Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How Do You Motivate Kids To Stop Skipping School?

It seems like a no-brainer: Offer kids a reward for showing up at school, and their attendance will shoot up. But a recent study of third-graders in a slum in India suggests that incentive schemes can do more harm than good.

The study, a working paper released by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, looked at 799 boys and girls. The kids, mostly age 9, were students in several dozen single-classroom schools run by the nonprofit Gyan Shala in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Ahmedabad.

Gyan Shala's program is free and has a reputation for offering decent quality instruction in language, math and science. Still, attendance rates are no better than the average for the region. On any given day, about a quarter of students are absent. Gyan Shala's administrators believe many opt to stay home and play if, say, it's a festival day or a sibling who attends a different school is off or simply because they're not in the mood for class.

So the researchers challenged kids in about half of the classes: Over a designated 38-day period, show up for at least 32 days — that's 85 percent of the time — and get a special gift: two pencils and an eraser.[...]

So far it all seemed logical, says Visaria. As an economist, she would expect a reward program to be most effective with students who don't already have some existing, intrinsic motivation for going to school — like finding class fun.

After the 38 days, rewards were handed out to those who qualified in a special ceremony in front of the rest of the class. The researchers checked back on the kids two more times. And that's when things got surprising.

The researchers looked at three different categories:

• Kids whose attendance rate was highest in the class before the reward program. They reverted to their baseline level.

• Kids whose attendance rate was lowest but managed to up their attendance enough to win the prize. After the program was over, these kids also reverted to their lower baseline level.

• Kids whose attendance rate was lowest to start off with and who did not improve enough to qualify for the reward. In other words, they failed the challenge. More than 60 percent of the lowest attenders fell into this category. For them, the aftermath was grim. They were now only about one-fourth as likely to show up for class as they had been before the reward scheme was introduced. [..]


  1. Mexico city tried that a few years ago. Giulliani / some educational " non profits tried it in new York, paying welfare mothers $100 if their child showed up regularly. Claim was that it worked in Mexico, not in NY ($100 is too little., in my opinion.)

  2. You can get people to do things if you bribe or reward them. The point here is what happens when you no longer use rewards and extrinsic motivators. The pencils and erasers were enough to create interest. If the rewards are too salient , this undermines intrinsic motivation. The gains made because of the rewards were lost , but for the group of children who did not pull attendance rates up enough to earn the incentive, their attendance rates fell drastically below the rate before the experiment. It is likely came to feel less confident about their scholastic abilities after the experiment, decreasing the motivation they once had. So rewards punish when kids don't get them and they undermine intrinsic motivation in the long run

  3. Make school relevant to their lives. They don't want to go because they know that reading novels day and night isn't going to help them in life.

    Teach them a trade and they'll want to go.


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