How Rewards Can Backfire

Rewards can backfire.

Here is a real-life example of how rewards can backfire with young people. If you’ve read any of my books or been a reader of this blog for a while, you know that I don’t believe in giving rewards to reinforce behaviors, to control, or to bribe (in the fashion they are used with children too often today).

Rewards, in the form of stickers, pencils, stars, or any other attempt to manipulate behavior, only promote external motivation (a “what’s in it for me?” mentality). The real goal of discipline should be to teach students internal motivation (doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do).

A reader shows  how rewards can backfire.

“I had a situation this year that I did not know how to deal with. I had a very bright class but students were lazy.

“Usually I am a very motivational teacher and do not use bribes. However, this class had been so bribed in the past that they were used to it, and so I decided to try the bribery system. One student wanted the rewards without having to earn them.

“Finally, he started disrupting the class so constantly I could not teach and the students were not learning. I called his mother to have her sit with him. When she came, she asked me if I wanted him to be taken home. I was so tired of dealing with him I just said yes. She then went to the principal to have him removed from my class. Nothing of educational consequence was accomplished by the move. He previously had told me he was mad at me for not just giving him the rewards.

“Maybe this is just a good example of how bribes can backfire.”

No More Rewards to Bribe or to Control

I received countless notes from teachers and parents about the perils of giving rewards to reinforce behavior or to bribe in order to control. Sometimes the situations are humorous; other times, like the one described here, are not.

If you truly want your students and children to develop a strong sense of personal responsibility, stop using rewards to bribe or to control. They are the least effective way (along with imposing punishments) to instill internal motivation.


Teaching, parenting, and simply living can be stressful at times. That’s why I wrote my newest book Live Without Stress: How to Enjoy the Journey. If you’re looking for stress management advice, check it out. The book is available as a print book and as a Kindle download.