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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Should parents reward (or "bribe") their kids for good grades?

Yes, but for some, not all children.

For most kids, it's not a question of if but of how. How should you reward your child or teen for good grades?

One well-known economist, Steven D. Levitt tried an experiment that you can read more abou there: Levitt's goal was to get kids to try harder on tests. The results showed that giving the kids money before the test and taking it back if they performed poorly worked best (this is called loss aversion).

For most parents, I wouldn't recommend Levitt's approach. I would recommend incentives in the form of a token economy. Also, I recommend rewarding effort, not good grades (outcome); a bonus for achieving high grades is okay, but it shouldn't be the primary focus.

A bribe is something that you give 
someone to do something illegal or bad. 
A reward is for good behavior.

Doing homework requires lots of energy. Children and teens have a
greater challenge: not only does the brain use more than 25% of their
body's energy, it is also doing a tremendous amount of growing.
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    When should kids be rewarded for good grades?

    First, there's no need to reward kids who are already high performers and who know how to spend time studying; in this case, rewards can actually decrease motivation; you're better-off finding some other behavior to reward. 
     Kids who are high performers but don't spend much time studying, or kids who are poor performers should be considered for incentives. Children who are poor performers but spend a lot of time studying, should be evaluated for other issues, like test anxiety, sleep habits, study habits, general health, and other learning problems.
     Classroom behavior problems can be ameliorated with proper behavior modification; behavior modification plans should be developed by a professional who understands applied behavior analysis or behavior modification. 

     When it comes to classroom behavior problems, children are often labeled as ADHD. ADHD is a behavioral syndrome where the behavior problems are primarily in a classroom setting; these behavior problems are most often related to parent-child relationship problems, relationship problems with a teacher or students, or the use of corporal punishment by parents; many parents need Child Behavior Management training or Parent Management Training in order to learn how to effectively parent. For example, the over-use of punishments is common and underlies parent-child relationships and often leads to anti-social behaviors of children (oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder); so, children who are spanked, hit or slapped will very often misbehave in school and show a lack of interest in academics. Their attention-span is not the problem.

Why do some kids have such a hard time doing homework?

There are many reasons for this. Homework is heavy on energy consumption, but low on reward. Compare doing homework to watching TV or playing a video game - the latter is high on reward and low on energy consumption. With homework, the brain's energy output is high and satisfaction is low. When kids do homework, they often get little or no attention; in fact, many kids get no attention or negative attention from parents, "do your homework!" These factors underlie the lack of motivation. Humans, like any other animal, tend to avoid activities with a high-to-low cost-to-benefit ratio. Additionally, parents will often complain about the amount of homework, and kids will think that they're "missing out" on fun things by having to do homework. It's almost impossible for many kids to understand the extreme future economic costs of academic mediocrity or failure, and the economic divide between the educated and uneducated is rapidly growing. I think there are many parents that fail to understand this, too.

It's not normal for people to want to 
workout or do homework on a regular basis. 
People have to learn to do these behaviors; the 
motivation will not come naturally.

What does it mean to "learn" a behavior?

     It's very important for parents and students to understand the two types of learning. First, there is mental learning and second, behavioral learning. Mental learning is acquiring knowledge through reading, listening to lectures, talking with people, and analyzing information. Behavioral learning is about developing the ability to perform a behavior consistently, when and how it should be performed.
     Mental learning is easier than behavioral learning. For example, it's easy to tell or show someone how and why they should brush their teeth. However, just telling someone how and why will not equate to them brushing their teeth and flossing twice-a-day 365 days a year. The behaviors oral hygiene can only be learned by doing. More importantly, consistency or "habit formation" is difficult to achieve, because the number of times required to develop a habit is very high for things like doing homework or chores.
    In this simple example, where does the motivation to brush teeth comes from? It comes from the knowledge that not brushing has all sorts of negative outcomes (bad breath, cavities, illnesses, shorter life). So, the worry and fear of these bad things provides the energy (motivation) to do the behavior. However, fear-based motivation will only last 1-3 weeks for most kids. This is why scared-straight programs don't work.

    Kids need to learn to do 
what they don't feel like doing 
when they don't feel like doing it. 
In simple terms, they need to learn 
to push themselves.

     The capacity to "push" or self-motivate is increased through repetition. Parents need to ignore and not worry about the whining and complaining that kids do; don't worry about "being the bad guy" with the kids; resistance to chores, like homework, is normal and should be expected. Really, parents are no different. Parents procrastinate. Parents come-up with excuses. Parents are inconsistent. It's not easy to teach a child how to self-motivate if you're not good at it yourself; and, kids will notice your hypocrisy, even if they don't say anything about it.

     Most people are not really good at anything, because, they never learned to self-motivate. They never pushed themselves to practice 15 minutes a day, or read the next chapter, or take the next class. How many people do you know who dabbled in 10 different things, but never finished anything. It's easy and fun to start a project. It gets tedious to complete it. This is why it's important to provide incentives for chores and homework. 

     If kids learn to sit and do homework for 2-4 hours a night, then they'll be prepared for college. If a child gets straight-A's it doesn't mean they have good study habits. They still might be procrastinators who mastered testing, but really didn't retain the information for future use. They learned how to "cram" for one test, but never learned to plan, organize, and pace themselves. They never learned to delay gratification, put-off fun things for work, and actually found that the fun things are more fun if you put them last, not first. Also, there will be no guilt or shame that is related to procrastinating.

    It's a myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Sure, some habits form in a few weeks. Sleep habits seem to form in just a few nights. However, chore habits can take a year of consistently performing the behavior before it becomes a true habit. Since people often expect the behavior to get easier, they quit too soon. By now, we've all heard that persistence is the trait most associated with success - this is true. Some people hold onto ideas that talent is inherited, "you got your father's gift for..." gardening, music, or some other non-genetic set of behaviors. The fact is that the real gift is learning to push oneself to do what you don't feel like doing when you don't feel like doing it. 

We become what we do
and then 
we do what we have become.

Mental Health Advice Disclaimer: The information included in this post and blog are for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional mental health treatment or medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her mental health provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a mental health or medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information on this website does not create a therapist-patient relationship.

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