January 16, 2008

The Preschool "Market"

I loved Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist and I can relate to many of the truths that Cowen refers to. In chapter two, he defines four situations for motivating people using monetary rewards:

--Offer monetary rewards when performance at a task is highly responsive to extra effort
--Offer monetary rewards when intrinsic motivation is weak
--Pay monetary rewards when receiving money for a task produces social approval
--High rewards tend to make individual’s “choke”

Surprisingly enough, I worked in a “market” where my experience and understanding led me to follow these principles when determining when to use a monetary reward (I had no idea it was even remotely linked to economics). I am referring to the past twenty years that I spent teaching preschool.

You might not think of preschool as a “market” and the monetary rewards were not cash or bonus checks, but what we did matches closely with how Cowen predicted it would work.

To start with, the “monetary reward” was a physical object highly desired by the children – a shiny pink bracelet, a loud whistle, a lollipop, etc – something that a three-year- old would rather have than money; and anyone who has spend anytime with preschoolers knows that there are plenty of situations where you want to motivate them to do certain things.

Like Cowen establishes in his first point, those trinkets worked very well when the kids were asked to accomplish a task that they could do, but it required a little extra effort. Things like picking up toys and putting them in their proper place (rather than just throwing them in a bucket), walking quietly and in a straight line through the hallways, and hanging up coats and backpacks neatly in their cubbies. All the children could physically do these tasks – but they needed some motivation to get them to spend the extra time and effort. Knowing that a “payment” was coming after working hard, they were happy to complete the task.

Cowen’s second point takes into consideration intrinsic motivation – and he proposes that monetary rewards work well when there is little intrinsic motivation. This is why we didn’t need to reward children to play in centers, paint at the easel or spend time with friends outside in the sand box – and why the monetary reward worked well when it came to cleaning up or walking quietly. Most preschoolers have little internal motivation for cleanliness or quiet – as most parents would agree.

Cowen’s third point was right on target – when the payment produced social approval, it worked very well. I can’t tell you how many times a child put forth the extra effort to get a matchbox car – not because they really wanted one, but because it meant that they were a “good picker upper”. Kids who earned the rewards knew that they had done what they were supposed to do when they were given the trinket or toy.

Cowen adds a qualifier to his proposal when he states that high rewards tend to make individual’s “choke” and I found the same to be true for preschoolers. While they were willing and able to pick up for a small toy reward and would walk quietly for another small reward – they were not able to do all of these same things for a larger reward. This theory is well known to parents and teachers – children are better able to control their behavior if they are rewarded for small increments. Those times that I offered a better prize for the same behaviors all day resulted in chaos – the kids were constantly concerned with whether they were earning their prize and those who felt they had already “blown it” were unwilling to even try. Cowen ends chapter two by saying “Everyone needs to feel that he is in control of something” and that applies even to three-year-olds.

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