Extrinsic Motivation: Using Rewards In Children's Ministry

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This weekend, a reader named Kate send me a great question.  It was more than I could answer with a quick reply, so I wanted to share it here on the blog. She knew of another church doing a Bible Bucks, or a “monetary” reward system. Here is what she wrote:

The idea is that the kids are rewarded for good behavior, correct answers and accomplishing a task with play money. As the weeks go by and they save enough, they can pick from a variety of toys and games and exchange their Bible Bucks for them.
What do you think of this? Have you seen this method used successfully? I have to admit, I felt like a used car salesman when I brought it up to one of the parents this past Sunday. It made me feel a little greasy. But maybe I was going about it the wrong way.

This is a great question and brings up the whole debate about extrinsic rewards. Educators often debate the merits of these outward reinforcements that are unrelated to the learning objectives. You can get a good overview from reading the Wikipedia article on motivation. Christian Educators have the added concerns and sometimes wonder if they are merely “using bribes” to coax religious behaviors.
In this article, I will set down some guidelines for using extrinsic rewards in a religious education setting. Then I’ll apply those principles by sharing a few ways I’ve used this type of motivation in my ministry.

Extrinsic Rewards In Christian Education: Some Basic Guidelines

1. Extrinsic rewards can be an effective motivational tool.
If used in moderation and in the proper setting, outward incentives do motivate students. This can be a lifesaver when working with children who need extra help with appropriate group behavior.
2. Extrinsic rewards can not produce true heart change.
No matter how many prizes a child earns at church, it will not change their internal desires. In fact, overuse of extrinsic rewards can diminish the development of intrinsic motivations. In short, if kids are only learning Bible verses to get points they will learn to love the prizes but not the Bible. Always remember that self-motivation and self-control are much more effective in the long run.
3. Extrinsic rewards can become a distraction.
You will immediately learn when the prize steals the focus of your group. They will begins to beg for the reward before you have given them the task. For example, I have used playground time as an extrinsic reward for good class behavior during children’s church. This is only on occasion when there is good weather and typically it is programed in for overly long sermons. But one particular boy always begs for the playground from the beginning. This becomes a distraction for everyone.
4. Extrinsic rewards work best when limited for classroom management or encouraging route memory.
In moderation, classroom rewards are most helpful when encouraging good group behavior. This is especially true when they provide immediate feedback on appropriate behavior. For example, adding stars to a chart at points through the class when the children speak in turn. Prizes are often effective when encouraging route knowledge acquisition, such as memorizing Bible facts or quotes. Just remind yourself that attaining the knowledge is not the ultimate goal of Bible instruction, it must lead to something higher – a relationship with the God of the Bible and service to others.
5. Extrinsic rewards should never be used to coax religious decisions or reward attitudinal changes in children.
This is the biggest danger of extrinsic motivation. If children are encouraged to “pray to receive Christ” by offering (or implying) rewards, then it becomes a form of manipulative childhood evangelism. If a child who says “I love my Bible” gets a star, then the extrinsic reward is out of place.
6. Negative extrinsic rewards should be avoided.
This may go without saying, but I want to make the point clear. Punishing children is not appropriate in a ministry setting. Clear expectations, redirection, and positive correction are sufficient. Children should never be shamed, hit, yelled at, or otherwise hurt in the name of religion. Christians must always work to prevent child abuse.
7. Extrinsic rewards should be used creatively.
Not every prize needs to be a piece of candy from the goodie jar. Something as simple and informal as a high-five from the teacher can be a great motivator. Many other positive and non-material rewards are possible. These are almost always more effective and can remove much of the negative potential.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement in Children’s Ministry

Each of the following examples must be considered within your own ministry context. If your church has overused outward motivations, then you should proceed with caution. When in doubt, give it a trial period and honest evaluation. You should also be aware of how the parents perceive these rewards.
Example #1: Candy jar at children’s choir.
This must be hard wired in our DNA, because nearly every church has some variation. We have an excellent kids choir director, so my role is mainly encouragement and occasionally helping with discipline. To encourage the kids, I offered this extrinsic reward for the children who did not require more than one redirection during the hour. Everyone always got it. I also used double candy night to encourage full participation on crucial rehearsal nights.
Evaluation: The destraction factor was low, but one reward for an entire hour of vaguely “good behavior” was not effective. Kids need more immediate reinforcement. I will probably skip the candy jar this year.
Example #2: Kids Cash during Wednesday night program.
This was somewhat elaborate. We printed paper money to reward kids for specific goals. They got up to five per night. One for attending, one for wearing their KidZone t-shirts, one for bringing their memory booklets, one for bringing a guest, and one for knowing their Bible verse. Once each month we would have “store” where the kids could trade their cash for donated items. It was a little like a yard sale, expect I would use budget money to throw in new worship CDs or Kids Bibles.
Evaluation: This built real excitement, but it became a big distraction for the kids. In fact, several kids became rivals and fell into negative attitudes. On top of that, the reward system was heavy on administration. We dropped this program after a one year trial.
Example #3: Applause during Bible memory reviews.
This was just an extra twist on reviewing Bible verses. After a child answered correctly, I would encourage all the children to applaud and encourage them. I learned to insist the kids cutting off the applause on my hand motion cue. (Think band director movements.) The overall effect was very good and the kids would glow with the praise from their peers.
Evaluation: This is still a staple in my ministry. I use some variations, but using the group to cheer and encourage their fellow learners is a very positive use of extrinsic rewards.
Example #4: Verbal praise for sitting properly in children’s church.
At the beginning of our period, I stand quietly and remark to the class, “David is sitting properly.” Then I remark about another child, “Sarah is ready for children’s church.” The rest of the children immediately try to imitate the behavior that I praised. Once the children are ready, I continue with the lesson as planned. This is 100% effective and only takes a few seconds. At times I return to this during the lesson if the children lose focus.
Evaluation: This has become a regular part of my teaching style. It works because it offers immediate positive reinforcement. Every child wants the public affirmation of their teacher. The only trick is to include every child over a period of weeks. I find myself looking for ways to praise the more difficult kids. The end result makes me a better teacher and proves a very effective extrinsic motivation.

What Do You Think?

The topic of outward rewards is definitely open to question. In many cases it’s a matter of ministry style and local church culture. Please share your thoughts below. What extrinsic rewards have you found useful? What dangers have you discovered? Use the comment box below to share your ideas?

3 thoughts on “Extrinsic Motivation: Using Rewards In Children's Ministry”

  1. Great article and great point! I have been struggling with extrinsic motivation for years and after reading all of the articles and studies on it, I have dropped it from my family completely.
    My 7 yr old daughter came home from her Christian school one day asking for cans to donate to the food bank. She was excited about it and I was too! She then told me that her teacher would give her a class ” coin” for her donation. The class coins are a part of a reward system for good behavior and whatever the teacher sees fit. At the end of the quarter the kids get to choose a prize from the prize box with those coins. The worst of it was when she took $20.0 out of her own piggy bank to give to a charity her class was sponsoring. The money collected went to two orphans in Haiti. I was proud of her for pulling out her own money until she told me she gets a coin for every dollar she gives. That’s 20 coins that will go towards a prize for her! The lesson was lost. It made me feel ill. We are teaching our children that if we Give, we Get.
    This also goes for Bible verse memorization as well. You memorize the verse, you get a sticker. You mess up too much on the verse, no sticker. My child has difficulty with memorization. We can go over a verse for an entire week and she will flub. Sometimes it’s worse than others. How is this teaching to Love the Bible and Gods word? It’s ultimately not. It’s a turn off. If Christ were to walk in on this practice and witness a child being denied a reward because the flubbed in a verse, would he punish them? No reward is an actual punishment. Punishments and rewards are ultimately the same. I do not feel Christ would approve only because he is Christ. All reward systems are a bad idea. I feel I have failed my son and I’m hoping to reverse this. He is older and will say, ” I worked so hard, I deserve… ” or ” I got all strait A’s so can I have..?” The strait A report card IS the reward.
    I had a heart to heart with my child and explained that what she was doing was saving a life with her donation. Intrinsic motivation is what our children need. I feel you are headed in the right direction with what you are doing in your church. You are setting a great example for the parents as well, but it can go even further.
    If a child is having issues, best thing to do is listen to their concerns because children have real concerns and most often their concerns are brushed aside. After that, collaborate and together to come up with a solution to help them with whatever is getting in their way. This will teach problem solving rather than punishments and rewards in the classroom or Sunday school.
    A video of how we can help children and save lives with ministry is a great motivation. The children need to see why they are doing and how they are helping. Quizzing kids for reward regarding a Bible story or verse is just a bad idea.
    I love the clapping motivation you have implemented! Bravo! It’s like celebrating God’s word, like singing praises. You could even use that. Let’s Sing our praise to the Lord for our friend memorizing that verse. It’s a blessing to God when you learn because you Love him and are also following His command by spreading his word throughout the world. Bless you!
    Keep up the good work.

  2. I give kids two pieces of candy at the beginning of class. If they continue to folow the rules they lise a pc of candy. Is this positive reinforcement orpunishment?

  3. Thank you ma’am i have learnt alot. You have opened my eyes. I will implement this in my children ministry.

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