the dreaded star chart discussion

A topic hotly debates in education; be it classroom or home, is the use, misuse or over use of incentives and rewards.  Books have been written about it.  A very well known one is Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes http://www.amazon.com/Punished-Rewards-Trouble-Incentive-Praise/dp/0618001816/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1313237181&sr=1-1.  The discussion of incentives and rewards in education, of course, blurs with rewands and praise in parenting making the debate that much hotter.

I, personally, for what it is worth, think it is a case of taking a valid point to a silly, even absurd end.  I think we are all smart enough to agree that you CAN over do rewards and incentive programs and evidence of their misuse is not hard to find.  I, also, think we all agree that motivation must be internal for a child to become a successful adult.  However, I truly feel that to shun ALL incentives and rewards due to their occasional misuse is a gross over reaction on par with closing all swimming pools due to one or two drowning.  I think the key is, as in all things, moderation and on going careful evaluation of the system chosen.  Any tools, parental or educational, even the best ones, can alWays be misused; be it stroller, binky or a star chart and treasure box. 

I am sure I am not alone in remembering — with joy — the sticker charts and reward systems of grade school.  All our teachers did them — the BIG 100 poster from Kindergarten that you got to add you name to after you counted correctly to 100 — the reading caterpillars we had each year that you got to add a body part to for each independent book read, the sticker charts that had a sticker for the end of each book in the SQRRR system http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SQ3R .  That was fun, reading at your own pace, checking off the books, and levels, I have to say I really loved that.  But think about it, working at my own pace, working independently, checking off books as I went on a visual chart?  That was a dreaded “star chart” that was supposed to make me lazy and unwilling to complete tasks unless someone give me a shiny sticker for it.  Granted there were others that I rarely got a sticker for, or rarely achieved the necessary levels (never got my 100% spelling test on the board); but somehow that motivated me more to push forward on the things I could excel at.  My point, antidotal thought it is, is to show that success on some “incentive programs” and failure regarding other; did not ruin my ability to self-motivate and get stuff done. 

i do not think in any way it has limited me now, it was fun. I made Dean’s Honor Roll in college without a sticker chart to keep me on track.  I have been very successful at 2 challenging office jobs, no external sticker chart. Now, I do admit a dear love of my day timer and checking items off my to do list. 

In my opinion the incentive systems my grade school teachers used succeded, they had kept me excited about school work and accomplish (checking off) things long enough for me to internalize the drive.  The drive or motivation is now mine, internal, but if there had not been an external frame to encourage me until the seeds planted bloomed internally, who is to say if that internal drive and ability I have to personally set and accomplish goals would be as well honed as it is? 

I see rewards and incentive systems as an external exoskeleton; a framework or scaffolding to be in place until the tender young learner is more hardy and mature and has enough personal history to realistically see a challenge and know it can be met. 

It is hard to love something that is really a struggle; reading, school work, chores.  A perfect example:  reading can be a blast, it is a passion of mine, BUT until you get to the fun level it is hard.  Reading is hard, and can be very challenging and discouraging to a child until they have practiced enough to find their groove and feel successful.  If a star chart, a visual record of books read, a history of challenges over come, and also a goal to work towards, keeps a child engaged, excited and practicing until that child’s ability is more fluid and the child more at ease; then so be it, a star chart is better than fighting.  So if a 1st or 2nd grade is encouraged to push though a book that is a lot of effort for him, by the incentive of 10 books equaling a special pizza lunch, it gets him the practice he needs to make reading easier and fun so that he reads for a the joy of it later in life. 

I feel the idea of teaching / parenting our children without rewards or artificial incentives is in itself artificial.  Yes, that is kinda funny.  I challenge you to sit and color with your favorite 4 yo and NOT tell them “good job” or “nice work” or something like that.  🙂

we all have incentives — they maybe implicit rather than explicate most of the time, and as adults they are self imposed as often as not. I clean up dinner and the kitchen before i sit down with a book — that is self imposed, but i learned it by having the ‘SOP’ created for me and taught to me.  Most adults love their careers, but how many would keep doing it if there was no paycheck?

I think the issues, and discussion, should not be whether or not to use incentives (be it a reward system that earns the child something, or a visual system of accomplishment like a star chart that is the reward itself) but how to use them effective to help a child internalize rather then remain stuck on the external.  I think the discussion would be better directed that the appropriate and most beneficial use; both in timing and application. 

I think the fail comes if the incentives are too easy — my 5 year doesn’t need a potty chart, my 3 (almost 4) year has outgrown his too but they loved the excitement of getting to choose a sticker at one time.  Or if they become the end and not the task; I, personally, do not feel that “come on get that star” should be the main mantra of the classroom.  My older son attended pre-school at the public school part time last year; his classroom did have a “4 good days – happy sticker — = trip to treasure box”.  Big Brother was proud of the fact he never missed a sticker, and he did enjoy the treasure box.  My concern was the times I hear an adult in the class address the loss of a sticker in place of the behavior.  Example:  I was there for ST with my other son and sat outside the room listening (as I often did) a child is messing with another child’s paper, rather than the adult saying “do not mess with Johnny’s paper that is upsetting him” the adult said “you are going to loose a sticker”.  Now, in my view, that is a misuse of the sticker for good behaviors system.  Not that the child would loose the sticker, but that THAT loss of sticker was the discussion point and not the poor choice and the reason for the choice being poor.  Nevertheless that is not the system, which is laziness on the part of the adult using the system and that potential exists in every system; any good tool in life, and parenting or education, can be abused. 

I see star charts and posters and so on as a ‘fun’ thing, a way to make something a bit more visual for a child. A child that makes their bed each day for a month can’t see that accomplishment of diligence — but they can see a full star chart. A child is not going to internalize anything they can’t ‘see’ or stick with long enough to accomplish. 

I am planning to do something with Big brother soon, I am thinking something to earn (or loose) for each day of cheerful cooperation?  Stay tuned for that saga …

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “the dreaded star chart discussion

  1. Crystal

    I am much too lazy to use a sticker chart.

  2. You know, we don’t use sticker charts (um, as I mentioned on Facebook, it’s a lack of anyone remembering to do it). But I don’t mind them IN MODERATION. We used ours (or attempted to use ours) as more of a checklist. These Things Have Been Accomplished Today. We’re considering transitioning to sort of a hybrid system – the stickers will note when something’s been done, but ultimately there’s a reward for doing all of them. (Wally wants an allowance.)

    But you gave a prime example of one of my most hated parenting “things.” The threats. Child does something they’re not supposed to, parental (or teacher) response is “I’m going to do X” instead of “stop doing that” or “do something else.” As much as possible in our house, as long as I’m certain the child knows that the behavior is not acceptable, there’s not a threat. There’s “You need to stop X. How about Y instead?” (there may be more reminders depending on age of child.) But then there is a consequence. “I asked you once to stop doing that. You haven’t stopped. You won’t be able to have TV time this afternoon.”

    The “reward” is taken away, but the focus is on the action. There’s not a neverending series of “if you keep doing that, you’re going to lose your TV time…” “do you want to lose TV time?” “blah blah blah TV Time?” Not only is the focus where it doesn’t belong (on TV time instead of on behavior), but too few people ever follow through. And kids aren’t stupid.

  3. pamela

    Well I could go on for hours here as you well know. But the two things to remember are: everything in moderation, and every child and their needs are different. some kids NEED to SEE what they are doing, it’s not so much about Getting Something or a reward. It’s more about feeling proud about what you have accomplished and remembering what you have accomplished etc. Like you said – they dont remember how many times they made their bed, but to see 7 stars is like WOW! There are LOADS of ideas on what to do and how to do it when it comes to this area – but in the end it’s fun, it’s easy, it’s visual. We did a chart on the computer and then Bri prints it out at work on larger paper for the kids. We use it more as a “check list” of things we “need to do” rather than “chores list” or something like that. For my boy who is 8.5 it’s a great way to remind him “what’s next”. so I’ll say “ok you cleared the table, thanks. go give yourself a star. Ok now check what’s next.” Gives him the responsiblilty of checking and following through since he’s older. WE have weeks when I get lax, especially summer! Also one other note for those with kids in school or using baby sitters or whatever – we try to be consistent. so if a star means “good” and a check mark means “oops” then we try and work together and be consistent. Bravo mamma Aimee. nice work!

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