue your clothing analogies – Montessori is like having a suit custom tailored, and if not for mass produced, off the rack clothing, 90% of the population would go naked.

  7. Sarah says

    On rewards….sadly that’s how society has changed overall. Most people, adults and children, have the “what’s in it for me” mentality. Not many people have intrinsic motivation or the satisfaction of accomplishing something or doing a good job just for the sake of doing a good job.

    This is reinforced through childhood and sadly sticks around through adulthood. When I was going through my teacher education classes we discussed this and talked about fostering intrinsic motivation and not working for a grade, but for the pursuit of knowledge. However when all other aspects of society work against you it’s difficult. See arguments about getting rewards just for participating etc.

    But again these discussions aren’t the scope of this blog, but there is a lot of interesting research and reading out there on the subject if interested.

    • bw1 says

      People have ALWAYS had a what’s in it for me mentality. That’s why no religion has ever taken hold without some sort of reward/punishment concept. The difference is that people used to look forward to deferred gratification (in the case of religion, deferred until after they died.) Now it’s all about IMMEDIATE gratification – what’s in it for me NOW.

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