Why Rewards for Homework Don’t Work

Here’s yet another example of why rewarding children for doing something that’s expected of them is counterproductive.

I was talking with a 7-year-old girl who is about to enter the second grade about her experience in the previous grade. She explained to me that every night the first grade students had a short book to read for homework. The procedure was that they had to bring the book home, read it, complete a short worksheet about what they read, and return both the book and the completed worksheet to class the next day.

She, however, often forgot to take her book home, forgot to read it, forgot to fill out the worksheet, or forgot to bring both items back to school the next day. When I asked her what she thought was making her so forgetful about her reading assignment, she replied, “I’m not allowed to eat candy.”

Perplexed by her answer, I pressed on. “What does not being allowed to eat candy have to do with your reading assignment?” I asked.

She replied, “Each day when we come to school with our book and completed worksheet, we get a penny for our bank. On Fridays, we set up a class store, and we can use our saved pennies to buy a piece of candy from the store. I’m not allowed to eat candy, so I don’t need the pennies.”

This reward for reading system is teaching children that people only do something that’s expected of them (in this case, homework) when they get an appealing enough reward. But think about this: although the pennies and candy may induce some 7-year-olds to do their homework, persuading a 15-year-old will cost much more. This is a prime example of why rewards for expected behavior simply don’t work.