The Truth About Rewarding Kids for “Good” Grades

Parent Resources

We all want our kids to perform to the height of their potential. Of course, we want them to shine, and we hope the rest of the world will see them as we do: bright and capable.

Even the least self-aware of us might admit there is an element of ego involved in this motivation; our kids’ success is our primary goal, but feeling proud of their performance just feels good! As parents, we don’t receive much acknowledgement of our efforts to raise well-adjusted, competent children. This can make overt and measurable indications of parenting “success,” like school grades, feel vital to our own self-image.

The grades-focused school system plays right into our need for acknowledgement and feedback. With each project, exam and report card, it can feel as if our kids — and by extension, our parenting — are being publicly assessed.

It’s no wonder many parents strive to improve school performance with the promise of gifts or cash for higher grades. Does rewarding school grades provide harmless reinforcement, though? Or might it interfere with their education, despite our good intentions?

How Extrinsic Rewards Affect Student Motivation

A high grade is a sort of reward, right? So it might seem to follow that stacking on additional rewards would only sweeten the deal for a student. Not so.

The science of motivation is a highly studied but convoluted one. However, study after study has shown the inefficacy of extrinsic rewards, or rewards that come from outside of one’s self. While they may be motivating in the short term, rewards for performance tend to have a detrimental effect on one’s own, or intrinsic, motivation.

By contrast, intrinsic motivation comes from one’s own self-interest, desires, and goals. Intrinsic motivation is obvious when your child strives to perfect their soccer or drawing skills, and even in their willingness to comply with homework requirements, no matter how much they grumble.

A landmark 1971 study found that monetary rewards for performance had an effect of “buying off” students’ intrinsic motivation, effectively replacing it with the externally mediated reward of the offered money. Most research seems to comply with this thesis.

Are Grades Themselves the Problem? 

You might wonder: is the harm in focusing on and praising grades in the first place? While opinions vary on the use of traditional grading, especially in elementary grades, it seems that achievement has a motivating effect on students.

Acknowledgement, praise, and even the feelings of “success” associated with higher grades themselves do not seem to be linked to lower motivation the way financial rewards and gifts might be. In 2016, Canadian researchers found that academic achievement in elementary math, measured objectively through academic assessments of math skills, had a positive effect on students’ intrinsic motivation.

In other words, when they performed well, they were motivated to keep learning and achieving. However, being motivated itself did not predict academic achievement; indeed, we know there are very real challenges in math learning, no matter how motivated and earnest a student might be.

Emphasizing performance in terms of your child’s improvement over past results, efforts toward learning and better understanding and ease may have a positive effect on their desire to learn.

Particularly where a child struggles in a certain subject, or faces learning disabilities, emphasize relative success not their place on the curve. By noticing your child’s slightly higher grade on a progress report or by helping them to set aside more time for homework, you support their self-motivation in meaningful ways that don’t draw comparison between their performance and that of their classmates.

Try Celebrating Grades, Not Buying Them

It seems that the promise of reward is what warps a student’s motivation. In the aforementioned 1971 study, Deci et al. suggested the transactional nature of offering money for grades removes control from the student and places it in the hands of the “buyer,” the parent.

But, good news! Study authors Deci and Ryan didn’t find the same detrimental effects when students were merely praised for their performance after it occurred. In fact, a favourite meal or even a small gift might be just fine as long as it’s not promised in advance and the grades aren’t earned as “payment” for the reward.

Professor Richard Ryan, who worked on the 1971 study, has stated: ‘There is nothing wrong with giving things to your child. The issue is with making them contingent on performance outcomes. A reward that acknowledges a great effort is more effective than one that is promised upfront for getting an A. Appreciation is always a better motivator than control.”

Why not celebrate your child’s progress report or exam results with a family dinner and praise their efforts, instead of creating a framework of control by offering rewards for future efforts?



Do you agree or disagree? Do you find rewards and money have a motivating effect for your child? How do you reward or praise academic effort?  

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