How Incentive Systems Can Backfire with Gifted and 2e Kids


My client’s second grade son came home in tears the other day.  Usually a happy child, on this particular day he communicated his feelings in response to a teacher’s strategy for “good behavior.” Apparently the teacher issues stickers to children who can “behave,” who can “stand still,” who “listen,” and who “do what they’re supposed to do.” My client’s child is still waiting to receive a sticker.

Fairness is a major focus and concern for gifted and 2e kids. If they detect that a system, a person, a punishment or a reward is unfair, it bothers them deeply. Their ability to make lightening quick connections allows gifted kids to see the big picture, to weigh all the factors in a decision and to see and feel inequity, whether or not they can express what makes the system unfair. In the example above, the injustice stems first of all, from the fact that the behaviors described in order to receive a sticker, are nebulous, and then that the system fails to take into account the likelihood of failure for some kids.

What does it mean to “behave,” or to “do what they’re supposed to do?” Standing still is pretty specific, but if you are a gifted or 2e kid (let alone in second grade), and you already know what the teacher is going to say or you’re excited, or you’re cramped or a whole host of other factors, standing still is pretty hard to accomplish. As a teacher if this is an ongoing challenge for a student, then a different proactive strategy is necessary. Trying to bribe a child to stand still will not work, no matter how much he wants to follow directions. It’s like offering a child a sticker if he reads when he hasn’t learned how to yet.

Behavior is communication – “bad” behavior signals to parents and teachers that something is not right in the child’s world. The first step to successful interactions and eliciting desired behavior is to understand that all children want to do well. The “misbehaving” child needs help negotiating something whether it is a bothersome fellow student, a sensory challenge, a learning difference that is confusing and/or frustrating the child, or even something that happened at home, on the playground or on the bus before the child even arrived at school. If we reward kids for not having challenges and don’t address children who need support, help, understanding or empathy, what are we role modeling for our children?

Personal reward systems doled out unevenly in a classroom or home breed competition, jealousy, and encourage poor behavior. Students and siblings are polarized, feel bad, and the stress of losing the opportunity to “win” a sticker effects behavior negatively. How can a student learn when he is more concerned about getting a sticker than about classroom content? How can a child master skills to address challenges when he is punished for having challenges?

I am not suggesting that positive reinforcement is always a bad idea or counterproductive, done in a particular way incentives can inspire students to try their hardest, do their best and rise to the occasion. Approaching a student and saying “I really like the way you are standing still and keeping your hands to yourself,” or “Thank you Johnnie for listening so well during those long instructions, I really appreciate you waiting until I finished before raising you hand,” or “Molly, I love that when you finished your work, you chose a book and sat right down to start reading” are excellent ways of catching kids doing well and positively reinforcing the behaviors we want to see in the classroom or at home.  This method is particularly successful when the teacher or parent distributes compliments evenhandedly. Making sure each child receives his moment in the sun, no matter how hard you have to look to find something good, goes a long way in encouraging consistent desired behavior. The corollary is also true; giving out uneven encouragement promotes dysregulated behavior.

Stickers and tangible gifts given to kids for refraining from doing something, sets up competition and resentment, and compromises community. The home or classroom becomes an unsafe environment as much for the kids receiving rewards as for the students who are not rewarded. Kids recognize a system of bad vs. good and know that they too could fall into the “bad kid category” at any time. When a child is consistently disappointed by not receiving a reward, he very well may purposely sabotage his chances of receiving a reward. He may act in exactly the way the teacher or parent does not want him to in order to control his situation and alleviate his stress of waiting to see if today will be the day his efforts are recognized.

In the case of a child who consistently fails to meet expectations, approaching a child and quietly saying something like “Johnnie, I can see something is bothering you and I really appreciate how hard you are trying to keep it from affecting you and the class, give me a minute to finish what I’m doing and I want to hear what’s going on so I can help you” can be just the message Johnnie needs to hold it together until the teacher can talk with him. Then talking with the child to find out what is going on, from the child’s perspective, creates an opportunity to learn what causes Johnnie’s behavior, as well as gives Johnnie the message that the classroom is a safe place and his teacher cares about him. Learning what underlies Johnnie’s behavior is the first step toward knowing how to help Johnnie achieve desired behavior. If the child standing next to Johnnie is constantly poking him or saying something that bothers him or is humming, now we know how to help Johnnie succeed.

For Johnnie having the opportunity to communicate what is bothering him diffuses anxiety because he knows the teacher has an idea of why he isn’t able to conform to expectations. The pressure is off to perform under conditions that are impossible for him.

Stickers and other tangible reward systems can work when the child is in competition against himself. If there is a system set up where the child earns rewards, preferably from a list of rewards he has chosen, for behaviors that are discussed and understood by both the adult and the child, then this type of system can work. However, personal relationships and positive attention are always the best incentives for desired behavior.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.
Author: Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-confidence in their students and clients.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-confidence in their students and clients.

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