Wednesday, May 19, 2010


It's coming up on the end of the school year -- always very exciting when you live with a kid and a high school teacher. But it's got me thinking about grades. I will avoid commenting on Mattea's grades in this public forum (but babe, if for some reason you should happen to read this -- since you DO your homework, is it that much more trouble to HAND IT IN?) But, you know, in a general, theoretical, totally non-parental, and certainly unconcerned way, what helps kids get good grades?

Karen Pryor, popularizer of behavior science and queen of clicker training, has an interesting post on her website about four schools that experimented with rewarding kids with money. As she summarizes the experiment:

New York set up a program to pay fourth-through seventh-grade children for their test grades during the school year. For great results you could get as much as $50. The money went right into a savings account.

Chicago also paid for test scores during the year. Good scores could earn up to $2,000 per year, half of which went into a savings account payable on graduation.

Washington, D.C. had a complicated system in which high school students were paid $100 every two weeks by getting perfect marks in five different areas, including attendance and good behavior.

Dallas kept it simple. Second-graders got $2 every time they read a book and passed a little computer test on it.

Care to guess which school had the best success? Right, Dallas. A test is an outcome, not a behavior. The way to change outcomes is to change behaviors. If you pay a kid $2000 at the end of the year for getting great grades or doing well on important standardized tests, all of the behaviors that would lead to success over the course of the year go unrewarded. Outcomes aren't really something that we can control -- behaviors are.

So if I were to promise Mattea $1000 for getting all A's on her report card at the end of the year (not gonna happen, babe!) she wouldn't really know what exactly she needed to do in order to achieve that goal. And the delay between the action and the reinforcement would be so long that she wouldn't really know what was being rewarded anyway. (And if I put the money into a saving account, it would hardly count as a reinforcement at all.) Far better for me to figure out what is standing in the way of her success and how to change that behavior. For instance, maybe I would need to give Tea a bag of M&Ms, and tell her that each time she handed in an assignment she could have an M&M. (If, of course, I could trust her not to gobble them all on the way to school. "Leave it" is a crucial command for both children and dogs. Mine are less reliable than they should be.)

How often have you talked to someone about their goal to lose 20 pounds, or to win a competition, or to learn to play the violin? All fine and good as far as it goes, but those are all outcomes, not behaviors. You can't get to the outcome unless you figure out what things you would actually need to DO to get to those goals. Much more effective to have a goal that you will eat fruit for dessert instead of ice cream, or practice for 20 minutes four times a week. Those are behaviors that you can control. And yes, that you can reward. (But you can't reward yourself for being good and eating fruit by having ice cream. That's cheating. It turns out that people very commonly reward themselves for exercising by eating more, or less healthfully, than they would otherwise. Wrong kind of reward.)

Personally, I would just like to say that this is the first year that I have actually fulfilled my New Year's resolution. That resolution was "More dancing!" (Always with the exclamation point at the end.) In addition to being a behavior, rather than an outcome, it has the advantage, as Taz would say, of being "more funner." So much easier to be successful at doing something that you wanted to do anyway.

What are your goals?

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