Many teachers and parents who read and implement Discipline Without Stress and Parenting Without Stress often ask if giving children a treat once in a while is the same as giving them a reward.
Here’s a useful distinction to keep in mind: Rewards are always tied to some condition, whereas treats are given unconditionally. In other words, if you simply give a child a cupcake or a small toy, that’s not a reward. But if you say to the child, “If you do X, I’ll give you a cupcake,” then that’s a reward.
Realize too that the nature of the actual item being offered has no bearing on whether it can be considered a reward or a treat. A glittery sticker or an ordinary cracker—both can be used as either a reward or a treat. It depends entirely on how these items are offered.
So while the Discipline Without Stress methodology aims to NOT use rewards, treating children every now and then is perfectly okay, because it helps create a positive and upbeat atmosphere in the classroom. For example, when a student has a birthday, you can give them a tiny bag with a few inexpensive gifts inside. At Halloween you might give inexpensive trick or treat bags for each student to take home. To make a division lesson more interesting, you may give each child some licorice strings and have them divide it accordingly (and then let them eat it). Food, candies, and even toys offered unconditionally to every student in the class are treats or gifts—not rewards.
Keeping the distinction between treats and rewards in mind, you will be able to determine whether you are using a particular item as a reward or as a treat. That will help you to know what you want to do in any given situation. Inwardly, you can ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? What’s my purpose in giving this item to this child at this time?” If you realize that your purpose is to manipulate, then you are likely using the item as a reward and will want to change what you are doing.
However, if your purpose is simply to give all your students a gift (without making anyone feel bad in the process), or if your intention is to make your classroom program more interesting, more educational, or more fun (and you notice that you feel good about it), then go ahead and give the item happily and with a clear conscience. It is a treat, not a reward.