Language is so important in behaviour. In every interaction there is the potential for an intervention . The language of systems is important too.

Taylor’s Theory of “Scientific Management” stated the following:


  • Workers do not naturally enjoy work and so need close supervision and control
  • Therefore managers should break down production into a series of small tasks
  • Workers should then be given appropriate training and tools so they can work as efficiently as possible on one set task.
  • Workers are then paid according to the number of items they produce in a set period of time- piece-rate pay.
  • As a result workers are encouraged to work hard and maximise their productivity.


Recently I have seen polices and practices presented under the heading of informed by cognitive load theory or reducing low level behaviour. In reality these connect more strongly to Taylor’s views on motivation than anything else.

Rewards have their merits (pun fully intended). Recognition is better. The increasing nature of high performance management and accountability of children is damaging. Having a weekly or daily report of their standing, red or green is potentially harmful to their mental health and an unnecessary stressor.

Similarly closely allocating points to output/work and using language related to paid employment has it’s implications. We need to be careful when we reward children with spendable credits or show them a “balance”. Children aren’t our employees. Children need to know that doing the right thing in itself is a good action – it doesn’t require a reward. Not every good action they will complete in life will be financially rewarded and they need to find an intrinsic motivator – something later motivational theories take into consideration.

Most of us choose employment to follow our interests, where education and other factors allow. Children don’t have that choice in school, they take the subjects that they are given (pre Year 9). The idea of motivating children solely with financially linked rewards can be an acceptance that they will not enjoy the material when it is very likely they can or will. Using financially linked rewards may work in the short term but, particularly in the case of children with ADHD (where evidence shows these rewards need changing often), it may not have longer term effectiveness. Children need to have intrinsic motivators.

How do we do that? First of all we make sure all children are ready to learn – socially, developmentally, academically, physically and mentally (there are more we could add!).

You don’t assume that every child in the room will see a coin and jump for it like Sonic the Hedgehog. And if they don’t, the answer shouldn’t be the sanction route.

You can create a Reward Route, a Sanction Route but the thing you really need is the route that ensures support is in place for a child who shows a concern. The route that might allocate a peer mentor to a low level issue, then scale it up to a pastoral mentoring schedule and on, and on. A route that has clearly defined behaviours that meet clearly defined thresholds for support, not punishment. This is not an afterthought. You cannot have this as a sentence in your policy that says “We always meet additional needs where this is identified and necessary”. The length and detail of this route should at least equal that of the reward and sanction.

Following this doing the right thing needs to be recognised within the context of a positive relationship. A staff member whom a child respects who acknowledges the work they have done is far more powerful and longer lasting than the anonymous coins given. A child who understands right from wrong because they are explained the reasons simply and clearly why and the impact of those actions. A system of rules that makes sense for all – it doesn’t just look to create a sense of authority.

We all want children to behave well when unsupervised. We want them to work well when there is no visual reward. We want them to do these things because they know they are the right thing to do for them, for others and for the wider community as a whole. So we need to make others matter to them. We need to create the belonging of a community. We need to build them up so their individual values about themselves aren’t based on the coins they have, but the actions they have taken that show those values.

So this isn’t saying rewards are bad – but if they are overused, reconsider what they teach children about why we do things in life.

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