Rewarding children in the classroom need not involve candy and other foods that can undermine children’s diets and health and reinforce unhealthful eating habits. A wide variety of alternative rewards can be used to provide positive reinforcement for children’s behavior and academic performance.
“It’s just a little treat”: the harm in using food to reward children
Schools should not only teach children how to make healthy choices and to eat to fulfill nutritional needs, but also should provide an environment that fosters healthy eating. Providing food based on performance or behavior connects food to mood. This practice can encourage children to eat treats even when they are not hungry and can instill lifetime habits of rewarding or comforting themselves with food behaviors associated with unhealthy eating or obesity. Awarding children food during class also reinforces eating outside of meal or snack times. Since few studies have been conducted on the effect of using food rewards on children’s long-term eating habits, the best policy is not to use food to reward children for good behavior or academic performance. At a minimum, children should not be rewarded using foods of poor nutritional quality. (Note: for more information on classroom parties, see http://bit.ly/schoolparties.)
The value of rewarding children (with non-food rewards)
As teachers know, classroom rewards can be an effective way to encourage positive behavior. Children, like everyone, alter their actions based on short-term anticipated consequences. When trying to foster a new behavior, it is important to reward a child consistently each time he/she does the desired behavior. Once the behavior has become an established habit, rewards can be given every now and then to encourage the child to maintain the preferred behavior. The ultimate goal of rewarding children is to help them internalize positive behaviors so that they will not need a reward. Eventually, self-motivation will be sufficient to induce them to perform the desired behavior, and outside reinforcement will no longer be necessary.