Navigating rewards: How to acknowledge your child’s academic achievements

Michael Williams
Michael Williams

It’s the end of the school year.

Your child has worked hard, improved their grades, given it their all, or – if they are one of the graduating class of 2023 Year 12s receiving their ATARs at the moment – found out they got the marks needed to enter their preferred university degree.

To show them how proud and happy you are about their achievements, you reach for your wallet. The way your mum or dad did for you. But… suddenly, you think to yourself: is this the best way to encourage effort at school as a parent?

Thankfully, EducationDaily has explored some of the best (and more questionable) ways to reward your child for their academic achievements this school year, so you can celebrate the holiday break ahead without (too many) psychological scars.

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Best ways parents can reward academic achievement

  • Reflection

This isn’t a reward per se, but it is, nonetheless, invaluable to a child’s growth.

The way you react to your child’s grades will affect their attitudes to school.

If you’re too harsh on them for not achieving the top tier of results, your child may feel discouraged to try; meanwhile, if you only focus on perfect scores, your child may think their grades are all that matter.

Report cards can instead be treated as a sneaky moment of development for your child.

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In their Self-Reflection and the Cognitive Control of Behaviour paper, psychologists Stuart Marcovitch, Sophie Jacques, Janet J. Boseovski, and Philip David Zelazo argue that self-reflection can help reinforce learning, identify areas of improvement, and set goals – developing a growth mindset that can persist throughout their lives.

Asking questions at this time can be encouraging to your child’s growth.

The questions can be easy, such as:

  • What was your favourite part of the class this year?
  • What did you do well in?
  • What could you have improved?
  • What would you like to do next year?

For older students, you could dig a little deeper.

  • How can you improve your study habits?
  • Do you need to improve your sleep or dietary habits?
  • Is this a class you genuinely enjoy and want to grow in?

Having the same mindset when you react to both high and low grades can help your child realise that grades, and in turn life outcomes, are a result of their actions.

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Questionable ways parents can reward academic achievement

  • Money

This is a tough one.

Psychologists seem split on whether money-based rewards work on encouraging good grades.

A study from the University of Chicago found that with the right kind of rewards, students could improve on their results on tests dramatically.

“At Bloom Township High School, when we offered students $20 incentives, we found that their scores were 0.12 to .20 standard deviation points above what we would otherwise have predicted given their previous test scores,” says lead author Sally Sadoff said.

However, other international academics have different opinions.

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In her article, Motivating Children Without Rewards, Professor Vanessa LoBue writes:

“What this type of reward system does is teach an individual to expect a reward in exchange for a certain behaviour. The danger is that if you stop rewarding the behaviour, there’s a good chance it will go away. Another potential danger is that if you use it with your children, eventually when you ask them to do something, they might respond with ‘What will you give me for it,’ or ‘What’s in it for me?’ Perhaps most importantly, research suggests that providing physical rewards, or what psychologists call extrinsic motivation for doing something, undermines the development of any internal or intrinsic motivation to do the very same thing.”

In other words, she writes, if children are rewarded for doing well in school, their motivation for learning might be wholly based on receiving rewards, and not by any inherent appreciation for knowledge.

Some research even suggests the opposite is true when it comes to motivation.

“In one of the most classic studies on the topic, researchers asked college students to work on a puzzle while in the lab,” writes Professor LoBue.

“Half of the students were told that they would be paid for doing the puzzle, while the other half were not told they’d be paid.

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“After a short break, the college students were left alone to do whatever they wanted, and they had the option of continuing to work on the puzzle or to do something else. Which group do you think worked on the puzzle for longer?”

Contrary to what you might expect, Professor LoBue says the students who were not paid were the ones who voluntarily kept working on the puzzle.

“The researchers concluded that paying the students and thus providing an extrinsic reward for their work diminished their intrinsic motivation to do the puzzle.”

So, don’t give money, and just sit and chat?

If your parental instincts tell you that might sound…well…a bit boring, the next tip may offer some more excitement.

  • Expand Your Child’s Freedoms

In his 2001 published book The Archetype of Initiation, Jungian psychologist Robert L. Moore wrote on the importance of formal ceremonies and the slow separation of parental influences, leading to integration into the adult community through physical and symbolic rites.

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This is just a very ‘woo’ way of saying report cards are an excellent time to evaluate where your child is developmentally – and, as you look ahead to the 2024 academic year, where there are some ways you can afford them more freedom.

This could come about in a variety of ways.

Depending on their age, you could allow them to play with kids that live further from home, extend their curfew; or maybe, if you’re in the right place financially, it could be time to get them that car they’ve been begging you for.
Freedom ties itself in well with intrinsic motivation.

Taking responsibility can, in itself, be a game where, as your child takes more responsibility, they are afforded more freedoms that then lead to even more responsibility.

The process of becoming an adult can be fun and fulfilling with the right attitude. Psychologist Sebastian Sallcru wrote the following:

“Taking responsibility empowers us by making us accountable for our own behaviour, to think critically, perform well under pressure, and handle challenges with ease. Owning our decisions provides us with a powerful focus on what we want.”

Responsibility, according to him, begins with knowing what we want and creating a plan to get there – not because of a sense of duty, but from our own desire.

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“When we take responsibility, we take ownership of behaviour and its consequences. We accept our choices and their outcomes – without blaming others or life’s circumstances. This makes us strong and resilient. The degree of freedom we experience in life is a direct proportion of the amount of responsibility we take.”

How can praising achievements be questionable?

Everyone likes to be acknowledged for their abilities, right?

Well, psychologists actually seem to be split on this one.

In her essay, The Science of Praise, Dr Terri Apter says praise is used socially by people as a means of establishing and reinforcing norms and that praise can ignite anger that may seem inexplicable and irrational to others.

“When a teenage daughter is trying to resist her parents’ expectations and prove her independence of thought and character, her parents’ praise can seem patronising,” she says.

“‘You’ve done a wonderful job on that, ‘can make her fume because she feels that her parents expect her to be pleased by their assessment, when what she wants to set her own standards. Or, if said in a surprised tone, she can be offended because she picks up that they expected her to do less.”

In their essay, The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation Revisited, Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Kayla A. Good say praise, while valuable socially must be handled tactfully.

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“One key characteristic of praise is its potential to communicate messages about the causes of success,” they write.

“Process praise (e.g., “What a clever approach!”) highlights controllable, unstable attributions for performance (e.g., effort, strategy), and tends to produce adaptive motivational beliefs and behaviours, such as enjoyment, persistence, learning goals, and achievement.
Person praise (e.g., “What a smart child!”), by contrast, highlights uncontrollable, stable attributions (e.g., ability) and leaves children vulnerable to maladaptive motivational beliefs and behaviours in the face of future setbacks, such as challenge avoidance and learned helplessness.

“Person praise may lead children to reason that, if success meant they were smart, failure must mean they are dumb.”

Real-world rewards to suit your budget

  • Take them on a day trip or holiday

A short getaway doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and a holiday is a chance for your child to expand their horizons and build up their sense of the world. It’s a chance for them to explore themselves and their wants. And it’s just fun.

  • Quality time

Of course, you should already be allocating quality time as a parent. But a night-in or a night at the cinema could be a good chance to solidify this as a cherishable moment in their growth.

  • Allow/ encourage them to have a sleepover or go out with friends

A truth about growing up is that friends become just as valuable to the life of a young person as their relationships with parents and family. Cooling off after a big year with some friends is a great way for them to unwind with people who are in a similar place in life. Maybe you could even shout them popcorn.

  • Buy them a sentimental gift

Yes, it’s a monetary gift. But, if it’s something that you know your child has been working for, and you happen to believe it’s something that they’ve earned, then the gift could lead to an intimate chat about how you’re proud of how hard they’ve worked.

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Michael R Williams has been writing for regional newspapers for the past 3 years, including delivering the Longreach Leader to its 100th year. He is passionate about the opportunity journalism offers him to interview and tell the stories of Australians with a broad and diverse range of backgrounds. He is an obsessive reader and podcast listener.