How Parents Can Use Rewards to Encourage Learning

Friday, December 2, 2016 -- Elaine Ho

We know that children sometimes need a little push when it comes to schoolwork. The question parents are left with, then, is whether or not offering rewards is an appropriate way to encourage learning. Many parents (and teachers) are firm believers that rewards—whether in the form of treats, experiences, money, etc.—are a great way to incentivize students and boost academic achievement. On the other hand, plenty of parents argue that rewards can diminish children’s internal motivation toward the task itself and children end up just going through the motions to get their prize.

As with so many things in life, the research points to moderation. Studies have shown that, used at the right time, external motivators can help children complete a task which they would have not wanted to do previously. By encouraging children to accomplish something new or different with a prize or reward, it eventually helps them develop greater interest or build skills which they might not have done on their own.

So, as a parent, when should you consider using a reward to incentivize your children—without letting the practice become too much of a good thing? Here are four best practice tips for rewarding your children in ways that are healthy and effective in the long term.

1. Reward learning with more learning

Who says that a reward itself can’t have educational value? When you’re thinking about how to incentivize your children, consider rewards that will build upon the learning or skill they’re working toward. Here’s an example with reading: set a goal with your children to finish three books over the winter break. When they meet the goal, reward them with a trip to your local bookstore to pick out a new book of their choice! Or, if you’ve set a goal for your children to improve their grades in math to a certain level, reward them for doing so by purchasing a game like Minecraft for them—they’ll have fun and continue building logic and problem-solving skills. Get creative with rewards to foster a love of learning itself.

2. Incentivize your children with privileges and choice

Studies show that giving children choice in what they learn results in greater autonomy, self-esteem, and cognitive development. So, making the privilege of greater choice a reward is a great strategy! For example, if your children meet a goal of finishing a big science project over the weekend, reward them by allowing them to take their pick of a family outing to a museum nature center, or zoo the following weekend. This gives your children greater control over their own learning, and boosts their confidence as students.

3. Use praise and encouragement as intangible rewards

Consistently using small things like money, snacks, or TV time as rewards for a certain kind of academic performance can actually undermine your efforts to cultivate an internal motivation to learn.  Students may become overly reliant upon those things as a motivator to tackle the task, putting you in a bind to use them in order to “bribe” a certain behavior. Instead, remember that words can be a more meaningful reward. Praise your children for their character traits, like perseverance through difficult tasks, overcoming initial failures, or displaying critical thinking and insight. By taking the focus off of final outcomes like letter grades and prizes, you can encourage your children to build and exhibit valuable soft skills which will serve them better in the long run.

4. Help your children achieve long-term goals by accomplishing short-term goals

Large-scale goals, like getting an A for the year in math class or being accepted into a selective college, can feel overwhelming—especially for younger children. So, help your children break their larger goals into manageable short-term goals like doing 10 practice problems on a daily basis, finishing homework assignments within an hour, or reading at least one book per month. Remind your students how these things contribute to the larger goal that they want to achieve, and incentivize your children to complete these more bite-sized goals. With each short-term goal your children complete, they will grow in confidence and eagerness to tackle their next task. It’s a great way to build autonomy and intrinsic motivation and really get your children engaged in their learning.

Want some help creating your own custom rewards to incentivize your children to make academic gains? Study Island for Home’s parent dashboard has a built-in feature to help you set goals and challenges tailored to your children’s needs, and they are earned by completing lessons within the Study Island for Home platform. Try it out for free with a 10-day trial!