Classroom rewards are a great way to motivate children towards a goal. Most of the time, these rewards come in the form of food – a pizza party for meeting a fundraising goal, candy for good behavior, or ice cream after a difficult test. But with the concerns we have about childhood obesity, not to mention starting a habit that could potentially last a lifetime, do we really need to reward kids with food?
Obesity among children has doubled over the past 20 years and has become a national concern. New government regulations about school breakfasts, lunches, and snacks (ie: vending machines in schools) has become much stricter. Shouldn’t we as parents and teachers follow suit?
It’s not just about obesity. Starting a habit of rewarding yourself with food every time you reach a goal can be detrimental once you reach adulthood. Diet programs often stress non-food rewards for each weight loss goal reached. And while you could opt for healthy snack rewards instead of candy, there probably aren't a lot of kids who would be ecstatic over receiving a plate of carrots for their achievements.
Another issue is the growing number of children with food allergies. As the mother of a food-allergic child, it is stressful to be told the night before of a party that will happen the next day and to bring something appropriate for my daughter. The alternative – she sits out on a reward she clearly deserves.
Other disadvantages to using food as a reward include:
• Undermining the nutrition education being taught in the school environment
• Encouraging the consumption of foods high in added sugar and fat
• Teaching kids to eat when they aren’t hungry
A better option would be to offer non-food rewards that are just as meaningful, and sometimes even more so. Plus, often, they are just as cheap or even free!
How about a few extra minutes of playground time? As we are clearly lacking in physical activity during the school day, it is the perfect option for restless kids and a perfect alternative to “sugaring them up” for the afternoon. More ideas include:
• If kids have assigned seats, have them sit in a different seat for a day or during a particular activity so they can be closer to their friends.
• Teachers – offer to wear a silly outfit, hat, or costume. Kids love it when their teachers act a little crazy. It offers a bonding moment as well.
• Let the kids dress up! Kids love to have a pajama day, crazy hair day, backward day, etc. Plus, it’s more visible to other kids in the school so that they have motivation as well to earn a reward.
• Afternoon movie – if kids have been working hard, give them a short break and offer a movie. Or maybe hold a dance in the middle of the afternoon. Or set up some kind of game like bingo or Pictionary. (You’ll actually find that kids are more productive after a fun break.)
• Have lunch outside on a pretty day.
• Offer stickers to put on notebooks, trinkets such as magnets or Frisbees.
• A one-time homework free pass.
• One teacher my daughter had last year offers “Funny Bucks” that can be saved and turned in for special prizes like books, toys, etc.
• Create a “passport” where the children collect stamps for certain achievements. When the book is full, they can receive a prize (this way everyone is working toward the same goals).
• Have children earn tickets (which can be purchased very cheaply from a dollar store). Write their name on the back and put in a large jar. Each week, a name is drawn from the jar for a prize. More good deeds = more tickets in the jar!
• Kids love to hear their names over the intercom. Perhaps the school can begin a program where one child is nominated each month based on a set of criteria for an individual reward that includes the principal honoring them over the loudspeaker.
• Recognize a child’s achievements with a photo in a prominent place within the school.
• Little kids love to feel special by eating with the teacher or principal (or their favorite art/music/PE teacher), or by being named “special helper for the day.”