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Reward vs. Punishment

Elementary School Expert Advice from Barbara Potts

Q: My seven-year-old stepson, who is in the first grade, is having some major problems in school. He has a behavior problem: His attention is focused on when the next time is that he can play. He cries and gets a terrible attitude when we have him practice his math at home. He says it is too hard and that he doesn't know how to do it. His teacher has told us that he's always asking to go to the bathroom, just to get out of doing his classroom work. What can we do?

A: Try to find out first why your stepson is doing these things. Is he the youngest child in the class, and so perhaps not ready to do the things he is being asked? Are there possible learning problems -- is the work too difficult for him? Has he been through some recent changes at home (new baby, move to a new home, etc.) that would give him a reason to need more attention?

Once you have considered the possible causes for his behavior, determine a plan to help your stepson get beyond these difficulties. It may be necessary to reduce the amount of work he is being expected to do or to get him extra assistance, such as tutoring, to help him with the work. If the problems seem to be more emotional, you may want to work out a way to spend more time with him or you may want to investigate counseling for your family.

If you decide that a positive behavior plan will help in this situation, work with your stepson's teacher to set that up. Choose one or two behaviors to work on first and ask the teacher to send you a daily note to let you know how he did. A good day can earn an extra bedtime story or a walk around the block just with you; two or three good days in a week can earn having a friend over to play on the weekend. As your stepson's behavior improves, you can increase the amount of good behavior required to earn a reward. The key to any system like this is to use it consistently over a long period of time.

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Barbara Potts has worked as an elementary school counselor for many years. She has a BA in psychology from Wake Forest University, and an M.Ed. in Guidance and Counseling from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


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