When it comes to rewarding children for good behavior or a job well done, educators need to be mindful, since going overboard can actually lead to serious problems down the road.
Positive affirmation can encourage your students to work hard, and it can be good incentive in this digital age where things like smartphones, tablets, video games, and social media all compete for the attention of the youth. In light of these realities, rewards definitely have a place.
Even so, there is evidence that rewards, particularly as it relates to food, can potentially have unintended negative consequences that could follow children well past their early years.
Fortunately, there is a way to strike a balance so that you can keep your students motivated both to do well and to be on their best behavior.
The Right Balance
Rewards can definitely encourage good behavior by providing positive positive reinforcement, and they can potentially be used to discourage the sort of antisocial behavior that can poison the learning environment. What you don’t want to do, however, is to be so frequent or generous with the rewards that your students come to expect a reward every time they do well on a test, are helpful around the class, or do some other noteworthy task. As such, you should be strategic about rewarding good behavior or outstanding performance so that children don’t get to the point where they start to see rewards as obligatory. This is particularly true as it relates to food rewards such as candy. If children are getting enough exercise, seeing their dentists regularly, and are otherwise healthy, food rewards can play a positive role in encouraging good behavior. However, too much chocolate, gummy bears, licorice, or lollipops -- particularly in the classroom environment -- can make it harder for children to concentrate on the task at hand. So you will need to limit not only the frequency with which you give out rewards -- food or otherwise -- but also the amount or quantity. It’s also a good idea to ensure that you know of any health or dietary issues, such as allergies or intolerances, that your students may have so as to avoid problems.
When Things Go Wrong
While it’s definitely possible to provide positive reinforcement courtesy of rewards, there are negative outcomes that can materialize if this strategy is pursued in the wrong way. If you don't strike the right balance, your students can develop unhealthy eating habits, and they may come to consume food even when they're not hungry in a bid to reward themselves. Unfortunately, this could send them down the path towards emotional eating where they eat certain comfort foods in high-pressure situations. Another thing to be wary of is that rewarding with food could contribute to weight gain or poor dental health. So there are a lot of things that can potentially go wrong if you don’t develop a balanced approach to rewarding children, particularly if it involves food.
As an educator, it is your job to ensure that children are properly instructed based on the curriculum, but you may at your discretion decide to use rewards to acknowledge positive contributions or even to discourage antisocial behavior that can jeopardize the learning environment. Whether the reward be food or other things, you need to strike the right balance that helps you to achieve your mandate to educate students while not creating an environment where students expect or depend on rewards simply for doing what they should be doing.