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Senior Correspondent

Q: Our 8-year-old son was caught stealing from the teacher’s prize box at school. He has done this in the past and was punished, but it seems he hasn't gotten the picture yet. Do you have any suggestions for us?

A: Before I answer your question, I want to address the issue of classroom “prize boxes.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column concerning the disconnect between research and practice in America’s schools. This “prize box” foolishness is a prime example of just that.

Well-done research has all but completely debunked the notion that rewards improve academic performance. If any improvement does take place, it is generally short-lived. Furthermore, some research has found that rewards can actually depress motivation and result in lowered performance.

In a school setting, this issue is complicated by what I call “educational correctness.” These days, a teacher who gives rewards must come up with excuses to give them to every child in the class. If she doesn’t, she runs the risk of dealing with outraged parents as well as disapproving administrators. In the final analysis, therefore, classroom rewards become meaningless, even counterproductive.

All of this has been known for quite some time. The question, therefore, becomes: Why are America’s schools still using rewards to “motivate” students when they are likely to have the opposite effect? The answer: bureaucracies are inherently rigid. Once a certain practice becomes embedded in a bureaucracy — in this case, America’s educational bureaucracy — changing it takes more than evidence it isn’t working. It takes a proverbial act of Congress.

According to every manager I’ve ever spoken to in both settings, educational correctness is now having adverse effect on motivation and productivity in the workplace and the military. A submarine commander recently told me, for example, that many of the young people in his command don’t understand the concept of doing what is necessary simply because it’s necessary. And they have great difficulty grasping that obeying orders is not reason enough to receive special privilege. I hear pretty much the same complaint from managers in corporate and business settings. The most-often used word is “entitlement.”

Where your son’s nimble fingers are concerned, I first recommend that his teacher make the prize box disappear. Since it won’t disappear, however, I encourage you to make him get up in front of the class and apologize to everyone. In addition, there should be extended consequences at home (e.g., early bedtime for a month) and school (e.g., no recess for a month). Will that solve the problem? Maybe, and maybe not.

The fact is — and it’s a fact every parent should keep in mind — when a child does something wrong, and the adults in his life respond by doing something right, there is no guarantee the child will stop doing the wrong thing. In that case, the adults should simply keep doing the right thing. It’s called staying the course … no matter what.

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