The Dark Side of Rewards, Part 2: 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.

In far too many schools today, the use of incentive programs to motivate students has become common practice. However, many research studies have shed light on the potential negative consequences of such programs, raising concerns about their impact on students’ long-term success. By examining the overlap between physical and social pain as well as the psychological implications of incentives, we can better understand why it is crucial to reevaluate the role of rewards in our schools.

A Recent Example: Pizza Party or Long-Term Harm?

A report out of Granger, Iowa, by KCCI DeMoines News Station provides an example of the real-life experience of incentive programs within our educational system. The Woodward-Granger Community School District implemented an incentive program, offering a pizza party for students based on their test results. Students who scored below a cut-off score were left out of the luncheon, those who scored at or above were rewarded with a trip to Pizza Ranch. 

The Woodward-Granger Community School District’s incentive program for students who didn’t score high enough for the annual test was criticized by one parent, who stated she worried about the long-term impact on her child’s mental health. The superintendent of the school district told KCCI it was an incentive program they’ve been doing for eight years to motivate students for the annual test. In response, the superintendent said nobody involved intended to cause hurt feelings or feelings of discrimination, and that the district will not continue this incentive lunch or other incentives related to the statewide assessment in future years (Bowman, 2023). In the subsequent discussion, we will delve into the research that highlights the detrimental effects of such practices on students.

The Science of Social Pain

Studies have demonstrated that there is a real and quantifiable connection between physical and social pain. Research conducted by Eisenberger et al. revealed that the brain processes social exclusion and rejection in a manner similar to physical pain (2003, 2012). The activation of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and anterior insula, associated with distress from physical pain, is also observed during experiences of social pain caused by exclusion and rejection. This shared neural activation highlights the significance of social interactions for human well-being.

Implications for Student Well-Being

When students are subjected to exclusionary practices or witness disparities in rewards, it can lead to negative emotional experiences, lower self-esteem, increased anxiety, and a sense of social exclusion. The Woodward-Granger Community School District’s pizza reward incident serves as a stark reminder of how the fear of not receiving a reward can trigger anxiety and feelings of shame among students. In addition, the potential detrimental effects include stress, negative emotions, and avoidance associated with the fear of not receiving rewards (Aypay, 2018).

Nurturing Connections and Belonging

The fundamental role of a strong sense of school belonging and connectedness cannot be overstated. Ibrahim et al.’s study emphasizes the significance of fostering connections and acceptance between teachers and students (2020). When students feel connected and have a strong sense of school belonging, it positively impacts their overall educational experience and increases their self-worth, social-emotional well-being, emotional stability, positive attitudes toward learning, increased happiness, and overall satisfaction, which studies have shown will go on to  increase their motivation to learn. In contrast, feelings of exclusion and a lack of school belonging can increase distress behaviors, absenteeism, violence, and increases the likelihood they will drop out (Ibrahim et al., 2020). In addition, the overlap between physical and social pain has been linked to anger caused by rejection. 

When you think about how physical and social pain activate the same regions in the brain, it makes more sense why people may act aggressively when they are rejected by people. Socially threatening events can cause physiological stress responses to deal with such threats (Eisenberger, 2011).

The Role of Incentive Programs in Education

Incentive programs, intended to motivate students, often rely on rewards and recognition. However, studies have shown that the potential negative consequences of such programs outweigh their short-term benefits. By focusing solely on rewards, students may prioritize individual achievement over collaborative learning or building relationships with their peers. This can further exacerbate feelings of isolation and hinder the development of crucial social skills. In addition, when they are excluded from incentives like a pizza party, they can experience social exclusion, which activates the same regions in their brain as physical pain.

Embracing Better Paths Forward 

To create a truly inclusive and supportive educational environment that can create a sense of belonging for all, we must shift our focus from external rewards to fostering intrinsic motivation, collaboration, and a sense of belonging. Implementing inclusive practices that value cooperation, empathy, and genuine connections can significantly enhance students’ well-being and academic success. Recognizing and celebrating diverse forms of achievement and growth will empower students to develop a love for learning and foster a sense of self-worth that transcends external rewards.

Providing recognition for effort and progress or allowing students more autonomy can increase intrinsic motivation (Grolnick & Ryan, 1989). Encouraging students to persevere while acknowledging individual strengths can help foster a love of learning based on personal growth and development, rather than through the promise of external rewards (Deci & Ryan, 2000). To promote inclusivity and motivation among all students in their educational environment, we can make a conscious effort to move beyond relying on external incentives and instead cultivate intrinsic motivation by teaching authentic problem-solving skills. This approach has demonstrated its effectiveness in helping students acknowledge and appreciate their unique strengths, effort, and growth.

This Is About More Than Pizza

The pizza reward incident serves as a stark reminder of the potential repercussions of incentive programs in schools. It highlights the need to reevaluate our educational practices and prioritize the emotional well-being of our students. While incentives may offer short-term motivation, they can inadvertently perpetuate feelings of exclusion, anxiety, and shame among students who are left behind.

Drawing upon the research on social pain and the psychological implications of being excluded from incentives, it becomes evident that a shift is necessary. We must move away from a system that places undue emphasis on external rewards and instead cultivate an educational environment that fosters intrinsic motivation, collaboration, and a sense of belonging.

By nurturing positive teacher-student relationships, fostering inclusive practices, and valuing cooperation over competition, we can create a learning environment that promotes genuine engagement and supports the emotional growth of all students. Celebrating diverse forms of achievement and acknowledging the unique strengths of each individual can empower students to develop a love for learning that goes beyond external rewards.

Here are some concrete ways that can serve as alternatives to traditional incentive programs aiming to create a learning environment that fosters students’ growth, engagement, and emotional well-being: 

1. Educate yourself: Familiarize yourself with the research and evidence supporting the drawbacks of traditional incentive programs and the benefits of alternative approaches. Understand the potential negative impact of exclusionary practices and the importance of fostering intrinsic motivation and a sense of belonging.

2. Reflect on current practices: Evaluate the existing incentive programs in your classroom and school. Consider their effectiveness, potential negative consequences, and alignment with the desired learning outcomes, as well as your values as an educator. Reflect on the impact these programs may have on student well-being and long-term motivation.

3. Communicate with colleagues: Engage in discussions with your fellow educators and administrators to share insights and perspectives. Collaborate on finding alternative strategies that prioritize student well-being, motivation, and a positive classroom culture.

4. Communicate with students: Initiate open and honest conversations with your students about motivation, rewards, and the impact of incentives. Discuss the potential drawbacks of external rewards and encourage them to reflect on their own experiences and feelings. Engage students in a dialogue about their intrinsic motivation, personal goals, and ways they find joy in learning.

5. Realize the power of your language: Recognize that your language, as an educator, is a powerful tool in the classroom (Denton et al., 2013). Use your language to provide relevance and meaning to students’ learning experiences. Help them understand the practical applications and real-world connections of the knowledge and skills they are acquiring. By making learning meaningful and purposeful, you can enhance students’ intrinsic motivation (Oudiette et al., 2013; Corbett et al., 2017). 

By implementing these concrete ideas, you can foster an inclusive and supportive educational environment that values cooperation, empathy, and genuine connections. Recognizing and celebrating diverse forms of achievement and growth will empower students to develop a love for learning and a sense of self-worth that can transcend external rewards. Let us embark on this journey together, prioritizing the well-being and intrinsic motivation of our students to create a transformative learning experience.

****This  post has been written based on information provided from a recent article Woodward-Granger students left out of pizza party reward written by KCCI regarding the Woodward-Granger students left out of pizza party reward. The research mentioned is based on general findings related to the impact of exclusion and the benefits of inclusion and belonging in educational settings. While specific studies may not directly address the Woodward-Granger incident, the broader research highlights the significance of these issues and helps us chart a better, healthier path forward.


Aypay, A. (2018). Is reward a punishment? From reward addiction to punishment sensitivity. International Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies, 5(2), 1–11.

Bowman, M. (2023). Woodward-Granger students left out of pizza party reward. Retrieved from

Corbett, B., Weinberg, L., & Duarte, A. (2017). The effect of mild acute stress during memory consolidation on emotional recognition memory. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 145, 34-44.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli1104_01

Denton, P., & Bechte, L. (2013). The power of our words: Teacher language that helps children learn. Center for Responsive Schools Inc.

Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Animal Behavior, 66(1), 1045–1054. DOI: 10.1016/S0003-3472(03)00168-2

Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Physical Science Journal, 282(18), 1650–1652. doi:10.1126/science.1079258

Eisenberger, N. (2011). Why rejection hurts. Edge. Retrieved from

Grolnick, W. S., & Ryan, R. M. (1989). Parent styles associated with children’s self-regulative competence and adjustment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(2), 143–154. doi:10.1037//0022-0663.81.2.143

Ibrahim, A., & El Zaatari, W. (2020). The teacher-student relationship and adolescents’ sense of school belonging. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 25(1), 382–395.

Oudiette, D., Antony, J. W., Creery, J. D., & Paller, K. A. (2013). The role of memory reactivation during wakefulness and sleep in determining which memories endure. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(15), 6672-6678.

Vang, T. M., & Nishina, A. (2022). Fostering school belonging and students’ well-being through a positive school interethnic climate in diverse high schools. School Health, 92(4), 387–395. doi:10.1111/josh.13141

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Categories Education, Equity, People, Rewards and ConsequencesTags
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