Older folk are familiar with these adages: “Leave things nicer than you found them.” “Think not of what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” These messages focus on others, not self. They encourage individuals to look beyond their own wants and needs and show concern for others. They emphasize selfless rather than selfish acts.

Unfortunately, a new message has crept into the language of youth over the years: “What’s in it for me?” And to some degree, this message is reinforced by adults every year in schools across the country through the common practice of continuously rewarding students for good behavior.

Please hear me out. I understand the importance of focusing on positive rather than negative behaviors. I also believe we should show genuine appreciation when students make good choices. There is a difference, however, between acknowledging positive behaviors and rewarding them. When we reward positive behaviors, especially on a planned, rather than intermittent schedule, a student’s attention can inadvertently shift from the positive act to the acquisition of the reward itself.

I don’t want a child behaving in order to get a reward; I want the child to behave because it is the right thing to do. I also want the child to focus on the continuous process of behavioral improvement rather than on the finite product of behaving to the point of receiving something.

Students do not receive tangible rewards for academic milestones because continuous learning and betterment is the expectation. In my opinion, behavior should be no different – we should assess, set goals, teach, monitor, and continually encourage. If we really want students to intrinsically “do the right thing” because it is the right thing to do, we have to reexamine the aspects of our extrinsically-focused practices which seem to be working against us.