Saturday, January 28, 2023

Some Ideas On Rewarding Or Punishing For Grades

Over the years, it appears that there has been a tectonic shift in education wherein there is more of an emphasis on grades rather than on learning itself. Somehow there is this crushing competition from the earliest school experience onward for which nursery, which elementary school, which high school, which college and graduate school a child should attend. Even before birth, parents are already focusing on eating the right foods, listening to the right music, doing the right exercises, etc., in order to maximize brain development and produce a “super” baby. And, consequently, because school admittance often depends on scores and GPA’s, grades have become the locus of the educational experience.

I recall when my own daughter (now 24) was in her third week of second grade in a Hebrew Day School, I got a call from her Judaic studies teacher telling me she was quite concerned about her. Startled, I of course asked why. The teacher went on to explain that she had already given several quizzes and my daughter had not gotten A’s. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Since when was getting a grade less than an A something to cause concern? I responded that I really didn’t care if my daughter got A’s or not, that what I did care about and want was for her to like school, enjoy learning, and like herself. Now it was the teacher’s turn to be startled! To this day, I’m unsure which was more disturbing to her: my daughter’s grades or the fact that the lack of achieving A’s was not crushing to me.

Because so many parents do attach such significance to grades, they often use systems of rewards and punishments in an effort to get their children to achieve the grades they would like them to achieve. The issue is, is this a good idea and what is the efficacy of such a system?

Rewards and punishments are two modalities that parents often use when attempting to influence their children’s behavior. Let’s consider what each term means and what they aim to produce.

Each term has meaning only in regard to actions. A reward is something that is used when one wants to promote or encourage a behavior. Punishment is something that is used when one wants to discourage or extinguish a behavior. How can either be used with regard to grades? And, even more, should they be used here?

What do grades represent? Well, there are a number of possibilities. Usually, we associate high grades with intelligence and/or ability. That can certainly be a valid interpretation. Grades can also be associated with effort, so that someone with solid ability can earn a lesser grade because s/he hasn’t applied that ability in order to get the best grade s/he could possibly achieve. On the other hand, someone with a more moderate ability could earn a high grade because s/he has put in the work required to obtain that grade.

I think most parents recognize that in subjects that are not “academic”— music, gym, art — grades often reflect an innate ability. Some students have natural music or athletic ability and achieve high scores and grades, virtually, by being themselves—providing they show up for class and do not exhibit behaviors that would negatively affect their grades (i.e., numerous absences, lateness, disrespect, ignoring rules and so on). What I think parents have to realize is that in academic subjects as well, natural ability could mean someone earning an A without any effort at all, while her sibling, poring over books, memorizing, studying and applying herself, gets a B. In that scenario, which student is worthy of a reward?

The question is: What is it that the parent wants to reward? Is it the grade or the willingness of the child to invest time and effort in attempting to do his/her best?

If one rewards only the grade, then the lesson being taught is that it is the end that is the entire goal. Perhaps that is what was taught to the myriad of profiteers that caused the current economic crisis in this country. In other words, just sell the mortgage (or the investments, etc.) and make the money. Don’t give any thought to the ethics, the people to whom you are selling something they can’t afford or the people whose savings/retirement funds will be destroyed. Just achieve the goal—money, success, fame —whatever the individual’s intention is. In an extreme case (which really hasn’t been so extreme in recent years in even our best schools), buy a grade, cheat to get the grade— whatever it takes—that’s what will satisfy mom and dad. That is, after all, what they are most interested in.

The other possible negative message that is given is that the child’s value to the parent rests on the marks on the report card. Thus, if the grade is lower than expected, the parent’s love and regard for the child is diminished. A child, in order to grow and flourish, must feel that a parent’s love is for him or herself and not based solely or even mainly on what is accomplished.

On the other hand, if a child is rewarded for effort, for being willing to try, that lesson will be valuable throughout life—to be utilized in maintaining relationships, in trying to get a job, in keeping a job, in developing all kinds of skills.

It is also terribly unfair, unreasonable, in fact, to expect a child who, in spite of great effort, is “only” a B or C student in a particular subject or even across the board, to get grades s/he is just not capable of. Why penalize a child who is working the best with what s/he has been gifted with? We don’t expect the average child to be another Michael Phelps, Air Jordan, or Billie Jean King, why insist s/he be a Louis Pasteur or Madame Curie when the needed “material” just isn’t there and then be disappointed or even furious when what can’t be achieved isn’t achieved.

It is possible to turn a child off completely if, after putting in effort, really trying, a test is returned with a B- and a parent comments, “Where’s the A”? When one, in spite of repeated attempts, is met with cynicism and disappointment, the obvious lesson is, “why bother?” This kind of response on a parent’s part is a punishment, a kind of insidious punishment. A more severe, overt punishment, such as canceling of privileges, is equally or even more damaging.

The above is basically a testament to an overall approach to the theory of rewards and punishment in regard to grades. A last caveat is that there can be particular cases, taken on an individual basis, in which a reward can be offered. If a child really wants to achieve a particular grade, the parent can offer an incentive to encourage extra effort. Or, if a child is feeling somewhat discouraged and is reluctant to attempt something, the parent can, again, offer a reward to help the child overcome his/her reluctance and forge ahead.

The bottom line is, when a reward is offered so that it is for the child’s benefit and not the glory or the satisfaction of the parent, then it is a good and positive thing. When the reward is given so that it affords the parent a reason to gloat or boast, it is being misused.

By Nancy Silberman Zwiebach

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