Competition and rewards in the classroom

I have heard you speak about the dangers of encouraging overcompetitiveness in young children. My question is how to deal with the situation in a school where my six-year-old, along with the boys at the same table, compete for “An Bord is Fearr”, which means that the “best” table each week gets a prize of jellies at the end of the week. I’m concerned that this might be encouraging competitiveness, and also about using a sweet treat as the reward.

Many young children are naturally competitive and this is a normal and healthy drive, which can be very helpful to them as they grow up, once it is channelled correctly. However, an overemphasis on competitiveness can cause problems for many children.

Those who want to win or to be the best all the time can become unpopular and it can block the formation of real friendships and affect how siblings relate to each other. Even when overcompetitive children do “win”, their “victory” is likely to be resented and not shared by anyone else, which can isolate them.

As parents and teachers, it is important to channel the competitive drive appropriately in children, and to counterbalance it with an emphasis on sharing, teamwork and collective achievement.

Using rewards to encourage cooperation rather than competition
Unfortunately, many parents and sometimes the school system itself can overemphasise competitiveness by praising only achievement and success, and not equally rewarding effort, doing one’s best, being a good team player, and so on.

When I work with parents who have very competitive and high-conflict siblings, I encourage them to shift their focus from praising one child when they are “right” or the “best” and instead praise both children when they show cooperation, care or consideration.

In practical terms, this might mean you first praise the child who waits their turn, who shares or helps another or who commiserates with the child who loses, or congratulates the child who wins.

Collectively, this might mean praising both children when they work as a team together or when they support each other.

Such a shift to this prosocial praise will do wonders for improving the children’s relationships and it can transform family relationships. Paradoxically, you want your children to compete to be the most cooperative child.

Using collective rewards in schools
In relation to whether the system of rewarding the best table in your son’s classroom – “An Bord is Fearr” – is a good idea, the answer is, it depends on what the children are being rewarded for.

It might work well if, for example, the teacher has designed it to reward prosocial skills and learning goals, and the children get points for their table if they listen, share, cooperate, hold their hand up, put effort into learning, and so on.

In addition, it is important that the teacher is clever about how the tables are set up to ensure that over time each child will be on a table that wins the award. This might mean placing children who are struggling at tables with children they work well with or who can support them, and/ or moving children around between tables so they get an experience of being with lots of different children.

Such reward systems work best when they are strategic and focused on an important goal for the class, for example helping the children to work together on a project, or improving the overall behaviour of the class.

Good schools realise the importance of encouraging good cooperation, teamwork and social skills in young children. This provides an important counterbalance to the high levels of stress they will be exposed to in secondary school when they face competitive exams.

Using individual rewards with children
As well as collective rewards, individual rewards are also important at school and at home. As well as rewarding a group of children for teamwork, or two brothers for getting on together, it is also helpful to create individual reward systems depending on the individual child’s needs and what they need to learn. For example, if a child struggles with reading, the teacher might reward with a sticker the next step in the learning process for that child, while for a child who reads well, the teacher might reward the choice of a more challenging book.

For example, if a child struggles with reading, the teacher might reward with a sticker the next step in the learning process for that child, while for a child who reads well, the teacher might reward the choice of a more challenging book. These rewards can be private to the child and certainly, comparisons should not be emphasised.

The goal is to tailor the reward to each child so they are motivated to take the next step on their learning journey. Good schools realise the importance of not comparing children with each other in a competitive way, and instead helping children find their own individual talents and develop their own abilities at their own pace.

Using alternatives to unhealthy food treats
I do share your concern about the use of an unhealthy treat such as jellies in a school context. With the current concerns about childhood obesity, it is important to move from using food treats to other non-food rewards that are equally motivating, and ideally with their own positive benefits.In the school context this might mean rewarding “

In the school context this might mean rewarding “An Bord is Fearr” with stickers or stars, or an extra trip to the school library, a special visit with the principal, or a small trophy they can hold at their desk for the week, or a small colouring pencil or drawing page they can each take home.

While I do believe the occasional use of small food treats at home is fine (indeed it is best to make most of the treats you plan to give your children dependent on good behaviour), these food treats are best avoided at school, and a healthy school policy is important to maintain.

To move forward you could consider sharing your thoughts with the class teacher, first commending him or her for using collective rewards in the classroom, but respectfully suggesting you would prefer non-food treats as rewards.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, October 2015. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
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