The Problem With Rewards-Based Approach to School Occupational Therapy

In occupational therapy school, students learn about the behavioral approach for pediatrics and mental health. This approach is widely popular across different practices and beliefs from parenting to schools to the workplace. However, there are many potential problems with using a systematic rewards-based approach in schools for students and their learning, motivation, success, and growth.

Rewards in Schools

A rewards-based approach in schools involves using external incentives, such as prizes, tokens, or recognition, to motivate and reinforce desired behaviors and academic performance among students. It is based on the belief that offering rewards for positive actions will increase student engagement and effort.

In this approach, teachers establish a system where students earn rewards for meeting specific criteria or achieving predetermined goals. For example, students may receive stickers, certificates, or small prizes for completing assignments, demonstrating good behavior, or achieving high grades. The rewards can be given individually or in a group setting, and they are typically designed to be appealing to students and serve as tangible reinforcements.

The underlying principle of the rewards-based approach is to create a link between desirable behaviors or academic achievements and the positive outcomes received. The expectation is that students will be motivated to repeat those behaviors or strive for academic success in order to receive the rewards. Proponents of this approach argue that it can help students develop a sense of accomplishment, build self-esteem, and foster a positive learning environment.

Implementing a rewards-based approach often involves establishing clear guidelines and criteria for earning rewards, communicating these expectations to students, and regularly tracking their progress. Teachers may use charts, point systems, or other visual aids to monitor student performance and provide a visual representation of progress toward earning rewards.


While rewards can be effective in the short term and may help manage behavior and increase student participation, critics of this approach raise concerns about its long-term effects on intrinsic motivation. They argue that relying too heavily on external rewards may undermine students’ innate curiosity, intrinsic satisfaction, and desire for personal growth. Additionally, there is a risk of students becoming dependent on the rewards and losing motivation when they are no longer provided. More specifically, potential issues with over-use of rewards in schools include:

  1. Short-term focus: Rewards tend to promote short-term motivation rather than fostering intrinsic motivation and a genuine love for learning. Students may become focused on the rewards rather than the value of the task itself.
  2. Dependency on external incentives: When students rely heavily on external rewards, they may struggle to develop internal motivation and a sense of responsibility for their own learning. Without constant rewards, their engagement and effort may decline.
  3. Diminished interest in learning: The use of extrinsic rewards can unintentionally undermine students’ intrinsic interest in a subject. They may begin to associate the activity with the reward rather than finding inherent satisfaction in the learning process.
  4. Unrealistic expectations: The rewards-based approach may set unrealistic expectations for students. Once the rewards are removed or reduced, students may lose motivation, as the external incentives were the primary driving force for their engagement.
  5. Inequity and competition: Rewards can create a competitive environment among students, where they may compare their achievements and feel discouraged or demotivated if they perceive themselves as falling behind their peers. This can lead to a negative impact on their self-esteem and motivation.
  6. Narrow focus on specific tasks: A rewards-based system may limit students’ exploration and curiosity, as they may become solely focused on completing the tasks or activities that lead to rewards. It may hinder their willingness to take risks or engage in creative thinking.
  7. Loss of intrinsic satisfaction: By relying on external rewards, students may lose sight of the joy and fulfillment that comes from the intrinsic satisfaction of learning and personal growth.

The Research

“The evidence is compelling that extrinsic motivation techniques while producing short-term change actually produced negative effects.”

According to Wilson and Corpus (2001), they believe that it is inappropriate to use behaviorist models to motivate schools for achievement academically. For one, this approach may not address complex issues such as bullying behaviors or rewarding students for attendance. Deci and Ryan (1992) showed evidence that behaviors that are intrinsically motivated undermine overall motivation over the long-term.

If students possess the belief that they can succeed and make a conscious decision to do so, they will indeed achieve success. Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura (1989) conducted a study on intrinsic motivation and persistence in young adolescent males. They observed that when students were presented with challenges slightly beyond their current level of competence and had a genuine internal motivation for taking on those challenges, they would enter a state of “flow.” This theory emphasizes that students are primarily competing against themselves, rather than against others. Conversely, students who have low academic performance have often encountered numerous failures, particularly when compared to their peers. Consequently, they may be unwilling to exert effort because they believe their previous failures define their capabilities. Such students who have faced repeated failures often employ self-handicapping strategies like procrastination or intentionally not trying, in order to attribute their low performance to external factors rather than their own abilities.

Solutions for Occupational Therapy Practitioners and Educators

An alternative approach for occupational therapists in schools, instead of relying solely on a rewards-based behavioral approach, is to adopt a strengths-based and intrinsic motivation approach. This approach focuses on identifying and leveraging the unique strengths and abilities of each student, promoting their intrinsic motivation to engage in meaningful activities.

Rather than using external rewards or incentives to drive behavior, occupational therapists can work collaboratively with students to set individualized goals that align with their interests and strengths. They can help students recognize their own progress and achievements, fostering a sense of competence and self-efficacy. This approach encourages students to develop a genuine enjoyment and engagement in learning, rather than relying on external rewards as the sole motivator.

Furthermore, occupational therapists can create supportive and empowering environments that promote autonomy, choice, and mastery. They can provide opportunities for students to make decisions, take ownership of their learning, and experience a sense of control over their activities. By fostering a sense of autonomy and competence, students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated and actively participate in their educational journey.

To enhance the academic performance of students in middle school, effective programs can  also integrate social environments that support both intrinsic motivation and internalized extrinsic motivation. This includes implementing cooperative learning strategies, as well as initiatives that foster problem-solving skills, provide feedback, and empower students to have a sense of control over their learning activities.

Additionally, incorporating meaningful and relevant activities into therapy sessions can enhance students’ intrinsic motivation. Occupational therapists can connect therapy goals to real-life situations and interests of the students, making the activities more purposeful and engaging. This approach helps students see the value and relevance of their efforts, fostering a sense of intrinsic motivation and satisfaction.

By adopting a strengths-based and intrinsic motivation approach, occupational therapists can create a positive and empowering learning environment that promotes students’ self-determination, engagement, and long-term success.


In conclusion, while the rewards-based behavioral approach is commonly used in schools, it has its limitations and potential drawbacks. Relying solely on external incentives can lead to a short-term focus, dependency on rewards, diminished interest in learning, unrealistic expectations, competition, a narrow focus on specific tasks, and a loss of intrinsic satisfaction. Research suggests that extrinsic motivation techniques may produce negative effects in the long term and undermine students’ overall motivation.

Occupational therapists can play a crucial role in addressing these concerns by adopting a strengths-based and intrinsic motivation approach. By focusing on students’ unique strengths, setting individualized goals, fostering autonomy and competence, and creating a supportive learning environment, therapists can promote intrinsic motivation, self-determination, and meaningful engagement. Incorporating cooperative learning strategies, problem-solving initiatives, and relevant activities further enhances students’ motivation and academic performance.

By shifting the focus from external rewards to internal motivation and personal growth, occupational therapists can contribute to creating a positive and empowering educational experience for students. This approach recognizes and nurtures students’ intrinsic motivation, paving the way for long-term success and a genuine love for learning.


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