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Intervention

Why Using Food as a Reward in Schools Should be Avoided for PBIS

4 Min Read

There are many ways to reward students using Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions (PBIS), and food is one of them. However, the type of food that students are motivated to earn is typically not always nutrient dense. These foods can have their place; we all deserve a treat once in a while. However, if you want your PBIS program to fulfill its potential and for your students and school to realize theirs, the classroom is not necessarily one of those places!

With that firmly in mind, let’s take a look at why using food as a reward in schools should be avoided. 

6 Reasons Why Food Rewards Should Be Avoided

1. Treats can impact students’ long-term health

Let’s start with the most obvious drawback: The treats we usually hand out are not always the most nutrient dense. 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, eating a candy or a cupcake, isn’t going to immediately cause an impact, but can contribute negatively to certain health markers over the long-term. 

2. Students might associate food with good feelings

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

First, linking the idea of achievement with food helps develop the idea of celebratory eating. 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 can be 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 achievement.

3. It can lead to students eating when they are not hungry

You also run the risk of enabling students to develop the habit of eating when they’re not hungry. This is especially true with less nutrient dense foods, which aren't typically as 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 empty calories are consumed.

4. 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 certain eating habits at home.

5. 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 their behavior. 

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.

6. 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. 

As stated above, food offers short-term gratification, and that would likely become the most memorable aspect of the reward. Rewarding students with food also creates an environment of expectation, where students do things because they anticipate an immediate reward. 

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 Non-Food Reward Programs

Although food is a simple and inexpensive reward for students and an effective way to produce the desired behavior in the short-term, the costs may outweigh the benefits. It  places too much emphasis on the prize, rather than on the behavior earning it. Instead, focus on other class rewards that are longer-term, more stimulating, and more memorable.

This article was adapted from a blog post initially developed by the education technology company Classcraft, which was acquired by HMH in 2023. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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