Do Classroom Reward Systems Undermine Parental Authority?

Q. My daughter's kindergarten teacher is using a reward system to manage classroom behavior. Children earn smiley faces for good behavior and can trade them in for prizes at the end of the week. On the other hand, nothing of any real consequence happens when a child misbehaves. When our daughter misbehaves at home, we punish her. Won't the teacher's very different approach cause some confusion, and won't it also teach my daughter to expect something whenever she behaves properly?

A. Indeed, children should be taught that responsible people do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, not because it will result in a reward. Behavior modification strategies of the sort your daughter's teacher is using (known in psychological circles as a "token economy" system) undermine that understanding.

Research has failed to confirm the value of what is sometimes called "positive discipline." In the first place, rewards seem to work with children who are already well behaved and who would continue to be well behaved without a reward. In children with serious behavior problems, rewards seem to have no lasting positive effect and may cause behavior to worsen. Studies have also shown that the most well adjusted children tend to come from homes where parents punish misbehavior within the context of a loving, nurturing parent-child relationship.

Unfortunately, most school systems are well behind the research curve when it comes to classroom discipline, because a good number of today's parents will not support the use of punishment by their children's teachers, much less even acknowledge that their children misbehave. When their children are punished at school, these parents complain vociferously. Some even go so far as to threaten legal action. As a consequence, many private and public schools tend to take the "easy way out" on discipline. In the long run, this compromise creates a whole new set of problems, including an increase in the number of children who are referred to outside professionals, diagnosed with "behavior disorders," and put on behavior-controlling medication. The solution is for parents to support the use of effective, punitive discipline methods at their children's schools, with - and this is important - their own children (as opposed to only everyone else's).

Let me assure you that your daughter is in no danger here. The discipline used by her teacher is not going to cause her confusion, nor will it lessen the effectiveness of your discipline. You should ask the teacher to let you know if and when your daughter misbehaves in class, and follow through by punishing her at home.

In the final analysis, a teacher's discipline, no matter how effective, is not as powerful a deterrent as discipline delivered by a parent.

From "The New Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children," copyright 2006, John K. Rosemond

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