Here's a School Incentive You Probably Never Thought of (and That's a Good Thing)

Fourth-graders in Declo, Idaho, faced an unusual incentive scheme for reading: if they didn’t complete their work they could either forgo recess or have others kids draw on their face with marker. Several kids chose the latter punishment and, as you can imagine, this didn’t go over so well. It should be noted that the teacher had let the students choose these rules. From the Times-News:

When Cindy Hurst’s 10-year-old son arrived home from school Nov. 5, his entire face, hairline to chin, was scribbled on in red marker — including his eyelids. He also had green, red and purple scribble marks over the red, and his face was scratched by a marker that had a rough edge.

“He was humiliated, he hung his head and wanted to go wash his face,” said Hurst. “He knows he’s a slow reader. Now he thinks he should be punished for it.” …

As more and more schools look for better ways to motivate students, I am guessing this tactic won’t gain a lot of traction.

(HT: C.P.)


Lol. I hope it doesn't gain a lot of traction.

Eric M. Jones

I vote that the teacher needs to answer a subpoena. This clearly seems to be child abuse.

Seminymous Coward

This was certainly not a good thing to do; it was ineffective, cruel, and poorly executed. All the same, calling this event "child abuse" weakens the term and detracts from its more serious uses.

Also, do you legitimately think the teacher deserves to go to prison for this? Clearly, the teacher isn't too bright and probably shouldn't teach, but jail time seems vastly excessive.


...and in my state, you couldn't fire that teacher.

Mark Russell

Which state do you live in? The state of delusion?


Probably a state with a strong teachers union and their ridiculous provisions for "tenure" among primary / secondary school teachers. Or, all of them.

Enter your name...

If one "cool" kid had announced that he'd done it on purpose for the fun of getting decorated, then this would have stopped being a punishment and started being a desirable, cool thing, and it would have undermined the goal of encouraging kids to meet their goals in the first place.

BTW, if you didn't click through, about a third of the class failed to meet their goals.


Could a third of kids failing actually be a sign of expectations more in line with what these kids will face in a competitive global job market? And could this better prepare them for that eventuality? Just saying.


Exactly, and if we don't let 9 year olds fail today, they'll never expect failure in the future. Make them suffer now.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one on the planet who doesn't want to make other people miserable, even if it would make me more wealthy.


This is awesome. Trial by a jury of your peers and you choose the punishment from a limited set decided by said peers. This is the type of discipline that will save this country.

Mark Russell

I'm in the education bidness, Pablo. We don't like your kind of smart-*ssed, cutting social commentary. If you do it again, we'll hunt you down with our colored markers.

Jay Cox

Funny enough, this made me recall my fourth grade year. I was smart in some things, but I was also a barely adequate reader and writer. Incentives were much simpler. If I didn't get class work done in class, I had to do it during recess. That was humiliating enough. Did it work? Well, if the only problem was distraction, it did give me motivation to pay more attention in class. However, I do remember some material was legitimately confounding. The recess time did serve as a good "catch up" time, but it also socially isolated me more, and I was already a bit weird. I know that in any school scenario you have limited resources--namely time--so such unfortunate consequences may not ever be removed from possibility. But this--this takes unfortunate, unintended consequences to a new level. The kids picked the rules. I bet many kids wouldn't have the capacity to foresee many of the consequences the of allowing others to mark on one's face, whereas they would immediately see consequences of not going to recess, so they'd pick the former, and get consequences likely worse than the latter. And then there's the teacher, which, I'd hope, would have better foresight than an elementary school student, but didn't. Clearly there was already a motivation problem or why would she have let the kids decide the rules of incentive?



It is true we only have a certain amount of time in the school day. But it is ridiculous how much schools have to include now. Check out this site to see what has been added since the turn of the last century. Some of these things are great, some of them simply a waste of resources, including time. What do we want our schools to be? We need to decide if they are a propaganda machine for global warming and obesity, the three Rs, or something in between.



I looked at your poster reference. It is poor on so many accounts, I don't have time to list them all. Just keying off of one thing: the section saying "And we have not added a single minute to the school calendar in six decates!" Well so much of what is listed doesn't add to the time spent in school: lunches, breakfasts, title iX programs, athletics.

Many of the things listed actually add minutes to the overall time spent in school: preschool, adult education, after school programs for working parents, full day kindergarten.

This is not a poster upon which I would spend money.


I can't help but wonder exactly what makes this a punishment, when it seems that just about every kid-oriented event around has face painting. I guess context is everything, no?


Really? You can't see how this would be a punishment? Perhaps the memory of my childhood cohort is different than most but I would not have let them choose paper or plastic let alone something that was going to be on my FACE. Even the ones who purported to be my friends were not necessarily "nice" and their senses of humor would would considered rough by even a Mombasa stevedore's standard.

And this absurd folly is not "face painting." Face painting is a service- the child (or his or her adult) has autonomy to choose a design, control over placement and some chance of removing it if they don't like it.

This is young children let loose on their peer with the specific teacher-sanctioned mission of "marking" a rule-breaker. It has the same chaos making potential as "mob+hot tar+feathers+vulnerable target."

Punishment? Yes. Those marks will be with the child long after the ink is removed and the scratches healed. Face painting? Really? I wish I'd grown up where you did.



Please read the article again: *the kids chose the punishment themselves*. Not their peers!
Not that I believe that 9-year-olds are mature enough to be allowed to.


This raises the question of when and whether shame can ever be a helpful part of shaping human behavior.

We know that shame works. That is, it does act to change behavior. Clearly this case is "too far." But since it is such a VERY powerful tool, ought it to be completely banned in classrooms?

Keep in mind that I'm asking about shame in general and agree with most that in this particular case it goes too far.

Enter your name...

Shame is more effective at dealing with behaviors that are under your immediate control. Shame works to discourage disrespectful speech, willful laziness, or temper tantrums. It doesn't work for things that are outside of your immediate control, like not knowing something, reading slowly, or having medical problems that result in poor sports performance (e.g., asthma in distance runners).

The question here is whether the outcome was really within the immediate control of the students. It sounds like a long-term reading program. Even a slow reader could accomplish the work, assuming extraordinary advance planning skills, diligence, and the opportunity to implement the plan. (One parent quoted in the article said that a failure to complete the assignment reflected poorly on parenting skills, not on the students, because all good parents would have made sure their children were on track to complete the assignment on time.) A one-time shaming in the distant future isn't really going to motivate kids to do their work now, and when the deadline loomed, the outcome was already outside of their immediate control.


All Boys Boarding Schools

After reading this post I feel bad for students that are strictly punished by their school teachers. According to me these cruel teachers should be strictly punished by ate government and rusticate from their teaching position.

southside teacher

and yet, I've worked in schools where we were discouraged from keeping kids in during recess to finish work...


Oh my, what a terrible, cruel world we live in: a poor helpless kid has to choose between washing his face and forgoing recess, what a terrifying dilemma. The only consolation is he survived that act of brutality.

Mr. Tuxedo

I heard this story on NPR, and I immediately thought of the Zimbardo study revisited.

Cham Cuartero

This is just wrong... I was a gradeschool teacher before and our students had reading goals too, in fact they had reading logsheets that need to be filled-up each day. But still, as a self-confessed avid reader, I don't think this would work. Reading is something that cannot be forced upon a kid. When you don't enjoy it, you won't do it. Honestly, I didn't get my reading habit from school, so there's not much that the school could do to develop this wonderful habit. :)


The discussion is missing the point...incentive is helpful in schools/classes, and the issue is that there is no positive incentive system in the easier option here was to create a negative incentive.

What we should have is a dedicated extracurricular (ie, study of topics not usually covered by schools...anything from baking to horticulture, etc etc) that can be an outlet for the faster students, while the slower students get extra time without the distraction of bored faster learners.


To interpret this story, the essential thing to know is *why* the students were slow. Is it poor motivation, as suggested? Lack of practice? Lack of interest? Boring materials? Poor teaching? Laziness? Distraction? Difficulty or complexity of the material? Lack of parental support? Poverty limiting the supply of books? An attitude that reading isn't important? Or that poor performance won't have bad consequences? Is it lack of incentive? Lack of positive feedback and praise? Are there other issues, like bullying, or having to spend extra time on other subjects? Is it medical? Could it just be that some students are naturally brighter than others?

Without knowing what the problem is, there seems little hope of finding a solution. The students knew what was coming, they picked the motivation themselves. So why didn't they meet the objectives? Did anyone ask? And doesn't anyone think that their inability to complete an assignment was more important - in the long run - than a one-off punishment? An inability to read fluently is a lifelong disability. Are we now so innured to the idea of 10-year olds who struggle to read that it isn't even news?

Somebody ought to go back and find out what the problem was, and then sit down and figure out what the solution should be. The teacher's attempt failed. (Presumably. It would be interesting to know.) But being outraged over his methods, while failing to solve the problem oneself, gets us no closer to a solution. What *should* the teacher have done? And why did the newspaper not ask?



So a student was drawn on by other students as a result of a student determined punishment. Oh, and he was given another option which he chose not to take. And it happened to a total of 6 out of the 21 kids, so he's not being singled out.

According to the article this was permanent marker, probably a bad choice. Other than that I really don't see the problem. These kids had "accelerated reading" goals, so presumably they were all already strong readers. Many people here are assuming the kid had a leaning disability or something but that's not indicated anywhere and the article hints at the opposite.

Instead of jumping to conclusions about the teacher and assuming she's a terrible person, imagine the following scenario:

This is an advanced reading class and the students are expected to read during an assigned time each day. Some students routinely goof off instead, so rather than institute an arcane punishment like making kids sit in the corner the cosmopolitan teacher asks the kids what should happen if some students don't meet the goal. She know that, typically, about half of the students don't read as much as they're supposed to so there's no danger of one student being singled out for punishment.

The students, with unanimous agreement and excitement, decide that the offending students get colored on by their peers. Remember, kids do this stuff all the time, so it's quite a stretch to assume that this is thought of as "shaming" by the children; it's more likely thought of as fun for the kids that finish. Not wanting to force any student (even though every single one agreed to this) to submit to this, the teacher adds missing recess (to finish the reading) as an option.

Predictably many students don't finish (reinforcing the idea that most students don't think of this as a particularly heinous punishment ... some might have even though it would be fun), and many of those choose the face drawing. The kids laugh about it afterwards and the day goes on.

The next day you get a scathing talking to from the principal and a few days after that it's national news and a bunch of morons think you should go to jail.

If you are one of these morons, did it ever occur to you that one of the reasons we get such poor student performance in this country is that any time a teacher is passionate and respectful of his students, and does things in a memorable and unusual way he runs the risk of getting nationally bashed for his actions?



As a preemptive measure:

The article says he's a slow reader; this does not mean the kid has a learning disability. Furthermore there's no indication that the amount of material given was beyond his ability. It's possible, in fact likely, that the reading goals were tailored to each student based on his abilities. There's also no indication of why he didn't finish. For all we know he could have been talking to the other kids that didn't finish the whole time.

Edward scott

Clearly, the children who read more should be "taxed" at a higher rate. That is, some of their reading achievement should be redistributed to the those who refused to read. Everyone should receive a "C" for the class.

Seminymous Coward

I despair at having to point this out, but signifiers of academic proficiency primarily intended to evaluate student progress are not analogous to the thing that obtains food and shelter.