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Why you should avoid food as a classroom reward for PBIS

Timothy MugabiApril 3, 2020

pile of candies

There are many ways to reward students using Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions (PBIS), and food is one of them. However, let’s face the facts — the type of food that students are motivated to earn is the worst kind: candy, cake, pastries, potato chips, and other snacks loaded with sugar and trans fats.

Now, these foods do have their place; we all deserve an indulgent treat once in a while. However, if you want your PBIS program to fulfil its potential and for your students and school to realize theirs, the classroom is not one of those places!

With that firmly in mind, let’s take a look at why you should avoid giving students food as a reward.

8 reasons why food rewards should be avoided

1. Junk food is bad for students’ long-term health

Let’s start with the most obvious drawback: The treats we usually hand out are not the healthiest. It’s well known that consuming large amounts of sugary and fatty foods can contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol — all components of metabolic syndrome.

Of course, indulging in a little candy or a cupcake, isn’t going to immediately afflict a student with any of those conditions. These foods are only detrimental when they’re over-consumed regularly. However, these habits start somewhere and can lead to an overall decline in health.

2. Students can develop an unhealthy taste… for unhealthy food

If students are regularly rewarded with food, they might develop a stronger appetite for sugar-coated and fat-laden foods. This is more problematic among younger students, because their prefrontal cortex isn’t as developed, which means they’re not mature enough to resist their impulsive desires. Basically, the more students are rewarded with treats, the more inclined they’ll be to consume them regularly — after all, rewards are good for us, right?

Between the advertisements for unhealthy foods and the eye-catching, colorful packaging it comes in, the deck is already stacked against students’ ability to resist these foods. We don’t need to make it any worse.

3. Students might associate food with good feelings

Giving food as a reward creates an unhealthy, emotional connection to it.

First, linking the idea of achievement with food helps develop the idea of celebratory eating. In the most extreme cases, this results in finding excuses to eat food — particularly junk food — whenever there’s the slightest cause to celebrate. Enjoying a celebratory meal, healthy or not, on birthdays, anniversaries, and other important occasions is nothing to be ashamed of. However, if a student rewards themselves with food for finishing an assignment or for having a productive day, then the value of the achievement itself fades and is replaced with food.

On the other hand, there’s the more familiar issue of comfort eating: the consumption of food in an effort to feel better. Being praised for achievement feels good, and when you couple that with being rewarded with tasty food, the positive feeling can become linked with the food — instead of the praise or achievement.

4. It can lead to poor eating habits for students

You also run the risk of enabling students to develop the problematic habit of eating when they’re not hungry. This is especially true with sugary food, which isn’t very filling and can be eaten in large quantities as a result. If you combine this with having a tendency to comfort eat, then you might have a situation in which a lot of empty calories are consumed regularly. This could compromise the health of a student.

5. It might impair students’ ability to learn

While the consequences detailed above are long-term, a short-term consequence of consuming junk food is the decreased ability to learn and concentrate. For starters, when you give younger students too much sugar, the results aren’t pretty. When their blood sugar levels surge, they are full of energy, and that can make them hyperactive, restless, and unable to concentrate. Then comes the inevitable crash, which makes them sluggish and, again, unable to concentrate.

Worse still, if the excess sugar coursing through a student’s bloodstream negatively affects their behavior, and then results in you having to discipline them, it’s completely contradictory as a PBIS reward!

Also, there’s the issue of dopamine, our reward hormone. Our brain releases dopamine when we do something that’s good for us — like eating — to encourage a repetition of that behavior in the future. This is a natural survival mechanism.

Here’s the problem: sugary foods release a lot of dopamine, which dulls the reward and gives students less incentive to get those feel-good hormones from other, better activities, like learning — you know, the very thing they come to school to do!

6. It might contradict what students are learning at home

Parents have their own philosophy on what to feed their children, including when they’re allowed to eat treats. By issuing food as a classroom reward, you run the risk of compromising the system that students have in place at home. This isn’t just potentially confusing for some students, it might also frustrate some parents working hard to establish good eating habits at home.

7. It emphasizes the reward instead of ‘why’ or ‘how’ it was earned

Because of the immediate gratification food offers and the excitement of receiving it, students are far more likely to remember the reward rather than the reason why they received it. Considering the aim of your PBIS initiative is to teach positive behavior, this is counter-productive, because it’s all about students feeling good about being good!

Unlike food, praise lets students know precisely what they did correctly. This makes it easier for them to associate their positive feelings from the praise with their behavior.

8. It weakens intangible/intrinsic rewards for good behavior

Although a PBIS program incentivizes students to learn and adopt a set of desired, positive behaviors, the ultimate goal is to inspire them to continue the behavior because of the intrinsic benefits of said behavior. Simply put, we want students to behave well because they want to, not because of what they get from it. Food compromises that goal.

As stated above, food offers short-term gratification, and that would likely become the most memorable aspect of the reward. Considering that its benefits are limited to the short term, how can you reasonably expect it to encourage good behavior over the long term, without compromising a student’s health in the process?

Rewarding students with food also creates an environment of expectation and entitlement, where students do things because they anticipate an immediate reward. Worse still, over time, the treats offered might lose their appeal, so you’d have to keep raising the stakes and come up with more appealing and decadent options.

You could argue that all rewards, as well as praise, are extrinsic, as students are still behaving in a certain way to receive reinforcement beyond their internal motivators. However, in the case of long-term rewards, students will have to repeatedly display desired behavior over a prolonged period. This provides the necessary time for them to reflect on how behaving well benefits them and how it makes them feel.

Opt for healthier reward programs

Although food is a simple and inexpensive reward for students, and an effective way to produce the desired behavior, short-term, the costs outweigh the benefits. It not only compromises students’ long-term health and ability to pay attention, but also places too much emphasis on the prize, rather than on the behavior earning it. Instead, focus on other class rewards that are healthier, more stimulating, and more memorable.

Photo: Pixabay

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