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11.4: When should students be rewarded or punished?

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    By Wendy Belgrave

    Learning Objectives

    • To understand what positive reinforcement means
    • Understand there can be drawbacks to any method
    • To learn alternative ways of punishment


    "Great job on figuring out that problem! Way to analyze the data Sarah. And you Nathan! I want you to write me a 500 word essay on why it is important to pay attention and be quiet while class is in session. I'm tired of having to talk to you about this!" Does this seem fair to you? In an ideal world the students would walk into a classroom, and their soft murmurs would come to a halt once the bell rang. They would all take out their paper and pencils, take notes, raise their hand if they had a question or answer, and smile during the entire class period. But this is not fantasy land and we have children coming into our classrooms with all sorts of personalities and issues. A teacher might find it easy to praise their students when they do something good, but what if the students are having a “bad day”? Can you really catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?

    Reinforcing A Desired Behavior


    “You can win people to your side more easily by gentle persuasion and flattery, than by hostile confrontation (Hirch 1988 p. 49),"

    Growing up, receiving a sticker on a gold star at the end of the day was the ultimate feeling for me. The sticker meant a job well done throughout the day. I didn’t know it at the time but that was positive reinforcement at its best. The concept definition of positive reinforcement, according to the Centre of Psychology, occurs when 3 conditions have been met (Grant 1996).

    • A consequence is presented dependent on a behavior.
    • The behavior becomes more likely to occur.
    • The behavior becomes more likely to occur because and only because the consequence is presented dependent on the behavior.

    In my observations I have witnessed teachers praise their students. You do not hear the student say how this makes them feel, but you will see their demeanor change when a student is given accolades in front of his or her peers. This provokes a willingness to chime in more often regardless of right or wrong answers. A student named Lee Ray was recognized for his risk taking. His teacher wrote a summary of him saying, "He answers all the questions, correct or not (Lashaway-Bokina 2000 p. 225)." Positive feedback and recognition build self esteem and confidence.

    Giving a student a “good job” for a correct answer is always good, but the learning of subject matter is not the only thing that deserves recognition. Rewarding desired behavior is easier than you may think. For instance, you are doing a class project that requires cutting pieces of paper, at the end of the project you notice a student picking up pieces of paper that fell off the desk and throwing them in the trash. This is a perfect opportunity to acknowledge a thoughtful gesture. This in turn tells the other students to do the same without you having to request it. This is much more effective than reminding the students that you are not their parent and won’t pick up after them. Acknowledging good attendance, a pat on the back for team work, and even recognizing special achievements even if they are not related to the class are great ways to build self esteem. Just as important, the recognition of improved behavior or grades is also a great confidence builder. Sending a post card home to the child’s parents is a great way to reinforce positive behavior.


    “You must systematically strengthen the behavior you want while systematically weakening the competing behaviors that you do not want. A discipline program, for example, should not only eliminate problem behavior, but it should also systematically build the positive behaviors that you want to replace the problems (Fred Jones).

    When Rewarding By Incentives Goes Bad

    Some teachers choose to pass out candy or give special privileges for good behavior or for doing certain tasks, but what if there is not an actual reward other than a “thank you”? Student Awards, Rewards, and Recognition says that you mustn’t use rewards as incentives because it sends this message, “if you do this, then you get this.” This may seem too much like bribing. Bloggers on An Unschooling Life, are not fans of the rewards for learning. They believe that the reward for studying is learning. One of the bloggers who is a homeschooling parent said, “If someone had to bribe me to do something, my first thought would be "It must be unpleasant if you have to bribe me to do it." She continued on to say that her daughter would only read if she was given candy while in school.

    Peter Callaghan, a writer for The News Tribune, agrees with the home schooling parent about the damage that incentives create. He mentions a school in Washington that was giving a five week course to better scores on reading, writing, and mathematics for an upcoming standardized test. A $79 free IPod Shuffle was offered to every student that signed up. Only 80 failing students had signed up for the test before the incentive was given. The incentive was enough to fill 270 additional slots. “Kids who goof off shouldn’t receive gifts while kids who try hard get nothing extra. Kids shouldn’t be bribed to try to learn something (Callaghan 207).”

    Punishment As An Incentive

    It would be easier to teach a classroom full of children if there were no children misbehaving. According to Student Teacher Advocate, one third of new teachers leave the teaching field within the first 3 years. The teachers questioned said that they spend an overwhelming amount of time doing other tasks (disciplining included), beyond actual instruction. Forty percent of those teachers surveyed said that they spend more time than expected on disciplining (Miller, Higgins).

    Teachers sometimes find punishment to be effective as a classroom behavior management tool, especially as a short term solution. Because punishment tends to rapidly stop problem behaviors, the teacher in turn is positively reinforced for using it (What Every Teacher Should Know About Punishment 2008). Teachers may be tempted to use this technique over and over because of its quick response, but this very sort of punishment can have side effects. Students who are generally punished in this way can overtime develop negative attitudes toward school, can develop an uncomfortable relationship with their teachers, and perhaps feel apprehensive about participating in class activities (What Every Teacher Should Know About Punishment 2008). Discipline and punishment are important parts of rearing children not only at home but in school settings as well.

    When people use the word “punish”, it is usually used to describe a negative consequences for a violation. In some schools around the United States punishment can mean physical punishment. Corporal punishment is still allowed in 21 out of 50 states, but is only practiced in 4 of those states; Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee (Farrell). According to C. Farrell, a writer for School Corporal Punishment, paddlings were given in the classroom or right outside the door, but then only the principle had to do the paddling or it was done in front of his or her presence in a private room. Some of the people I spoke to remember being paddled or being hit on the palms with a ruler for horse playing. Educators must be careful and administer punishment with care, especially if it comes in the form of corporal punishment. "Punishments are an expression of violence of the more powerful adult against the weaker child (Cerney 2008 p.51)."


    “According to estimates from the federal Department of Education (Office of Civil Rights), there were about 272,000 paddlings of students in the 2004-05 school year -- down from 457,754 only eight years previously. This shows that the rapid decline of the 1980s and early 1990s, which had leveled off by the middle of the 1990s, has now resumed. Total paddlings were equivalent to only 0.6% of the total US school population (Farrell)."

    Alternative Ways Of Punishment

    Punishment can take on many forms; it can be a reprimand, or a type of punishment known as response cost. Response cost means that a student can have rewards, or privileges taken away when he or she demonstrates problem behavior even if it is only momentarily (What Every Teacher Should Know About Punishment 2008). An example would be that a student on time-out would not be able to join his or her classmates when it is time for playtime until their time-out was over.

    Disciplining does not necessarily mean having the child sit in the corner with a dunce hat on, getting paddled, whacked on the hands, or writing sentences. Experienced teachers will say that remaining calm can diffuse an angry disposition more effectively than responding in an equal tone. One of the teachers that I interviewed, Kristin Gorsuch, a high school math teacher from Isle of Wight County, said that when she has a continually disruptive student, she simply asks them to step outside for a minute until she can go outside and discuss in private what she expects. The point is not to intimidate or belittle them in front of their peers. Disciplining does not have to be an aggressive act is what she believes.

    You will see and hear what other teachers believe is a good way of “punishing” a student without it being demeaning or embarrassing. Visit this web site for the videos under “What Would You Do?”


    Time changes everything. The material taught in schools, the thoughts on child creativity, and classroom management have all been revised over time. The question as to what is a better way to develop productive adults has perplexed people for ages. Should we pat our children on the back for a mediocre job and hope that next time they do better, or should we whoop them into shape, tell them what we expect and show no mercy since the “real world” won’t show them any? As educators we need to build up our children and young adults, evaluate what the problem really is, if any and make a decision based on each child. There is no cookie cutter solution.


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    2. Callaghan, P. (2007, July 26). Don’t they know learning is its own reward? | | Tacoma, WA. Retrieved Sep. 17, 2008, from

    3. Cerny, J. (2008). Spare the Rod Spoil the Child. New Presence, 11(2), 51,52. Retrieved Sep. 17, 2008, from the Academic Search Complete database.

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    6. Farrell, C. (n.d.). SCHOOL CORPORAL PUNISHMENT: Video clips 2008: United States—real-life paddling (Arkansas high school). Retrieved Sep. 17, 2008, from

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    13. Miller, M., & Higgins, B. (n.d.). Stay A Little Longer. Retrieved Sep. 21, 2008, from

    14. Student Awards, Rewards and Recognition. (2008, April 18). Retrieved Sep. 21, 2008, from

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