The Dark Side of Rewards, Part 1: Why Incentives Do More Harm Than Good in the Classroom

Today’s guest author is Connie Persike, M.S., CCC/SLP. 

Connie is a highly experienced Speech Language Pathologist and Educational Consultant. As founder of Supportable Solutions, she brings 20+ years of experience in educational settings to provide insight, guidance, coaching, and support to school districts, agencies, and families across Wisconsin — and throughout the country — who need expert direction in working with children. Put simply: she helps students succeed by working with school systems, parents and/or agencies who have yet to identify the underlying “why” behind unsolved behavioral challenges. She helps identify paths forward that benefit both the student and the staff. No two children are alike – she collaborates with all parties to find an individualized solution that helps everyone thrive. Supportable Solutions works from the guiding mission that Connection + Collaboration = Endless Possibilities.

The use of rewards in the classroom has been a topic of debate for decades. While some argue they can be effective in promoting positive behavior and academic achievement, others believe they can be detrimental to a student’s intrinsic motivation and overall well-being. 

In today’s world, rewards are often used as a means of motivating students to complete tasks or behave in certain ways. However, research suggests that rewards may actually have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation and mental health. In this article, we’ll explore the many ways in which rewards can have unintended consequences on the overall well-being of a student, including increasing anxiety and shame, promoting a fixed mindset, and decreasing a student’s generosity and caring nature. We’ll also examine how rewards can mask authentic behavior and increase dependence on external validation, ultimately leading to decreased self-esteem. Finally, we will look at some specific examples of common reward-based interventions used in classrooms today and hear from experts in the field about how parents and families can challenge the status quo.

The Unintended Consequences of Rewarding Students: A Critical Examination

Rewards decrease intrinsic motivation: When students are rewarded for completing a task or behaving in a certain way, they may come to view these behaviors as something they only do for the reward, rather than because they are genuinely interested or invested in the task. One of the primary reasons why rewards decrease intrinsic motivation is that they shift the focus from the activity or behavior itself to the reward that is being offered. This means that individuals are more likely to engage in the behavior or activity only for the sake of receiving the reward, rather than because they find the activity inherently enjoyable, interesting, or the right thing to do. This can result in students losing interest in the activity once the reward is no longer available (Deci et al., 2001; Kohn, 2018).

Rewards increase anxiety and shame: The fear of not receiving a reward can lead to anxiety and feelings of shame in students. In addition, students may feel anxious or ashamed if they do not receive a reward, or if they do receive a reward but feel that it is not commensurate with their effort. This can lead to increased stress and negative emotions as well as decreased participation due to avoidance of situations and experiences that promote fear (Aypay, 2018).

Rewards create a feeling of being controlled: This feeling not only decreases motivation it can create a need for outside pleasure, which has been shown to lead to an addiction to rewards, constantly looking for that short term burst of pleasure such stimuli produces (Deci et al., 2001; Aypay, 2018). 

Rewards increase a fixed mindset: Students who are constantly rewarded for their achievements may begin to believe that their abilities are fixed, rather than something that can be improved through effort and practice. This is because the focus is on the outcome (i.e. the reward) rather than the process of learning and growth (Dweck, 2006).

Rewards decrease generosity and caring nature: The use of rewards can promote a “what’s in it for me?” mentality and decrease or dampen a student’s natural tendencies towards generosity (Allen, 2018). This can promote a culture of self-interest rather than evoking one of empathy and compassion.

Rewards promote masking: When students are rewarded for certain behaviors, they may begin to mask or hide other aspects of themselves, which are not rewarded. In addition, children are more likely to hide their mistakes and avoid challenges when rewards are utilized (Dweck, 1995). Furthermore, the most common reason reported by autistics for camouflaging was to fit in and “pass” in a neurotypical word (Cage et al., 2019). This would suggest that rewards based on neurotypical expectations and norms can promote masking of neurodivergent traits, as individuals may engage in behaviors that are not authentic to themselves in order to receive rewards and fit in (Kohn, 2020).

Rewards treat the symptoms, not the root causes: Rewards do not address the underlying reasons for a student’s behavior nor do they take into consideration how the autonomic nervous system works in a subconscious manner. They often exacerbate the underlying behavior concerns due to the likelihood of increasing a student’s levels of distress (Delahooke, 2022).

Rewards devalue the actual task: The use of rewards can send the message that the task itself is not inherently valuable or interesting, but rather only worth doing for the reward (Kohn, 2018).

Rewards increase dependence on external validation: When students become accustomed to receiving rewards for their behavior or achievements, they may become more reliant on external validation, rather than developing a sense of intrinsic motivation. This can create a costly dependence where individuals rely on others to validate their self-worth (Deci et al., 1999; Pink 2011; Aypay, 2018).

Rewards decrease self-esteem: When certain students receive rewards while others do not, the latter may feel a sense of inadequacy and failure, ultimately leading to decreased self-esteem and self-value. This can have long-lasting negative effects on their overall well-being and academic performance (Aypay, 2018).

Rewards should not be the default strategy for promoting positive behavior and academic achievement in the classroom. Instead, educators should focus on building strong relationships with students, providing opportunities for autonomy and choice, and creating a positive classroom environment that fosters intrinsic motivation and a love of learning. It is important for educators to consider alternative strategies for promoting student motivation and engagement, such as creating a supportive and inclusive classroom environment, providing meaningful and challenging learning opportunities, and giving students autonomy over their own learning (Ryan et al., 2000). By focusing on intrinsic motivation, educators can foster a love of learning and promote the development of lifelong skills (Deci et al., 2001).

Rethinking Rewards: How You As A Parent Can Challenge the Status Quo in Your Child’s Classroom

It’s natural to want the best for your child when it comes to their education. You want them to feel motivated, engaged, and supported in the classroom in a way that allows them to feel safe being their authentic self. Have you ever questioned the use of rewards in the classroom and whether they truly promote positive behavior and learning outcomes? If so, it can be challenging to know how to approach the situation. One example of such a method is a class-wide incentive program that relies on random spot-checks of student behavior to encourage desirable conduct. While this approach may seem like a straightforward way to promote positive behavior and academic success, there are potential drawbacks and limitations to consider. Another example of a classroom management strategy that your child’s teacher may rely on is a 10-frame behavior chart. The chart is a visual aid that helps track and monitor the desired behavior of a student throughout the day. The student will be given a sticker for each task they complete, as long as they follow the school’s specific procedures for good behavior. At the end of each day, the chart will be reviewed, and depending on the number of stickers the student has earned, they will be given a reward for meeting specific goals.

So how do we effectively communicate our concerns to our child’s teachers and school administrators without causing conflict or tension? To explore these questions and gain practical advice on approaching the topic with our children’s teachers, I spoke with some leading experts in the field, including Alfie Kohn, Ginger Healy, Brian Middleton, Diane Gould, and Greg Santucci. They shared their insights on the potential drawbacks of using rewards and punishments as behavior management strategies and offered alternative approaches that may be more effective in promoting a supportive and positive learning environment for all students. By following their advice, we can chart a path towards constructive conversations with our children’s teachers that lead to positive changes in the classroom.

Alfie Kohn, Author & Educational Expert

Kohn suggests that focusing on the details of a specific incentive program is not the solution to improving student motivation. Rewards and punishments only produce temporary obedience, and research has shown that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in that activity. Which means that incentives are not only ineffective but also counterproductive! Multiple studies have shown that rewarding or praising children for doing something generous tends to make them more self-centered. 

Kohn emphasizes that it is not how motivated students are, but rather how they are motivated that matters. Psychologists distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, where intrinsic motivation is seen as meaningful, while extrinsic motivation sees the action or value as just a means to an end. More than a hundred studies have shown that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are inversely related. 

Kohn recommends creating a caring community with students instead of doing things to them like implementing incentive programs, which are like attempts to train students as if they were lab animals. He suggests working with kids to foster intrinsic motivation by making learning itself meaningful. Kohn delves deeper into this topic in his book “Punished by Rewards” for readers interested in the research on why rewards are unhelpful and damaging and his book “Beyond Discipline” for more on how to construct a “working with” versus “doing to” classroom.

Ginger Healy, Author & Program Director of Attachment & Trauma Network, Inc. 

Healy believes that rewards can be counterproductive for children who have negative self-views, as they can cause internal conflict and distract from learning. Additionally, rewards and consequences can create a control-based relationship between the child and adult, which can weaken trust and safety. Healy prompts us to reflect on our own reactions when someone tries to bribe or threaten us to do something. Specifically, she encourages us to consider whether we trust the person, enjoy being in their company, and feel motivated to collaborate with them. 

Instead of relying on rewards and consequences, Healy suggests that building relationships with children is crucial for understanding their behavior and promoting regulation, which is essential for successful learning. Healy also argues that character development is important, but regulation must come first, and rewards and consequences do not address the varying levels of brain and body injury that children may have. Healy explores the topic of regulation more extensively in her recently published book “Regulation and Co-Regulation: Accessible Neuroscience and Connection Strategies that Bring Calm into the Classroom“. 

Brian Middleton, M.Ed., IBA, BCBA, LABA, the “Bearded Behaviorist”

Middleton is a veteran special education teacher with multiple years of experience supporting children in the K-12 setting, and several years of experience as a dedicated behavior analyst. He emphasizes the importance of empowering teachers and supporting them in the classroom, particularly in large classes or classes with students who require additional support. He believes that parents and support personnel play a crucial role in helping teachers and that it is essential to form a partnership with them. He notes that teachers may inadvertently use potentially harmful strategies because they have limited resources specifically regarding time and energy, and that “playing the blame game” and being confrontational will almost always result in an additional barrier to success. What is more effective is approaching from a “how can I/we help” perspective. This increases the probability of success. He stresses that it is even helpful to directly state the goal of collaboration and also state that you are looking to avoid engaging in blame, while specifically wanting to engage in collaboration.

Regarding the potential drawbacks of behavior management strategies, Middleton highlights the use of shame and social pressure to gain compliance, particularly when the charts are public. This approach elicits anxiety and can backfire, especially when students “fail.” He cites several other potential drawbacks of behavior charts, including negative labeling, a focus on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation, overemphasis on compliance, limited generalization to other settings, and failing to address underlying root causes of behaviors. Lastly, he warns that contrived rewards have the potential to reinforce certain target behaviors and can cause long-term harm to the students while also preventing long-term success.

Middleton states that while using shame to control behavior may be effective in the moment, it can cause great harm and fails to teach meaningful skills to individuals. He suggests alternative strategies and approaches, including, restorative practices/justice, classroom meetings, and strong teacher-student relationships. Middleton stresses that the most powerful reinforcers we have access to are positive relationships and success. He reminds us that connection, based on acceptance, success, and care, are much more powerful than contrived reinforcements. 

Diane Gould, Author, Therapist & Founder/Executive Director of PDA North America

Gould believes that building a positive relationship between students and their teacher is crucial for learning, especially for vulnerable students who need to feel safe and supported in order to learn effectively. She argues that traditional behavior management strategies, such as the behavior clip chart system, can negatively impact this relationship and lead to shame and punishment. 

Gould emphasizes that even in positive behavioral approaches, the absence of a reward can feel like a punishment for students. While acknowledging the potential for short-term progress, she emphasizes that rewards do not necessarily facilitate the long-term change that is ultimately desired. In her view, some staff members may be misled by the immediate benefits of rewards, failing to recognize the importance of sustained, lasting change. Instead, the classroom culture should be focused on building autonomy, collaboration, and engagement. Gould believes that children are often unfairly blamed for a lack of motivation. Students are motivated when the work has meaning and is a match for their skills, and it is the responsibility of adults to create an environment that fosters this motivation.

For parents, Gould suggests building a relationship with their child’s teacher and finding a method of communication that works for both parties. She advises parents to write a clear bullet-pointed document outlining strategies that work for their child as well as those that do not. This document can be referred to regularly and shared with teachers and staff. Gould also encourages parents to meet with all related service staff and assess who can be an ally for their child.

When speaking with school staff, Gould advises parents that it’s okay to be emotional but to remain calm and focused on the message they want to convey. If necessary, it can be helpful to bring in professionals, or even friends or relatives to support you during the conversation. Gould stresses the importance of including administrators in discussions about policies and disciplinary culture, without bypassing classroom teachers.

Greg Santucci, Occupational Therapist & Founder/Director of Power Play Pediatric Therapy

Santucci argues that sticker charts and other forms of extrinsic motivation do not actually encourage children to try harder. Instead, they make children feel sad, inadequate, different from their peers, and as if their teacher only cares for them when they can meet expectations. He emphasizes that the children who did not receive enough stickers may have actually wanted to win, wanted to do well, and wanted to make their teacher happy, but something was hard for them. Santucci stresses this is not “positive” reinforcement. Instead of making children feel bad for failing, Santucci believes that teachers should take the time to understand the barriers that prevented children from meeting their expectations. He acknowledges that this requires time, curiosity, patience, and a good relationship with the child, but he insists that our kids deserve exactly this kind of support. He suggests that teachers should not reduce children’s successes and challenges to a quick and convenient sticker chart and that stickers ultimately support companies that sell them, not the children themselves. Ultimately, Santucci emphasizes that our kids deserve better. 

Moving Beyond Short-Term Fixes In Favor of Long-Term Solutions:

In conclusion, while rewards may seem like an effective way to motivate students in the short-term, they can have unintended consequences that outweigh their benefits. The negative effects of rewards include decreased intrinsic motivation, increased anxiety and shame, promotion of a fixed mindset, decreased generosity and caring nature, promotion of masking, and increased dependence on external validation. Moreover, rewards do not address the underlying reasons for a student’s behavior and may actually exacerbate problems.

As parents and educators, we need to move away from reward-based systems and instead focus on fostering intrinsic motivation, promoting growth mindsets, encouraging empathy and compassion, and addressing the root causes of behavior of concern. This can involve creating a safe and supportive learning environment that encourages risk-taking, learning from mistakes, and collaboration. The key to promoting the long-term success and well-being of students lies in nurturing a sense of intrinsic value and self-worth that is not contingent on external validation. By prioritizing this aspect of their development, we can empower students to chart their own paths and achieve their goals, regardless of the opinions of others. Ultimately, this is the ultimate goal for all students, and by accomplishing it, we can help them lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Download the full PDF version of the article


Allen, S. (2018). The Science of Generosity. Greater Good Science Center. 

Aypay, A. (2018). Is Reward A Punishment? From Reward Addiction to Punishment Sensitivity. International Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies, 2018, 5 (2), 1-11

Cage E., & Troxell-Whitman (2019). Understanding the Reasons, Contexts, and Costs of Camouflaging for Autistic Adults. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 49(5): 1899-1911. doi: 10.1007/s10803-018-03878-x

Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105-115.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.

Deci, E., Ryan, R., Koestner, R. (2001). The Pervasive Negative Effects of Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation: Response to Cameron (2001). Review of Educational Research V.71 No. 1 43-51

Delahooke (2022). Can Rewards and Consequences Make Kids’ Behavior Challenges Worse? 

Dweck, Chi-yue, & Hong (1995) Implicit Theories and Their Role in Judgments and Reactions: A Word From Two Perspectives, Psychological Inquiry, 6:4, 267-285, DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0604_1

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Ballantine Books.

Kohn, A. (2018). Punished by rewards: Punished By Rewards: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kohn, A. (2020) Autism and Behaviorism New Research Adds to an Already Compelling Case Against ABA (website) 

Pink, D. (2011). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books. 

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54-67. doi: 10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

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  • Connie Persike

    Connie is a highly experienced Speech Language Pathologist and Educational Consultant. As founder of Supportable Solutions, she brings 20+ years of experience in educational settings to provide insight, guidance, coaching, and support to school districts, agencies, and families across Wisconsin — and throughout the country — who need expert direction in working with children.

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