My daughter will be entering second grade at the end of the summer. She is just starting her journey through school. As a child with food allergies, it hasn’t been easy for her so far. During first grade she was excluded from activities several times a week and the constant stress of possible allergen exposure wore us all down. Despite all that, she loves school, she’s made some very sweet and caring friends, she hasn’t had any major allergy reactions, and she’s happy, so all in all school has been a success so far.
But, one of the most surprising parts of this journey so far has been the widespread and common use of food rewards in the classrooms and throughout her school. It’s very common for the teachers to hand out candy as rewards in the classroom, they also receive special candy and junk food parties as rewards throughout the year. When the whole country is struggling to keep children healthy and avoid childhood obesity, I find it surprising that teachers and the school as a whole are doing this. While it may provide short term behavior or performance changes, this practice has real long term consequences. As parents, we are in it for life and it’s our job to look out for our children’s long term health and learning experience.
Some may point out that my daughter’s food allergies make it easy for me to disapprove of this, but this goes beyond children with food allergies. This practice is hurting everyone, including the teachers and the school. I know many parents who really don’t like the practice as well, but are just not sure how to change it. The teachers and school openly support and rely on these rewards, but I guess no one has challenged it or pointed out how inappropriate it is.
Here it goes, here’s my case against food rewards in the classroom:
- The first and obvious reason – these foods are unhealthy. Candy and junk food contribute to poor health. Candy and sugary rewards increase the risk of cavities and hyperactivity and can lead to problems like diabetes and obesity. Pizza, ice cream and cookies are not healthy foods and should be eaten in moderation. When given throughout the day, they can take the place of or interfere with healthy choices. Eating when your not hungry teaches poor eating habits and interferes with the child’s ability to understand when they are hungry.
- Parents should decide what their children should eat and the school should respect that choice. Children are given food in the classroom all the time and parents have no idea what and how much.
- Eating sweets increases a preference for sweets. We’ve all seen it. I gave my 3 year old a fruit juice lollipop and for a week afterwards, he he insisted on lollipops for breakfast, lunch and dinner instead of a real meal. It was a tough battle that I hadn’t anticipated.
- It’s manipulation. A child promised a treat for learning has been given every reason to stop doing so as soon as the reward goes away. Children will very quickly realize that the rewards can work both ways -” if you don’t give me the reward, I won’t cooperate”.
- It teaches children inappropriate associations with food. Food rewards create the understanding that food and sustenance are things one has to earn.
- Food rewards are confusing and compromise learning. The children are taught about nutrition to promote healthy habits, but by giving out candy in class they are completely contradicting that message. A recent field trip to the skating rink was touted as being part of the children’s health curriculum, but pizza was included as part of the field trip. My daughter was quick to point this out and I have to agree with her – this isn’t the best way to end a “health” fieldtrip.
I know, it’s just a gummy bear! I don’t want to criticize teachers here – I know their job is very difficult and the day in day out challenges to keep these kids motivated and behaving can be overwhelming. I just feel that there is a better way to motivate our kids and give them a better sense of accomplishment without compromising their health.
Developing a child’s inner sense of accomplishment is a beautiful thing. An internal sense of success is powerful, and creates a sense of accomplishment that pales in comparison to any external praise, or tangible reward, for a job well done. This, in my opinion is the real juice that keeps kids excited about learning. This is what we need to aim for as a goal for our children and support our schools and teachers in that goal.
So what can we do? We want what’s best for our children and we want them to have the best education experience possible. If we want change, we have to ask for it. This is me asking for change. This is me asking teachers and schools to stop using food rewards in the classroom. I’ll let you know, readers and fellow parents, how this plea is received in the coming weeks.
Until next time, Lisa
Update 8/24/12: Find out the exciting conclusion to this story…