From “Shame on You” to “I Love You”: How Eliminating Punishments and Rewards Increases Student Motivation

Byline: Jenny Shannon

If you Google “How to motivate students” it generates a staggering 633,000,000 pieces of content. Though student motivation is at the forefront of every educator’s mind, there has been a dramatic uptick in lack of motivation among students post-pandemic. In fact, forty-one percent of secondary school educators believe their students are very unmotivated or somewhat unmotivated. Researchers are diving deeper into the incentivized methods and punishment models traditionally used to motivate students. The results may surprise the general public, but Conscious Discipline practitioners have seen them for decades: Systematic rewards and punishments are detrimental to students’ worldview, wellbeing, academic success, sense of safety, and quality of work. Understanding how punishments and rewards cause damage can help those still relying on traditional methods to embrace the power of intrinsic motivation.

 

The Damaging Nature of Punishments

In most elementary schools you can still hear statements like the following: “If you can’t stay in your seat, you can’t go outside for recess.” Somehow, we have come to interpret these threats as being motivational or in the children’s best interests, rather than as an intent to cause harm for their lack of skills. This mindset holds that children who don’t comply deserve the prescribed punishment for their “defiance.”

Whether or not we like to admit it, punishment is rooted in threat and an intent to harm. It communicates to the student that if they do something bad, something bad will be done to them in return. The threat of punishment forces students into the lower centers of their brain where survival, not achieving, is the main function. It also creates an educational environment that inhibits learning, even as it tries to encourage it. While many school systems continue to use punishment models, Conscious Discipline operates from research that shows the human brain needs to experience a felt sense of safety and belonging to learn— regardless of whether that learning is academic, behavioral, or social. “Increasing harshness only reinforces instability and harm,” says Conscious Discipline’s creator, Dr. Becky Bailey. Punishments strip safety and belonging from the student, leaving them feeling vulnerable and alone. This can cause academic performance, self-esteem, and overall wellbeing to plummet.

 

Rewards and Incentives

As evidence about the ineffectiveness of punishments increased, many schools began to shift to “positive” discipline methods like rewards and incentives. We now know that these methods have the potential to be equally damaging to student well-being, mental health, and motivation. To continue with the recess example, a reward like “Students who show improvement will get five extra minutes of recess” is perceived as a threat in the brain. Though the intent is to reward compliance or achievement, it operates from students’ fear of missing out. The less likely a student is to achieve the reward, the more acute the fear and the less their brain is able to function in the desired ways. The greater the reward, the greater the threat. Students who already possess the desired skills and the self-control to be successful will continue to be successful and earn the rewards. Students who lack the skills or can’t harness the self-control required to consistently meet the reward requirements often enter a spiral of increased frustration and decreased motivation, self-esteem, and sense of worth.

Rewards and incentives also function on an external basis. They focus on others’ judgments in service of external personal gain. A student’s behavior and self-worth become contingent on whether they perform in a way that someone else expects or deems acceptable. This places the focus on others’ judgments of their performance, rather than the development of internal skills, reflection, self-assessment, and values such as a love of learning, sense of self, curiosity, personal interests and empathy. It also reinforces the idea that happiness and accomplishment are achieved through outside sources rather than internal ones. In this way, rewards and incentives systematically teach children to rely on the judgment of others as a driving force, and to view their own behaviors and accomplishments in terms of “what will I get” rather than developing an intrinsic positive regard for their accomplishments. Later in life, this can lead to valuing others’ voices above their own and relying on outside sources for pleasure or fulfillment (status, shopping, eating, alcohol, drugs, and other addictions).

With classrooms full of both neurotypical and neurodivergent students, promoting rewards for desirable outcomes and behaviors also encourages students to “mask” behaviors and academic struggles, or downplay issues that require a teacher or administrator’s attention (Alliance Against Exclusion and Restraint). Because only positive behaviors are rewarded, struggles are unintentionally frowned upon, and students go without the help they need. This leads to a cycle of repetitive, undesirable behaviors and outcomes that often go unaddressed well into adulthood.

 

Intrinsic Motivation is Possible: Here’s How

Moving away from incentivized systems is not only possible, but necessary for optimal health, academic success, and emotional and behavioral growth. At Conscious Discipline, we teach that shifting our perspective from seeing poor behavior to seeing missing skills; from punishing and rewarding behaviors to teaching skills and expectations; and focusing on safety, connection and problem solving are the keys to making the switch from traditional models to a healthy, intrinsically focused School Family model.

The first shift that needs to take place is to change our perspective of behavior and how we respond to it. All behavior is a form of communication. Mostly, what students are communicating to us when they “act out” or “misbehave” is that they are missing a set of skills, or they lack the ability to apply the skills they possess. Traditionally, we respond to this display with a form of punishment. When punishments don’t have the desired effect, we tend to increase the harshness of the punishment. This usually backfires, fostering unhealthy connections and reinforcing unsafe environments. Children can’t learn that way! Actions are always preceded by intentions. Our intention as we approach a situation influences the outcome in profound ways. Approaching situations with positive intent can bond us together, enhance communication, and foster goal achievement by focusing on seeing the best in others (Dr. Becky Bailey). We must ensure our positive intent is clear to foster a sense of safety and belonging. This means making the shift from judging behaviors (which leads to shame, a decrease in self-esteem, and a general feeling of unsafety) to noticing behaviors. For example, “Your fingers are balled up tightly like this and your mouth is turned down like this. You seem angry. You wanted Michael to choose you as his partner, and not Jason.” (This is referred to as the “D.N.A. Process.”) Simply noticing communicates to the student that you are aware they are struggling without judging the feelings or the circumstances that inspired the struggle. This provides a foundation on which to build the nurturing connections that promote the acquiring of new skills, academic success, and student well-being. With positive intent, we see the need behind the behavior and seek to meet it. From this space, a new approach to discipline emerges, as shown in the behavior chart below:

Traditional Discipline vs Conscious Discipline

It can’t get any simpler than this: disconnected children are disruptive children who often “don’t care.” Students who don’t feel a relational connection built on safety and belonging don’t feel motivated to cooperate or behave in helpful ways. This is why punishment-based models have repeat offenders and incentive-based models see the same students at the prize box again and again. Conscious Discipline knows that students who are engaged and feel safe enough to reflect on their choices can, and will, access intrinsic motivation and self-regulation to guide their behaviors. No amount of punishment or reward will create lasting behavior changes for children who feel unsafe, disconnected, or unworthy. Some ways Conscious Discipline emphasizes connection include empathy, encouragement, the School Family, I Love You Rituals, Brain Smart Start, and structures like the Kindness Tree, Celebration Center, Ways to be Helpful, and We Care Center. Structures that support connection help to build a healthy School Family from the ground up. Healthy connections also provide opportunities or repair relationships that are unhealthy or at-risk. Establishing connection aids the necessary perspective shift from “making children behave” to “helping children be successful”.

We often use “punishments” and “consequences” interchangeably, but they are distinct in their intent. Punishments are rooted in judgement, rely on extrinsic motivation and/or threat, and focus is on what not to do. Consequences, as applied in Conscious Discipline, encourage self-reflection, teach how to solve problems, show children that mistakes are opportunities to learn, and focus on the behaviors we want to see. The table below summarizes key differences:

Punishments Consequences
Make children suffer or “pay”  Teach children how to solve problems 
Cause children to fear making mistakes  Show children that mistakes are opportunities to learn 
Rely on judgement  Rely on reflection and personal responsibility 
Provide extrinsic motivation to please others and avoid physical/emotional pain  Provide intrinsic motivation to use or learn new skills
Focus on whatnotto do  Focus on what to do 

 

Logical consequences are consequences that are applied and supported by adults. To be effective, both adult and child must experience the following:

  • Feel connected. (Power of Love, Skill of Positive Intent)
  • Able to reflect on their choices and the outcomes of these choices. (Power of Intent, Skill of Consequences)
  • Able to take responsibility for the outcomes of their actions. (Power of Intent, Skill of Consequences) (Dr. Becky Bailey)

 

The entirety of the Conscious Discipline methodology supports the connection, reflection, and personal responsibility required for consequences to create behavior change. Buoyed by the adult’s Power of Intention, consequences allow children to see the outcome of their actions and how their choices affect themselves and those around them. The consistent use of consequences over punishments elevates student well-being and intrinsic motivation, thus increasing social and academic success.

For nearly 30 years, Conscious Discipline practitioners have empowered students to thrive by creating educational environments where safety, connection, and problem solving are the focus. Learning environments built on rewards and punishments do not have the capacity to create a safe and supportive environment, and in many cases, perpetuate disconnected spaces of fear, bias, and harm. For students to flourish in the quality of their work, their academic success, the wholeness of their self-concept, and their ability to live integrated and connected lives, it is essential to shift away from reward and punishment and into an intrinsically motivated, brain-based model such as Conscious Discipline.

 

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