Food Rewards: Help or Hindrance?

photo of Candy

I overheard Melissa talking to a friend the other day. She was explaining her day. “In social skills group, I get a tiny bag of skittles like the ones you get on Halloween. Mrs. R gives us a chocolate kiss after music. Miss Sally gives me jelly bellies after I do my writing exercises. In Mr. White’s class I have a chart for when I listen carefully. When I get 10 stickers, I get to pick a piece of candy from the jar.”

Use of food as a reward system in schools is not new. It is an easy and universally understood token for students of all ages and abilities. It’s common for a class of students to work toward a pizza party or other food-related event. However, for students with Down syndrome and related disabilities, the use of food rewards can become so prevalent in teaching methodology it gets the way of lunch! For Melissa, the candy appears to be the most exciting part of the day.

When working in isolation, these rewards seem harmless. However, the totality of the candy offered throughout the day is a very real problem. Not only do they provide too may empty calories in a day, but the process, the habit, of earning food can wreak havoc later in life. Think about the behavioral lesson. What is this student learning? She is learning that if she complies with the rules, she gets candy. She is learning that food is an expected part of a good day at work. For some students, this becomes a well-established groove into adulthood that is difficult to break. For others, good work triggers the desire to eat. It’s difficult to find a good reason to continue to offer food as any sort of regular reward.

What to do?

First, use the accommodations and modifications section of your child or student’s IEP. An appropriate accommodation for this student is “No food rewards.” This will serve as a reminder to all team members. However, whenever a technique is taken away, it must have an equally effective one. This is where the team work comes in to play. I encourage parents and teachers to create a list of the things that motivate each student. For many, the best reward is a social connection: a high five, a statement of praise, time with friends doing an infrequent, favored activity, and so on. A visual tool for this would be a reward chart with stickers, building up to special time with friends. One young lady I worked with was more excited about earning clips and bows for her hair than anything else. We all knew when it was an especially good day when you could barely see her hair for the clips and bows.

When working with middle school and high school students, sit down with them to create the reward list. Ask them what it is they would like to do. Involving students in classroom contracts makes them more meaningful.

Of course there are times when a classroom party is the most appropriate activity for students! Focus the party on activities and what they did to earn the party more than the pizza or ice cream. Regardless, food is an integral part of life. Our job, as parents and educators, is to use it wisely.

2010 © Phronesis Publishing, LLC

Photo is ©istockphoto.com/ migin

I overheard Melissa talking to a friend the other day. She was explaining her day to a friend, “In social skills group, I get a tiny bag of skittles like the ones you get on Halloween. Mrs. R gives us a chocolate kiss after music. Miss Sally gives me jelly bellies after I do my writing exercises. In Mr. White’s class I have a chart for when I listen carefully. When I get 10 stickers, I get to pick a piece of candy from the jar.”

Use of food as a reward system in schools is not new. It is an easy and universally understood token for students of all ages and abilities. It’s common for a class of students to work toward a pizza party or other food-related event. However, for students with Down syndrome and related disabilities, the use of food rewards can become so prevalent in teaching methodology it gets the way of lunch!

When working in isolation, these rewards seem harmless. However, the totality of the candy offered throughout the day is a very real problem. Not only do they provide too may empty calories in a day, but the process, the habit, of earning food can wreak havoc later in life. Think about the behavioral lesson. What is this student learning? She is learning that if she complies with the rules, she gets candy. She is learning that food is an expected part of a good day at work. For some students, this becomes a well-established groove into adulthood that is difficult to break. For others, good work triggers the desire to eat. It’s difficult to find a good reason to continue to offer food as any sort of regular reward.

What to do?

First, use the accommodations and modifications section of your child or student’s IEP. An appropriate accommodation for this student is “No food rewards.” This will serve as a reminder to all team members. However, whenever a technique is taken away, it must have an equally effective one. This is where the team work comes in to play. I encourage parents and teachers to create a list of the things that motivate each student. For many, the best reward is a social connection: a high five, a statement of praise, time with friends doing an infrequent, favored activity, and so on. A visual tool for this would be a reward chart with stickers, building up to special time with friends. One young lady I worked with was more excited about earning clips and bows for her hair than anything else. We all knew when it was an especially good day when you could barely see her hair for the clips and bows.

When working with middle school and high school students, sit down with them to create the reward list. Ask them what it is they would like to do. Involving students in classroom contracts makes them more meaningful.

Of course there are times when a classroom party is the most appropriate activity for students! Focus the party on activities and what they did to earn the party more than the pizza or ice cream. Regardless, food is an integral part of life. Our job, as parents and educators, is to use it wisely.

Advertisements

About Joan

I am first, and foremost, the mother of two amazing young men. One of them has Down syndrome, Autism, Celiac Disease, and uses few words. I focus my work on providing support, training, and creating tools that will create quality lives, quality health, and connected community for him and his peers. It's true. We can all have a quality life, with quality health, and connected communities in which we thrive. Let's go on this walk together! You can learn more about me and my work at www.DownSyndrmeNutrition.com
This entry was posted in Disability-related, Phronesis Articles, Tools. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Food Rewards: Help or Hindrance?

  1. Sarra says:

    The carry forward of food as a reward – even with the no food rewards on an IEP are live long .

    My son Elie, now 24yo has no interest in working for money rewards. And praise is nice, but he wants the hook to be food. Whether it is a jr frosty (100 calories of sugar with some dairy) or Ihop or his fav of hamburger FF, he sees work as being for the purpose of earning food. We can delay the reward (work all week and Then we can go to I-Hop, etc) but pay up with food or he will stop working and literally stop moving!

    Keep on enforcing ‘no food’ rules at school and at home – it is vital to your child’s future.

  2. Aviva says:

    This is SO timely because a bunch of my friends have been talking about how upset they are with the amount of candy being passed out as rewards on a daily basis at school.

    Is there anything parents of kids who don’t have IEPs can do? Any suggestions I can pass onto my friends? It’s not that any of us are depriving our kids of sweets entirely — we just don’t think candy is an appropriate reward for good behavior at school.

    Thanks!!

    • Kathy Olive says:

      It’s not necessary to have an IEP to influence the amount of food rewards that are given at school. Since all schools systems have a Child Nutrition Program in place, your friends and you need to contact the person who oversees that for the school district (and be sure to include your school superintendent) with a request for a change in school policy. Change can be made by informed parents who present information on nutrition (or lack thereof) to school leaders and at Board of Education meetings. I know this is true because our school district implemented a sugar-free snack policy and took out all the soda machines available to students. There really wasn’t much complaining either. Each teacher was responsible for being sure the policy was followed in his/her classroom and each principal was responsible at the school level. Yes, we had to send home a list of appropriate substitutes, such as cheese cubes and pretzels or fresh fruit, but over the next few years, we expect to see healthier kids. Be informed and speak out! You can do it!

  3. Joan says:

    Although the IEP brings a written agreement to it, you can use the same idea. Meet with the teacher – preferrably early in the year – and tell them that you would prefer other types of rewards.

    You can make a list of types of rewards kids can earn.

    One thing I’ve learned over the years is that those rewards are something the teachers purchase on their own. Perhaps a classroom fund for incentives would help.

    Also, do a little digging around for some bigger incentives. Kids really do not like to do things for “cool pencils.” But a special field trip, hats from your local sports team, “movie party” or something might be useful.

    Working with the teachers is the best solution. And then, with your support, the teacher working with the kids to find out what THEY would think is cool is even better.

    With the focus on childhood obesity coming from Mrs. Obama, this will become a hot topic before you know it.

    Does this help?

  4. Aviva says:

    Thanks, Joan!

    I am hoping that this topic heats up soon. I was shocked to hear that even as schools are taking out vending machines with candy and sugary drinks, there are teachers out there handing out candy in the classroom multiple times a day.

    I think the problem with making candy off-limits in the classroom for my child, or a child of someone in my MOMS Club, is that they will feel deprived if they are the only kid not getting those candy rewards.

    I know it was a million years ago that I was in elementary school, but I don’t remember getting candy for things like being quiet or getting my gear packed up in my backpack promptly, etc. Sure, we had class parties for holidays with lots of sweets, and kids brought treats on their bday to share with classmates. But on an everyday basis, which is what I’m hearing happens in way too many classrooms? No way.

    Of course, I don’t remember getting cool pencils either. 🙂

    A classroom fund for incentives is a great idea, as is talking to teachers at the start of the year before classroom patterns are set. I’m going to share a link to this blog post with my MOMS Club yahoo group and hopefully it will help them at least for next year even if it’s already too late for this school year.

  5. Pingback: To Party or Not To Party | Nerd Power

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s