As students return to school, their parents may consider paying them for good grades. That may not be the most effective way to motivate them to do well in school, according to one expert.
Jared Durtschi, an assistant professor of marriage and family therapy in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at the Kansas State University College of Human Ecology, said that while monetary compensation for grades may be effective in some cases, parents should also be aware that the practice could actually decrease their child's motivation to perform well in school.
Durtschi said that paying children for good grades may cause their motivation to work hard in school to shift from an internal motivation -- being motivated by how it will make them feel -- to an external one that is driven by the reward they will receive.
"If a student's motivation to apply himself or herself to academics is solely external, then the child will often stop working hard in school once he or she stops getting paid for their grades," Durtschi said. "The practice has the potential to be especially harmful to students who are already internally motivated to get good grades. By paying these students for their achievements, parents risk making an activity these children enjoy in its own right into something they feel they have to do in order to obtain some other end."
In some cases, paying for good grades can be an effective method to motivate students who don't feel driven to succeed on their own, Durtschi said.
"Parents should work to transition the external motivation that comes with being paid to do something into an internal one, so that students will eventually become motivated to achieve in school on their own," he said.
Many parents who embrace paying students to get good grades do so because, in a very real way, grades do pay; they are a significant factor in determining whether students will get into a top college or eventually secure a high-paying job.
Even so, Durtschi said money may not be the most meaningful reward to all students.
"The most powerful motivator is unique to each child," he said. "For some kids, a trip to see grandma or not being required to do chores for a week might be more motivating than $20."
Durtschi also said that, especially for younger children, parental praise and affection often remain the most powerful motivator. In fact, he said, parents and teachers have the ability to significantly affect a child's performance in the classroom merely by improving their perceptions of that child. In many cases, even students who have not traditionally been considered capable of achieving at the highest level academically may have the potential to become the best students in a class if the bar is raised for their academic performance and they are treated as someone who is competent in doing so.
"We attribute labels to ourselves based on what others tell us we are or are not good at," Durtschi said. "Even if a kid is just average, they can rise to so much more if expectations and treatment are adjusted. It limits our kids if we stop believing they are capable of great things."
As a parent, Durtschi said it's important to let your child know you believe he or she is capable of achieving highly. But when you know your child is trying as hard as he or she can, it's also important for a parent to accept the child's best effort. Students who are perceived as less bright often just need more time to understand new concepts, or may learn more efficiently if the information is presented in a different way.
"We're all developmentally different and grasp things at different times," he said. "Kids learn in tons of different ways, and some just need more time to absorb the material, or need an example that is relatable to their life, or need the courage to ask questions. Most kids have tons of potential. It's possible to change how we see our kids and how our kids see themselves. There's room for considerable growth in all kids, especially those who've been given up on."