Sunday, May 20, 2012

Penalties, rewards, and the homework trap

The other day, I was asked to give an interview to a writer who is doing an article on consequences and rewards and how they affect academic performance. I was asked if this was something I thought I was qualified to discuss. The question struck me as odd, since the bulk of my book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers, is about behavior and how consequences and rewards, applied to homework-trapped children, have a different effect than they are intended to have. I realized that people are so desperate for answers that the interest I’ve stirred focuses almost entirely on the solutions I propose. In the process, they may overlook the intricacies of reasoning behind those solutions. I want to emphasize that one main reason children get homework-trapped is because they are subject to the repetitive use of penalties that fail to change behaviors. I once heard that the definition of a good penalty is one that does not have to be used again.  After all, if the penalty changes the behavior, you don’t penalize again. Penalties that are used over and over again but fail to change behavior foster the acquisition of other behaviors geared to ward off the penalty. The homework-trapped child learns to lie, argue, forget, and procrastinate, and these reactions are effective in temporarily reducing the pressures that come to bear. We step back and get angry at the child without realizing that are demands are actually supporting what can become lifelong, destructive behaviors. Is this what we really want to teach our children?

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