Stop incentivizing your kids with iPads!

Hi everyone! Thank you for your patience. I’m so sorry for the delay in getting this post out. As you all know, the end of the school year just happened and I’ve been really busy getting everyone ready for exams. Now that the summer has started, I should be more regular with my updates. Thanks again for being such wonderful readers!

Born out of this rush, though, was the idea for this post. I was working with a student to get her ready for her 8th grade Algebra 1 regents (I’m based in NYC) and she had a rather tough time calming her nerves in the weeks leading up to her exam. When I asked what it was that prevented her from focusing on the process at hand, she responded that her mom would severely chastise her and perhaps even take away her ‘incentives’ if she didn’t perform at a certain level. This girl was accustomed to being rewarded with material things and extended privileges for her performance in school. And it is those very same rewards that are now preventing her from focusing on the task at hand.

This isn’t the first time that incentives were found to have a mixed effect on academic performance. In a controversial experiment, Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. paid 18,000 school children in four different cities a total of $6.3 million dollars as a way to measure the effects of bribery on standardized test scores, among other factors. The results were inconclusive, as score increases were sporadic. What Fryer’s experiment did find (and others corroborated) is that paying kids to read more, for example, actually led to higher class grades and attended school more consistently (these were school districts with traditionally lower socioeconomic standing). What this would suggest is that incentivizing the process (see my previous post about working systematically) benefits students more in the long run as it makes them less outcome dependent. More research is definitely needed, but for the purposes of day to day practical applications, this story seems to be corroborated by my work with some students (see above).

So what does this mean for you and your children? Instead of rewarding your kids for getting a 99 on a calculus test, reward your children for taking the right steps towards their goals. If he spends two or three hours a day studying and you can ascertain that he has achieved a certain level of mastery of the material but only got a 90, pat him on the back and take him out for ice cream. More importantly, have role models around them who prioritize the work it takes to get the desired results. Social psychologists like to call this phenomenon ‘pursuing flow’ and not only does it build solid habits that serve as the foundation for success, it is also a great way to achieve ultimate happiness in whatever it is that you do.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this piece as well as anything you’d like me to write about next. Happy reading!

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