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Reward System in Preschool


I would like some feedback regarding the following situation:

My oldest daughter just turned 3 and is in a preschool program 2 days a week for 3 hours a day. There is a teacher and assistant for 12 children. The teacher is very young and this is her second year teaching children of this age group. The assistant is much older and has grown children of her own.

My present concern is regarding a newly instituted reward system. With only 2 1/2 months of school left in this school year the teacher began a reward system that she said would help to get the children to better use their "good listening" skills. Sounds like a last ditch act of desperation to me but then again I am already somewhat biased against "quid pro quo" types of discipline.

The system works like this: There are 5 major areas or tasks to be performed each day. The child earns one sticker per completion of each task. The stickers are placed on a reward chart and accumulation of 5 stickers on any given day earns them a plastic toy from a "treasure chest" at the end of that day.

I have a problem with tangible rewards to begin with but the fact that they began this at this time of the year leads me to believe they do not have adequate control over their classroom. The stickers are for walking in a straight line, cleaning up after crafts, snacks, being gentle, sitting in circle time and "using good listening skills" etc. There is only a reward at the end of the day for earning 5 out of 5 stickers.

My instincts say too many rewards (stickers, toy at end of day) and too often (every day) and too demanding (5 out of 5 is perfection to me). How long before the reward is totally diluted. My child should clean up for cleaning up sake by now! I want my child to do something for internal reward not external reward. Also, how long before the reward loses its appeal, common sense dictates that the reward will eventually have to be increased. Also what about the devastation of not earning all 5 stickers everyday - what are they telling these kids? Are they bad listeners? What if the child messes up 5 mins. into the day - any intelligent child will think, "Hey, I already lost my toy, why should I try so hard to listen the rest of the day?

I'm not a trained educator but common sense and general tenets of human psychology would appear to be at odds with this system. Am I way off base? Should I lighten up? Enlighten me please. What are your thoughts? These are barely 3 year olds - shouldn't this be positive and fun? My daughter seems stressed sometimes.


No, you're not way off base. I agree with you and, interestingly enough, so does most of the research. Rewards (and their cousin, punishment) have no long-term effect on behavior.

The problem with this sort of "discipline" is that it often appears to work for the moment. Rewards do produce short-term change because kids obviously want to earn the treat. But as children grow older and more sophisticated, rewards begin to create new problems. They discourage children from accepting new challenges, and they teach that motivation comes from outside oneself, not from within--just what you're concerned about. And as children get older, they usually up the ante: what seemed like a sufficient reward at three is no motivation at all at five. In other words, rewards can accelerate the "I want more" syndrome.

Most preschool teachers institute rewards systems because they honestly believe it will improve behavior and cooperation, and because they often haven't been taught anything else to do. Rewards are rampant throughout our educational system. I would suggest getting a copy of "Positive Discipline for Preschoolers" and "Positive Discipline in the Classroom" for your daughter's school. These books include a wealth of information on why youngsters behave as they do, and concrete things schools can do to teach positive skills and attitudes.

In the meantime, do voice your concerns to the teacher. In particular, I think requiring three-year-olds to earn all five stickers to receive any reward at all is unrealistic, and is likely to foster competition and feelings of inadequacy. You can certainly let your daughter know that while you want her to behave and to treat others (including the teacher) with respect, you aren't worried about whether or not she gets stickers and rewards.

I respect your concern for your child; she's lucky to have you!

Best wishes,

Cheryl Erwin, MA, MFT, Certified Positive Discipline Associate


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