We were out on the playground for PE. I got out two balls from the ball bin to play soccer. The boys explained to me that these were the wrong balls and that they were basketballs and not soccer balls. I told them to go get soccer balls and to return these.

They did that and came back with two soccer balls. After a couple of minutes, they discovered that the soccer balls were flat and told me that. Freeze frame. What, do I, as a teacher do at this point?  Do I throw up my hands and shrug? Go look for someone to put air in the soccer balls? Try to find some other balls? Mind, we have less than 30 minutes to play. In other words, do I try to fix the problem with limited time and resources? What I did do was to ask the boys “What do you want to do?” They decided they would rather play with the basketball that had enough air in it than to try and play with the soccer balls that were nearly flat. I agreed.

Then the boys talked me into letting them play boys vs. girls and that lasted until the score was 7- 0 (boys vs. girls) and I changed it to one class vs. the other class. (5th graders!)

According to Dweck, (1975) learned helplessness is the perceived inability to surmount failure. Children (and others) will attribute their failure in many situations to lack of ability.

Students of all ages have been taught forever to depend solely on the teacher for their guidance and instruction. They have ‘learned’ helplessness and that the teacher is the ‘source’ of all information and the ‘cure or solution’ for all problems. To gradually place responsibility into the hands of the students themselves is a new idea and one that often, they are not comfortable with.

My soccer ball problem is a relatively simple situation with few consequences attached to the wrong ‘answer.’ We need to allow the students gradually more and more in their academic and social programs to make choices for themselves so that they are thinking when they make decisions as opposed to operating on habit and routine.

From a behaviorist viewpoint, students have been taught to obey authority and to not question what they are told to do. Given that this training starts at the very beginning of their lives, it is not surprising that the average 11 year old has trouble making simple decisions for himself or herself.

The reward/punishment model that I have already advanced (see Blog #3) gives elementary school children immediate rewards (and punishments) for behavior. The behaviorist model as advanced by B.F. Skinner (1935) originally, shows us, that without doubt, people and animals can be trained (conditioned) by rewards (classic conditioning) to give us desired performance. While it is certainly not fair to ever compare children to Pavlovian dogs, we are all, in truth animals and we respond to many of the same stimuli. Adults would cringe at such a comparison made of them yet, what are paychecks, bonus programs, benefits, contests that adults respond to all the time?

However; dealing with both adults and children, it is also important to realize that there are other intrinsic rewards that people response to just as well. For example, being recognized for good work, academic achievement, good grades, nice hair, a pretty dress, new shoes, etc. People like to be recognized for their intrinsic value and worth.

In conclusion; for the classroom teacher, short term rewards (and punishments) do work and perhaps the best conclusion here is that, they work for the short run. We seek to grow and development better, stronger and more resilient students who are internally motivated and who learn how to reward themselves.

I am volunteering at a library and discussed ‘series’ books with the librarian. Examples of series books are Nancy Drew,  The Hardy Boys, Harry Potter and the like. She told me that her 13 year old daughter is always so eager to get to the next book in her own series, that instead of waiting for it to appear on the shelf of the library, she goes to the local book store and buys the latest book with her own money. This girl has found that reading her own ‘series’ so rewarding that she is willing to spend her money to do so. This cannot be said of many students.

Teaching students to give themselves ‘proper’ rewards for their own good behavior is a worthy task for parents and teachers alike. Part of my class project will be to develop lists of ‘rewarding’ books for pre-teens, especially boys, that will keep them interested in reading.



Diener, C.I. & Dweck, C.S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 36, issue 5, pgs 451-462.

Newman and Newman, (2007). Theories of Human Development, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Inc. ISBN 978-0-8058-4702-4.