Are You Handing Out Hidden Rewards?

We all know this child: The one who seems too precocious for the classroom and keeps getting “in trouble” again and again. She finds her way to other students’ work areas and draws them off task, each time with a plausible excuse. “He had a question, and I was trying to help.” She finds her way into the hall several times throughout the day. Sometimes on a hall pass she extends her trip to another classroom or to the office, or just to a completely different part of the school, on an errand that was not part of the reason for leaving the class indicated on the hall pass. We can see her now. A name (or two) has come to mind.

Perhaps she is, again and again, involved in a conflict. Or merely a witness to misbehavior, stopping in to the office and offering to report her version of events. She seems to need to be part of the action in some way. Perhaps she is constantly in time out, or in-school suspension, or the office of someone in the school who provides consequences. Many staff members know this child’s name, maybe all of them do, and most of them utter the syllables with a tone that conveys frustration and exhaustion.

She is frequently “in trouble,” a vague term that is akin to indicating that a child is “bad.” The term “in trouble” seems to mean, “about to receive a punishment for misbehavior.” It also seems to mean something like, “out of the classroom or off her regular schedule because of misbehavior.” That seems to perfectly describe this student we are holding in mind.

We then look sideways at this student and ask ourselves, “What is wrong with her?” We look at missing assignments, lost instructional time. “Doesn’t she want to do well in school? Doesn’t she understand what she is doing to her grades?”

It is baffling to us as educators. Many of us were good students who enjoyed school. After we became teachers, we worked hard to make our classrooms orderly and secure places where every student – especially this one – felt included and supported.  We constructed lesson plans with her in mind, referencing her favorite musicians, and selecting readings about people with a background like hers. We provide as much care as we can, and yet this child seeks constantly to be somewhere else. In spite of consequences. In spite of detentions and worse. In spite of always seeming to be “in trouble.”

But perhaps when we ask, “what is wrong with her?” our question is flawed. She is, after all, a child. She is, after all, behaving. She is acting in a certain way, contrary to our rules and expectations.  She is, some might say, misbehaving. What if the question is NOT “What is wrong with her” but is instead “What is right with her?” Behavior can be understood, and is often predictable within certain parameters. If she is behaving to get something she wants or needs, a primary driver of all behavior, we might be looking in the wrong place when, in order to identify the locus of the problem, we look at the student.

Perhaps the correct question is, “What is she receiving as a result of these misbehaviors?”

You have placed her in time out and you are discussing her poor choices. But what if she loves spending time with you?

It turns out, she may be receiving quite a lot. When our intent is to provide a consequence to a student, to discourage a misbehavior and provide a replacement behavior, we sometimes do the opposite. Behaviorists like Skinner say we can change behavior through negative stimuli, but what if the student does not see our reaction as negative at all. What if underneath the time out chair, there is something that the student sees as a gift or reward. In our hurry to move on to the next task, or out of our habits and past experiences, this reward is hidden from our sight, and maybe from her conscious sight as well.

Below are four of these hidden rewards, observed in schools and classrooms everywhere:

– special status or privileges

– fame / recognition among adults and students

– individual attention

– avoidance of work


Special status or privileges:

Ladene has been notorious in the school for years. She has been at the periphery or center of dozens of conflicts, and when she walks in to school in the morning, the look on her face can reveal what sort of day the whole classroom is about to have. Mrs. Crawford, well-intentioned staff member, has struck up a relationship with Ladene, befriending her, and offering her solace. She even allows her classroom to be used for meetings with Ladene and her counselor from outside of school, assigned by a social service agency. On these “bad days”, Mrs. Crawford directs Ladene into her room, calls the counselor, and then starts her own day, answering emails, monitoring the hallway, or making phone calls. A colleague was surprised one morning to find Ladene in the office pouring a cup of coffee. “It’s okay,” Ladene explained, “it is for Mrs. Crawford.”

Key features of special status include the student being asked to or allowed to participate in the work of the school when she is “in trouble.” Does someone in the office have this student stuff envelopes or sort mail to “give her something to do”? Is she asked to deliver messages or retrieve things from classrooms? In this case, Ladene had access to a part of the school typically reserved for teachers.

“What is the problem with this?” some may ask. “She is getting the attention she needs, and necessary counseling, and it is preventing interruptions in the classroom. She is additionally forming relationships with adults in the school. Isn’t this what we want for our students?”

Yes, we want the student to get support and to form appropriate relationships. It is fair to ask, however, whether doing these things during instructional time is an effective way for her to make the gains she needs. When will she make academic gains? When will she learn to self-moderate? Additionally, running an errand does not establish an appropriate relationship between an adult and a student in a school. Although Ladene saw it as “okay”, it was definitely not.

Ladene regularly finds herself running a quick errand for Mrs. Crawford, or in the teacher lounge, or using a teacher restroom as she waits for her counselor. All as a result of her inability or unwillingness to follow the rules and expectations in the school. The “hidden reward”, attributed to her as a lack of desire to do well in school, is actually a strong desire to belong. She is not misbehaving, she is behaving in a way that earns her special privileges. She gets to pour a coffee, or walk the halls announcing it is okay that she does not have a pass because she is running an errand for Mrs. Crawford. She has access to parts of the school others don’t, and while her classmates are struggling with geometry, she is overhearing important conversations about other students.



“Mr. Jose, you have to do something about Adrean. She is a mess. She is always in the hall, she never has a pass. She is always in trouble with someone.” This was my afternoon custodian. I was surprised that he knew the name of one of the students, but not really that it was this one. In class she is precocious, offering to answer certain questions and feigning disinterest in others – perhaps to cover deficits – and she is a generally a good student. One or two poor grades each quarter separated her from the honor roll. Teachers have become accustomed to her disruptive behavior. I sometimes wonder if some sign her hall pass because it generates a few minutes of calm in their classroom. Perhaps this is unfair.

Key symptoms of the “recognition” hidden reward is a student who is comfortable talking with the adults in the school, even those who are not her teachers. She knows all their names too. If she overhears a conversation involving a question for another adult, she will helpfully offer, “Oh, he is down in room 121. Want me to go get him?” She has a remarkable, and seemingly up-to-the-minute understanding of where everyone is in the school at a given moment that rivals any adult in the school.

What is the problem with this? Certainly we want our school to have a family feel, with adults and teachers in various roles familiar with each other. We even like to boast that we are “in each other’s business” to some extent, right? How can you be interdependent if you don’t know each other?

Adolescents are actively seeking their new adult persona. Crafting a persona that is gregarious is certainly acceptable and a good goal. However, there is a problem with negative attention. A student who relishes this persona, who covets any attention, even negative attention, will then fail to normalize appropriately, practicing misbehavior to get what she seeks. Practicing poor habits over time leads to poor outcomes, and a developed personality that prefers notoriety over accepted norms.


Individual attention:

Sarah seems to start every morning out by crying, but perhaps it is really only once every week or two. A small gaggle of girls cluster around her locker, or the door outside the office, where she is recounting a recent series of events that have rendered her incapable of attending class, or even at times coherent speech or even the ability to stand. Minutes later, under the supervision of a counselor or a sympathetic teacher, she seems composed, and fully recovered.

Over time, a pattern emerges. She breaks down, gets escorted to someone’s office, she marshals her forces and is able to recover only after a one-on-one conversation, preferably behind closed doors, with any of a number of adults in the building.

What is the problem with this? We want our students to have a network of adults to whom our students can turn when they are in trouble, and the occasional counselor visit is necessary for nearly everyone. Adolescents especially struggle with new extreme emotions – reactions to death, separation, breakups in relationships with trusted friends. These are trying times. However, seeking out this individual attention to the exclusion of developing normal relationships with teachers, cultivates a sense of learned helplessness. This person could develop into an adult who enters dependent and perhaps abusive relationships, as she tolerates increasing maltreatment in order to get the individualized attention she craves.


Avoidance of work:

Chris was making his third trip past the office during this passing bell. When asked – as the tardy bell rang – where he was supposed to be, he pointed back down the hall, in a direction that would mark his fourth trip past the office. Shortly after entering class, he was removed by the teacher for failing to follow directions. A tardy combined with a removal from class was a special kind of marker.

On this day, there was a program happening in class that was bound to make some of the students uncomfortable: a presentation on “sex ed.” The students had been prepared for this day primarily by being told it was happening. A range of adolescent responses had bubbled up. There was anxiety, eagerness to learn, curiosity, and embarrassment. By arriving late, then refusing to follow directions once he entered to the point where he was asked to leave, Chris avoided all of this. He would be unlikely to admit that it was intentional. While he will continue to pretend to be very knowledgeable in front of his friends on the subject of sex, we can be certain that he was brimming with important questions. These are questions that he does not have the answers to now, as he was not present to ask them.

These same types of behaviors become patterns in students who are not experiencing success in school. It is not rare to observe that rather than risk struggling and failing in front of their friends, some students will choose to misbehave. When asked about his poor grades, Chris or someone like him might say, “Sure, I can do it, but they keep suspending me.” Being afraid to fail has multiple negative effects on students.[1]

Other evidence of work avoidance is getting removed from the same subject regularly. A student may blame this on a personality clash with the teacher, perhaps stating “she is out to get me.” Work completion percentages indicating large amounts of missed work, and poor overall grades will help reveal the truth. Additionally, this student will occasionally shout out correct answers or raise his hand to participate. This may lure the teacher into thinking he has the skills to be successful. She may comment, “He is really smart but he is always in trouble.” This prompts a hidden reward within the hidden reward: now the disruptive and work-avoiding student gets the bonus of being labeled by the professional as “smart.” This allows him to double down on his claim that he is competent, but the victim of circumstances. However, if he is selecting when to participate, he is likely only getting involved when he is sure he knows the answer. He is rigging the game to appear as if he is mastering the content, when in fact he is only grasping bits and pieces. Tomorrow, rather than take that test, he is likely to be argumentative until he finds himself again removed from class.

The problem with this is obvious. The student who is constantly “in trouble” to avoid work and expectations is both disruptive to others and injurious to himself. How can anyone, Chris or his classmates, learn in a class where a student is willing to be disruptive in order to avoid having to struggle and learn?

You had to remove him from the room. But what if what he really wanted was to have an excuse for that poor test grade?

In her recent presentation at the AMS annual conference, P. Donohue Shortridge ( reminded teachers and administrators of their role in dealing with misbehavior. She discussed “taking a wider view of conflict and disquiet” which she resolved into the notion of “Inner work – the transformation of the adult.” She implied that this second work was the transformation of the self. Much of what happens with a child is beyond our locus of control. As educators, we are in a privileged place to exert more control than others.  We must seek to identify how our actions and reactions are contributing to a situation. The teacher who provides hidden rewards to a student “in trouble” is working against the child by encouraging and rewarding behavior that separates the child from her work.

There are some steps the adult can take in order to determine if they are providing hidden rewards to students.

First, look for patterns in the misbehavior. These patterns can be revealed by looking at several metrics:

  • Are they happening at certain times of day? (yes? Maybe avoidance.)
  • Are they happening outside of class, during arrival, transitions, lunch, and dismissal? (Yes? Maybe individual attention or special status.)
  • Are they happening during a specific class or classes? (Yes? Maybe avoidance or individual attention.)
  • Are they happening with males or females only? (Yes? Maybe individual attention.)
  • Are the behaviors correlated with poor grades? (Yes? Maybe avoidance.)
  • Does the student have only one particular adult who can fix the problem? (Yes? Maybe individual attention or special status.)
  • Does the misbehavior continue when the student returns from the intervention? Yes? Maybe individual attention or special status.)

These patterns can help reveal which hidden rewards the child is receiving. If possible, create an intervention that short circuits the hidden reward. For instance, if the child is seeking to avoid work, a teacher might initiate some planned ignoring as the student exhibits low level misbehavior. When the child misbehaves, instead of immediately correcting him, the teacher might talk to the student as if he was doing what was asked, or the teacher might walk away and say, “I will return when you are ready to work.”

Another example, this one for students seeking individual attention, would be to build one-on-one time in to a student’s schedule as a standing item or as a reward for positive behavior, instead of a consequence for misbehavior. One student, Jasmine, desperately sought my attention at Friday Night School. I could get her to sit quietly for the first half by promising to sit beside her and work on one subject together for 15 minutes later in the session. It was clear that she sought one on one time with any adult in her life. It occurred to me that she might be willing to get a consequence just to get this individual time. I realized several students had this same need for individual attention and support. As a result, I offered to her – and to the whole school – the option of attending Friday Night School for support with academics rather than as a consequence, with the option of greater freedoms including use of earbuds and smart phones, and permission to leave whenever they were ready to leave. Jasmine received one more Friday Night School after I made this switch, and twice after that attended just for the academic support. Eventually she chose to start staying after school for help nights with a teacher. Either I was not as helpful as him, or perhaps she just wanted a better start to her weekend.

Second, an overarching approach to circumventing hidden rewards is to develop, and follow, a chart of progressive responses to misbehavior as a school. This includes escalating (and varied) consequences for misbehavior. So for disruption, a child might go to a preferred adult as a consequence once or twice, but then this would escalate to a time out in a separate room, a detention at lunch or after school, or other time outside of class time. By changing the consequence, a hidden reward does not have a chance to undermine your work with the student.

Third, it is important to develop a uniform personal approach to addressing possible misbehavior. When I encounter a student in the hallway during class time, I ask either, “May I see your note?” or “Where are you supposed to be?” Students provide a range of responses, but all of them give me a clue as to whether they are in the hallway with someone’s explicit permission or with a legitimate goal. While I enjoy the company of my students, my role during class time in the hall is to help them get back to class, not to be their friend. I have developed specific phrases and habits to address specific types of misbehavior, and I work hard not to vary from this script. In this way I am being fair and consistent as much as possible.

A final suggestion is to respect the work of other teachers and adults in the school. Trust that they have developed lesson plans that are valuable for the student. Trust that they have planned a response to misbehavior that is appropriate to her needs. You do this by prioritizing class and the work in the room over your own perceptions of what the student needs. Sure she has THAT look on her face again this morning, but swooping in to save her each time robs her of the chance to learn how to deal with those emotions. It means helping the student be dependent on you instead of herself.

Examine your practices. Are you providing hidden rewards for your students? How can you short circuit them?

Please put an example below so we can learn from each other.


[1] British Psychological Society (BPS). “Fear of failure from a young age affects attitude to learning.” ScienceDaily. (accessed March 13, 2017).