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How would you like it?

My wonderfully wise colleague and former successful Principal, Brenda Quayle, alerted me to a post this week by Spectrum Gaming.


In a nutshell, they applied some typical school rules to adults within another typical school context, a reward/penalty system.


Here’s the report of the qualified clinical psychologist who headed up the experiment:

This year we tried out a new activity as part of the Autism in Schools train the trainer project.


A lot of the content of the training is based on anti-behaviourist practice, but we recognise that behaviourist practice is “normal”, so we wanted to give the participants the opportunity to reflect on the experience of reward-based systems.


I put my crafting skills to the test to make a reward chart and Andy grabbed his chalk board and we got to thinking about what (quite typical school) rules we wanted the group to follow. We decided that we would ask the group to follow these rules for 30 minutes, if they broke a rule they would move into the ‘rainy cloud’, if they were following the rules they would move up into the ‘sunny’ section (and have the chance of getting a sticker!).  The rules were:

  1. Be ready on time.
  2. Sit straight.
  3. Look at the screen.
  4. No talking without permission. (Hands up)
  5. No electronics.
  6. Always listen and follow instructions.
  7. No fidgeting.
  8. No moving without permission.


We had a string of messages between us questioning whether we were really going to do this and whether we needed to begin the activity with taking fully informed consent from the group. I was worried about the potential discomfort of the participants.  What if they felt shame? What if they weren’t able to do the things that make them feel comfortable?


I was quickly reminded that young people often don’t have the option to opt out of compliance-based systems.


So, we went ahead and I’m so glad we did! It generated really interesting discussions. One participant noticed that they were so focused on the chart that they didn’t take in any of the content of the presentation. Various members spoke about having to suppress their needs and that they weren’t able to put in strategies to support their learning, like taking notes on a tablet or moving, for fear of ending up in the ‘rainy cloud’. One of the participants who was put in the ‘rainy cloud’ spoke about the impact on his motivation to listen to the content and follow the rules, with him thinking ‘what’s the point’ and ‘I can do what I want now’!


Reward based systems mean that learners have to internalise their needs in order to comply, even if meeting these needs is important for feeling safe and being able to learn.  In our practice, we see the impact these systems have on young people.


Young people talk about feelings of fear and extreme levels of stress they have experienced as a result of reward/ behaviour charts. Interestingly a lot of the young people who struggled with them the most were always on the “good side”, but they were still incredibly scared of being in trouble or being the centre of attention within class. They focused so much on “good behaviour” that they weren’t able to learn.


If you are someone who has used rewards in the past (like me!) this post isn’t intended to create guilt or shame, but instead an invitation to join us in advocating for neurodiversity affirming practices.


If, like me, you can accept this experiment’s findings you now find yourself and your colleagues at a fork-in-the-road packed with important and confronting questions:

  • Can you forgive yourself and others for missing the mark re your attempts at improving behaviour? You really should do that.  You’ve just been doing the best you could with the tools and knowledge available.
  • Are the experiences of adults really likely to be different from children in these systems and what are you seeing in your school/classroom that reflects this experience?
  • Now that you know better, what needs to change in your school/classroom immediately?


Keep fighting that good fight,


PS. I can’t wait to get out and about this year and work with more teachers and school leaders across the country. We’ve expanded our event locations and we have a $200 visa gift card on offer for one lucky person who registers for one of our events before the end of February.


Restorative Classrooms, Strong Classrooms: This full-day workshop is designed to give or teachers and school leaders a robust understanding of Restorative Practices and practical tools to get started right away.


The Art of School Leadership: If you’re a Principal, Assistant Principal or Senior Teacher, or you’re looking to take the next step into leadership in your school, this half-day workshop is for you.


Check out the dates and locations here and register before the end of February to go in the prize draw!

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