Why are rewards and consequences still used in early year’s settings?????

Why are rewards and consequences still used in early year’s settings????? 150 150 Jane Evans

Are rewards and consequences still used in early years settings because there are no alternatives? Or is something else going on? When I Google searched reward charts there was such a variety of them I realised how big an issue I am facing by saying they should not be used in any early years settings or schools!

I can see that they are:

  • Still very popular
  • Money makers
  • A trusted system based on rats in boxes
  • Believed to be better than shouting or physical punishment
  • Widely used in early years settings and schools

Let’s deal with these points one at a time.

  • Still very popular

Thanks to the likes of Super Nanny reward charts and consequences are still very popular with parents which I can understand, and with parenting coaches and advisers, which I can’t understand, as they should be now, know and do better!

  • Money makers

Anyone who designs and makes a reward and consequence based chart, programme, parenting course, TV programme, and markets is well, is partly on to a winner as they seem  safe and familiar to most people.

  • A trusted system based on rats in boxes

It can sound quite sensible to talk about training children using a basic pleasure/avoidance principle. Indeed, years ago two American psychologists, Watson and Skinner, set out to prove this by using food rewards and electric shocks to shape animal behaviours.

Unfortunately, J.B. Watson and B. F. Skinner believed this could equally be applied to children and their behaviour. Watson even created an awful experiment where a 9 month old baby, Albert, was repeatedly shown a white rat at the same time a loud bang was made. Unsurprisingly he went on to develop a very real and lasting fear of white rats!

“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.” B.F. Skinner

  • Believed to be better than shouting or physical punishment

Teaching children that they can earn praise, points, stars, smiley faces, beads, sweets, or money and treats for ‘good behaviour’, or lose any or all of them, be put in to time-out, or lose a favourite possession or activity can appear preferable to being hit or shouted at. However, I’m not sure it’s even helpful to try and hold one up against the other as they all cause a range of anxiety, loss of power, fear, stress and distress to children.

  • Still widely used in settings and schools

Hardly a week passes when I don’t hear on social media, in conversation, during training or a coaching session about a setting using a range of rewards and consequences for pre-school aged children. Charts with children’s faces on pegs which get moved up and down to the chart to faces ranging from beaming, to sad and disapproving, alternatively weather-related, transport focused, star encrusted etc. surely we can do better than this?!

What do children learn from rewards and consequences?

  • I have to keep the adults happy
  • If I make a mistake I am going to be shamed and the adults will be unhappy
  • I must follow the adult rules
  • Deny, hide, deny
  • If I get things wrong I am in trouble
  • I am an angry child
  • I hurt others
  • I am bad
  • If the adults are happy life is better
  • It’s stressful being around these adults as sometimes they get upset with me
  • Life is better if I look, act, and say certain things
  • I am not acceptable just as I am
  • I have to get things right
  • They will tell my parents what I did to upset them
  • My parents will be upset with me
  • No one looks with compassion beyond what I have done to understand why?

What about us?

If we had to spend all day in an unpredictable atmosphere of pleasing others (some of us do) we would be nervous wrecks and hate going to work. Or we’d learn the rules and do them pretty much most of the time to make life easy because we have fully developed pre-frontal cortex in our brains. When this brain area works well, we can control our impulses, learn and follow rules and social norms, avoid confrontation, hide our mistakes and keep the bosses sweet!

On the other hand, children have vastly under-developed brains and nervous systems, no power over their own environment, or say-so in their daily lives. They can only learn by doing, trying and seeing the responses they get from the adults they depend upon for safety, emotional and physical comfort and support, fun, relationship, kindness, food, water, warmth, and opportunities to explore and experiment.

From these responses children learn:

  • How likeable and acceptable they are
  • How much they matter to others
  • How much they should value themselves
  • What behaviours lead to the greatest amount of connection with the adults they depend upon
  • Who to turn to, or avoid, when things go wrong

Vital life-lessons and connections get made based upon the experiences young children have in early years care

After parents and carers, early years professionals have the greatest influence on a child’s development and physical and mental health. Leaders of early years provisions need to be well-educated in alternatives to lazy, harmful, outdated rewards and consequence based systems. From the past 25 years of neuroscience there exists a wealth of research and knowledge, which folks like me share in our training, speaking and writing.

It has to make sense for every child that they should ONLY be treated with kindness whatever they have done, and however often they repeat it. This is the ONLY way a child can really learn about life as they are then able to remain calm enough to access their fullest brain capacity and to make new connections in their rapidly developing brain.

If we choose to work with children, we must choose to only teach in a compassionate way within a caring, accepting relationship. I have seen it work seamlessly in Lullaby Lane Nursery and know of other settings who work tirelessly to put this in place. Once it becomes the only way, it will be the norm for everyone who sets foot across a setting’s threshold which will leave children free to explore, make mistakes, try again and feel totally accepted regardless of what they have, or haven’t done. It is possible; it takes courage but is the only way, given what we now know about what children really need to be happy and healthy.

Thanks Kirsty Lee of gentle parenting memes for this!









Jane Evans

Jane is a ‘learn the hard way’ person. She has learnt from her personal experiences and her direct work with people who have often been in really bad places emotionally, relationally, practically and sometimes professionally.

All stories by: Jane Evans
  • Vicky Chanin

    This is a very interesting idea. In a class of 30+ with academic targets and limited staff, what’s the alternative to a reward system ? And consequences can be done to increase understanding rather than punitively. Within the current system, how can it be done without rewards/consequences?

    • Jane Evans

      A very good question Vicky. That is what I train schools and early years settings on as it requires a whole school approach and a change in mindset from all of the adults concerned so that relationships are the priority and every child is treated with compassionate responses and teaching for any behaviours.

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