• Michelle Minnikin

Carrot or stick? Spoiler alert, neither.

I had to email my 12-year-old's school.


The boy has a planner to take along to each class, and if he 'behaves', he gets a stamp (or three), and if he 'misbehaves', a comment goes in his planner. If he gets sufficient stamps, he gets a prize at the end of a term. However, if he gets more than three planner comments weekly, he must go to detention for 45 minutes after school on a Friday.


This got me thinking - school is like a game of Sonic The Hedgehog, my favourite game on my Sega Megadrive (I just googled it, and eek, it came out in 1991!). Stamps are rings, and comments are like losing a life.


So, like a happy hedgehog, he's been collecting his stamps and is rewarded for doing well. And he almost made it through his first year of high school until that last week before summer half term, when he got three comments! Despite trying to negotiate his way out of detention, he was due for detention.


He was devastated that we would be upset with him and so worried about detention. In the boy's mind, 'detention' was where demons armed with pitchforks torture the children.


Of course, we know this not to be the case! My bigger concern was, "what happens when he discovers that 'detention' isn't that bad, actually?"


I'll tell you what happens! It minimises the threat and therefore the ability to motivate positive behaviour. I said something along these lines to his form teacher. Not sure he followed.


Reward and Punishment

When we talk about rewards and punishments, we're talking about conditioning. Schools attempt to condition kids to behave using a system of rewards and punishment. But, unlike Mr Skinner and his experiments on rats, schools are not allowed to give electric shocks (phew). So the 'punishments' lack teeth. (Not to mention that systems of rewards and punishments have been consistently proven not to change behaviour!)


Instead of focusing on conditioning children to behave by training them to seek rewards and avoid punishments, perhaps a better idea would be to work with them so that they want to cooperate and develop the skills to thrive when they leave school.

So, what on earth does this have to do with work, Michelle?

Many of our problems at work start with problems at school.


At school, we are conditioned (or trained) to give away our power to some 'authority figure'. Whoever this person is who makes the rules, someone 'smarter', 'more confident' 'more powerful' or 'more experienced' than us.


We are taught to rely on someone else to tell us what to do and lead the way.


Why is this a problem?

Because what happens when the more intelligent/powerful people are not making good choices? Or they're not available to motivate us? How will we do anything proactive or take responsibility for ourselves when we don't know how to motivate ourselves?


Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. Instead, we enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualise our potential.



Schools often lack psychological safety and demand strict obedience to authority figures who tell the children what to do and learn. As a result, we miss an opportunity to help kids develop an interest in learning, develop critical thinking skills, challenge the status quo and discover their power and potential. This translates into adulthood and thus, the workplace.


Employees who are only there to get paid (reward) and are motivated by avoiding getting sacked (punishment) will not take risks by suggesting more innovative ways to do things. They're going to avoid taking responsibility and accountability. Instead, they will do whatever is needed to get more of the reward (money) and avoid getting sacked.


Back to the boy at school, questioning him after his first detention, he shrugged it off. As he couldn't do his homework (as it's online), he spent a rather pleasant 45 mins reading his library book. And since this first detention incident, he had one last week and is heading for another one this week. How's that stick working out for you now?!


What has changed?

His fear of the punishment. For the boy, detention isn't a punishment; he enjoys spending some time in a quiet room reading (indeed, this is one of my favourite things to do). You could probably argue that now 'detention' is enjoyable. He may increase his low-level offending to get more quiet reading opportunities!


His 'crimes' - forgetting his pencil case, getting caught talking in class, asking a question (probably using a 'tone'), and failing to bring in his homework.


Minor irritations and annoyances, I was admonished for similar when I was in school. I had one detention (in art) when I lost my shit when the teacher took my pencil off me, nudged me out of my seat and sat drawing the picture himself. When I pointed out (loudly) that he might as well draw the picture himself, I was, quite rightly, sent to the headmaster.


I'm not sure what other possible punishments the school may have for the boy's low-level offending now that detention isn't working. So what is the next rung on the punishment ladder? When this zero-tolerance approach has zero impact.


Watch this space!



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