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Do rewards, punishment work?

In an experiment, children’s brains reacted strongly to positive feedback and scarcely responded at all to negative feedback.

In an experiment, children’s brains reacted strongly to positive feedback and scarcely responded at all to negative feedback.

Our basic strategy for raising children or teaching students is a reward and punishment strategy.

We are what we believe we are
- C.S. Lewis

From an early age we introduce Santa Claus, who carefully observes what children do and appears from the heavens to deliver gifts for the ‘good ones’ or to punish the ‘bad ones’.

While manipulating children with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails. Rewards turn play into work, and work into drudgery.

Praise is frequently a judgement and a kind of bribe as the child must ‘earn’ points by doing the ‘right’ thing. If instead we use encouragement, we support the child whether or not s/he is doing well. We do not take the child out of the zone where s/he feels accepted and capable.

Punishment causes either physical, emotional, or social pain, and it is often followed with confusion, anger, or guilt. Many child development professionals recommend very young children’s bad behaviour should be ignored.

Dutch neuroscientist Eveline Crone studied children aged eight to 12, giving them a computer task and observing their brains (using functional MRI) when they were given a positive, rewarding feedback – a check for well done – and when they were given a cross – punishment for not understanding the rule.

The younger children’s performance improved substantially more when the feedback was positive. Their brains reacted strongly to the positive feedback and scarcely responded at all to the negative feedback.

A scary psychological study that researched methods of rewards and punishment and that went horribly wrong happened at the University of Iowa, in 1939, with 22 orphaned children, 10 with stutters.

The children were separated into two groups: one with a speech therapist who conducted ‘positive’ therapy by praising their efforts; the other with a speech therapist who openly chastised the children for their mistakes.

The results showed that the children who received negative feedback were badly affected both during and following the experiment that lasted six months; so much so that in 2007, six of them were awarded €700,000 in compensation for the psychological damage they suffered.

C.S. Lewis once said: “We are what we believe we are.”

What we think and what we believe we are, are the two main things that decide whether we will succeed or not in our projects in life.

Our mind is responsible for all sorts of illusions. It is responsible for the placebo (or sugar pill) effect phenomenon. When we believe a certain procedure or medication is effective, we increase the efficacy of that procedure or medication by 50 to 60 per cent.

Often, our behaviour is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we do not recognise those pressures. According to self-perception theory, people decide on their own likes and dislikes from watching themselves behave in various situations. We assume a sense of who we are from our behaviour.

A primary example of this is that of a very young child stealing a sweet from a grocery store. If no one notices, the child does not change his self-perception of being a good child. But if the child gets caught, and the parents make a big deal about it, the child may then think of himself as a thief. This may become the child’s self-perception and could become a prophecy.

We might even become what we pretend to be. In 1971, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo used a group of students to take part in a two-week-long experiment in which they lived as prisoners and guards in a mock prison.

The results were so disturbing that after just six days, Zimbardo had to end the experiment. Ordinary students turned into sadistic guards and spineless prisoners, becoming deeply emotionally involved in their roles.

At an early stage of a child’s development, children’s self-esteem is a major factor as to how they view and build their own behaviour. By developing emotional intelligence and fostering lasting self-esteem, we prepare them for the future.

If our children are to become happy, confident, and in love with knowledge, they need to be supported and assisted in their search for knowledge. We need to help them behave as eager, creative and enthusiastic individuals, and the self-perception with future behaviour will follow.

When he was shaping the first Waldorf school, Rudolf Steiner, the founder of this successful alternative schooling method, decided there was to be no classification of children into intellectual streams, no examinations, no holding back in a grade, no prizes, no honour boards, no homework.

Teachers were to avoid negative comments in their reports, and talk about the child with humour and appreciative words.

Also included in the report was a comment to show the individual child the direction in which he should strive.

www.artof4elements.com

If these ideas resonate with you or if you are interested in offering this type of education for your children, e-mail [email protected].

Nataša Pantovic is a researcher on self-development and higher states of consciousness.

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