Stories from my personal journey learning about and delivering Nature-rooted programs across three different countries

Do rewards and punishments actually change behaviour?

Caylin (Forest Schoole)
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There's an 8 year old girl named Isabelle who comes to Forest School from the PRU. For the most part, she's delightful. She's always been very respectful towards us and is eager to join in and help with 'chores', like making hot chocolate, cooking and washing up.

Occasionally, she has minor altercations with the other children, but from what I've witnessed, they have always been a reaction to being provoked in some way.

Today, a PRU staff member who works directly with Isabelle back at school joined us at Forest School for the first time. I observed how Isabelle interacted with this staff member and noticed how Isabelle teased her and put her down (like telling her there was a spider in her hair when there wasn't or asking her to try balancing on the rope bridge and then laughing at her when she struggled).

When the staff member would ask her to do something Isabelle would often deliberately disobey her. I witnessed one significant moment when I was helping Isabelle put up some ropes for rope bridges. I was finishing off tying a rope around a tree when Isabelle started to stand on the rope.

I asked Isabelle if she would mind waiting until I was finished tying the knot. She got off for a moment but then immediately got back on. The staff member quickly stepped in before I could react and told Isabelle she had lost 'points' of some sort back at school because she wasn't doing what she was told.

She threatened that if Isabelle carried on, more points would be lost. Isabelle did not move from the rope and they stared at each other in a stand off, both obviously frustrated and unwilling to back down. Finally, Isabelle stepped off the rope, as it seemed the fear of what her punishment would be overtook her stubbornness to 'win' the stand off.

The staff member was using a classic approach to behaviour management widely accepted by our society: reward and punishment. So, did this approach work? Well, yes, in the sense that Isabelle got off the rope.

But this was only short term. Did the approach really work to CHANGE Isabelle's behaviour long term? Well, no, because a few minutes later she came back to step on the rope again when the staff member wasn't looking...

So why didn't the reward/punishment approach work? To answer this question, we need to delve deeper into what drives behaviour. Our behaviour is regulated by the part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex or our 'thinking brain'.

This area acts as CEO and “controls all higher brain functions such as impulse control, emotional regulation, reasoning, judgement, decision making, planning and problem solving” (Tennant, 2005).

We take in information from a variety of internal and external factors, like the weather, hunger, physical pain, social conflict and make decisions about how we should behave to fulfil our physical and emotional needs. Sometimes when we are under stress, our 'thinking brain' is hijacked by another part of the brain called the amygdala, a structure inside of our emotional centre of our brains, which controls our stress response.
Under stress, the amygdala overrides our 'thinking brain' in order to make us act quickly in dangerous situations rather than waiting around for us to 'think' about what to do. Even when stress is not life-threatening, the amygdala can still come into play and effect our behaviour, causing us to act in irrational or emotional ways (Tennant, 2005).

So, if we accept that we make decisions (or, when stressed, our amygdala makes decisions for us) about our behaviour based on our own, internal needs then you can see how a system of rewards and punishments – which supports the view that behaviour is controlled by external forces – would be ineffective.

Though the intention is to foster considerate behaviour in children, the use of rewards and punishments can actually contradict this. Additionally, Louise Porter (2003) suggests there are some dangers associated with it that can cause problems with children's development, such as:

Danger to self-confidence:
By using a controlling method to manage behaviour, you take away children's autonomy. Autonomy is a fundamental need which gives people the confidence to make decisions about their own lives. When taken away, it can have a negative impact on mental health.

Danger to self-esteem:
Rewards and punishments are based on an adult's judgment of how good or bad a child's behaviour was. This can lead to the child thinking that another's opinion of them counts more than their own.

Danger to motivation for learning:
Rewards and punishments are extrinsically rather than intrinsically motivated, meaning the child is behaving in a way so as to get a reward or to avoid punishment rather than for the sake of learning.

Danger to creativity & resilience:
Rewards and punishments can make children fear making mistakes, so they are less likely to try something new.

Danger to self-regulation:
When rewards and punishments are given out, Children are not taught to monitor and regulate their own behaviour, but rather come to believe this is the responsibility of an adult or other authority figure.

Danger to social & emotional intelligence:
Rewards and punishments focus a child's mind on what will happen to THEM if they exhibit inconsiderate behaviour. If the reward or punishment is removed, how will that child choose to behave then? Surely, we should be teaching children that considerate behaviour requires thinking about OTHERS.

Danger to development of problem-solving skills:
Our education goals are to teach children to problem-solve and think critically, but rewards and punishments teach them the opposite when it comes to behaviour – that they must obey, do as their told and not question it.

Danger to vulnerability:
Rewards and punishments teach children to comply with directions given by an adult or figure of authority. This can make children more susceptible to abuse as they'll be less likely to protest or object to it when it comes from a person of authority.
So if rewards and punishments don't actually work long-term, what approach can we take? Porter (2003) recommends a 'guidance approach' which aims to teach thoughtful behaviour as opposed to compliance. A guidance approach involves the following:
  • Be a leader, not a dictator! Earn respect through building a strong relationship rather than exerting control.
  • Observe and respond to children's needs – showing consideration will influence them to do the same to others.
  • Acknowledge when a child behaves considerately rather than praise - “They are not good people when they please us, and bad people when they displease us. It is not up to us to judge or label them, but we can say when we appreciate their considerate behaviour” (Porter, 2003, pg. 23).
  • Use guidelines rather than rules – rules are what NOT to do and usually outline punishments if not adhered to. Guidelines tell children what TO do.
  • Remember that mistakes in behaviour is part of natural development - “Just as we would not punish toddlers for falling over, so too we should not punish children for behavioural mistakes. Mistakes are natural at all ages, and are an occasion for teaching children how to be more skillful, rather than a reason to punish” (Porter, 2003, pg. 24).
  • Look to resolve, not blame – demonstrate communication skills through listening and problem-solving.
  • Teach skills for self-control – accept that sometimes 'misbehaviour' is a result of a child being emotionally overwhelmed. Though they may know that hitting another child out of frustration is not ok, they are unable to act on that information because of their overwhelmingly strong feelings. Teach them self-calming methods to better control their impulses next time (deep breaths, quiet time).

All of the above takes time. It's an ongoing process that requires us adults to practice a lot of mindfulness and awareness to change our habits. But a simple place to start is to become better at communicating YOUR needs to children when they behave inconsiderately. Instead of trying to exert control, simply tell them how their behaviour made you feel.

I used this method with Isabelle shortly after her stand off with the staff member and found it worked quite well...

After securing the first rope for the rope bridge, I was finishing off tying a second rope and Isabelle came to jump on the rope again. I said, “Would you mind waiting a moment Isabelle? If you jump on this rope before I finish tying, it will undo my knot and all the hard work I put into it. That would make me feel sad.” Isabelle stopped immediately and waited for me to finish.

Porter L (2003) Young Children's Behaviour 2nd Edition, Paul Chapman Publishing, London.
Tennant, V (2005) The Powerful Impact of Stress,, 12/03/2016.

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