Food Rewards

imagesIts a simple principle of behavioral psychology–reinforce behaviors you want, discourage behaviors you don’t want. Reward. Punish.

In school, reward and punishment are used frequently to teach good study habits and to motivate learning. For the diabetic child, or for any child with food allergies or dietary restrictions, however, rewards based on food can have the opposite effect. In fact, food rewards can seem like punishment when one is unable to eat them.

This year, my son and I have really struggled with this issue, as he has a teacher who frequently uses candy and class parties to reward students for good behavior and good grades–and I should add here that my son is an intelligent student who constantly seeks to please, so he gets “rewarded” almost daily.  Except that these rewards don’t motivate him or make him feel proud at all.

Last night, while doing the obligatory weekly backpack clean out, I found a bag of M&Ms, flattened into a chocolate mess. I assumed they had been in his backpack for weeks, but, on the contrary, they were from that very day according to my son. He had apparently squished them because he didn’t intend to eat them and they were “useless pieces of crap he didn’t want”–sorry, his words, not mine.

I was horrified, on the one hand, that my son harbored such anger and violent feelings about the candy, but I was equally horrified that his teacher could have so little regard or respect for my son and the constraints imposed by his disease. It is difficult enough for a child to adjust to having diabetes; every time my son’s teacher gives out candy, and he quietly puts it in a ziplock bag to take home while the other kids enjoy the treats, he feels that difference ten-fold. It’s been tough for him.

I will talk to the teacher, as I have in the past, but since I know I have a few followers who are in the elementary education program, I would like to issue a call. Yes, as a teacher, it is important to reinforce good behaviors in the classroom, but understand that such reinforcement could undermine your efforts if the reward fails to match the needs (not wants) of the individual.

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