After many minutes of austere practice, the dedicated yogi will receive various nominal rewards such as stickers, stamps and other sundries procured through the Oriental Trading Co.
~Patanjali Sutra 17.5
Okay, I’m playing. Patanjali didn’t really say that!
While little rewards such as stickers and stamps don’t usually have a place in the traditional yoga practices, they are commonly found in kids yoga classes. No problem, right? LOTS of things happen in kids yoga that are not “classical.” Froggie hops, jungle journeys, pizza parties, butterfly flapping, the list goes on. Kids yoga teachers are known for creatively modifying the practices to be developmentally appropriate and kid-friendly. Yet, there comes a time in every kids yoga teachers life when we must ask ourselves: “Is this really yoga? Does this support the yoga practice?”
Lately, I’ve read several articles and blog posts from kids yoga teachers suggesting stickers for classroom management. Stickers and stamps are not inherently bad things, but using them as rewards can be counter productive. Teachers who use stickers are not bad teachers. I’ve seen the practice used by skilled, respected teachers. While I respect teachers choices, I also wish to propose here that there are effective ways to promote classroom harmony that are much more in line with yogic principles. This article will hopefully shed a little light on why the “sticker giving” approach may be misguided. Part Two will focus on pedagogical choices that deem stickers unnecessary.
As a former dance instructor, I carried sticker-giving over into my early years of teaching youth yoga. Yes, I, too, had envelopes full of shiny, sparkly little sensations to tempt my little budding yogis to goodness. That is, until I started teaching at a wonderful pre-school under the direction of a masterful early childhood educator and UCLA professor, Dr. Gloria Walther.
During my first semester there, I had my class session all “themed-out” and choreographed with visuals, sensory items, music and, yes, stickers. (More on the problem with themes coming soon). I wasn’t planning to use the stickers as rewards, but rather place one on each child’s forehead, like a bindhi, since our theme was surrounding the third eye’s inner vision, or in pre-school terms, “looking inside.” I asked Gloria if that would be alright and she said “No,” but that we could use something else, like a non-toxic marker, to make the mark. What followed was one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about teaching yoga, or anything, to young children.
Gloria elegantly (as always) shared with me this diamond of wisdom: when we regularly use external rewards to prompt desired behavior, we steal something very valuable from a child; their intrinsic ability and desire to do what is well, good and helpful in a situation.
Yes, it does require lots of energy, skill and practice to inspire children to “be well” in class. But, the only way to learn how is to do it. Over and over again. Relying on external rewards also robs the teacher of the opportunity to hone her own communication skills. Using stickers is akin to dangling carrots. They may be effective lures for temporary fixes, but the long term implications on behavior are not only limited, they may be down right adverse.
Think about these three “case studies.” (“Good” and “bad” are in quotes because I despise them as descriptors of children’s behavior, but I use them here because this is the type of structure external rewards set up).
1. The Child Who Acts “Good” and Gets the Sticker: Jackson brings home a sticker gets subsequent praise from a parent. So, he behaves well in yoga class to get the sticker in order to get the praise and attention of his folks. Jackson actually has questions he’d like to ask and character he’d like to express, but he doesn’t, because being quiet and still means getting stickers and praise.
2. The Child Who Acts “Bad” and Does Not Get the Sticker: Lola does not get a sticker and she could care less. She is accustomed to it. Everywhere she goes, in every class, she is called out for being “bad” and hardly ever gets a reward. Lola has effectively identified with the labels that have been placed on her. To avoid the feelings of failure imposed on her every time the other children get rewards and she does not, she continues her cycle of aggressive behavior. Little do her teachers know that Lola has never met her father and her mother suffers alcoholism.
3. The Child Who Acts “Bad” and Still Gets the Sticker: Charlie is a firecracker in class, constantly talking over others and difficult to contain. He is sweet-hearted, though, and everyone loves him. Charlie’s teacher tells him over and over again that if he wants a sticker he needs to wait his turn. But Charlie knows the deal. He can get away with lots of mischief because his teacher can’t resist his charms. So, Charlie has his cake and eats it, too.
In example one, we are missing out on the beauty of Jackson! That tiny little sticker becomes the focus of this child’s yoga experience. Too afraid to color outside the lines, lest he go home sticker less, Jackson confines himself. Of course, this is not the case for every child who behaves well and gets stickers. Many children can still thrive in the sticker paradigm, but, to me, if even one of my students is suppressing themselves because of a so-called reward, I am not doing my best as an educator. There are millions of Jackson’s sitting quietly in classrooms, quietly hurting inside. In these cases, the stickers are less of rewards and more of irons pressing down on the freedom of the child. Dramatic, I know, but this all points to a need for educators to be deeply reflective on our teaching practices, especially yoga educators working with the bodies, mind and hearts of children.
For the child in the second example, Lola, just showing up at class is a huge success*. She represents the countless children suffering neglect and abuse at home. So for her to then be “punished” by not receiving the reward is actually really harmful. Lola never finds a sense of belonging, at home or in class. Who knew that not giving a child a small reward could have such negative impact? Children thrive on adults acknowledgment and likewise wither without it. People who claim that stickers are part of a positive behavior system are not seeing the other side; that it is also a system of punishment.
Finally, good old Charlie in example three may arguably be the one who suffers the worst case of nasty little stickers. Charlie is learning that he is not accountable for his actions. A sense of entitlement is reinforced every time the stamp hits the hand. Others around Charlie begin to harbor resentment that he gets it both ways and, as children do, Charlie begins to identify with this projection. Charlie’s become the Dick Cheney’s of the world. Oh, wait, can I say that? Take from it what you will. My point is that rewarding children who don’t show respect for others can breed a sense of superiority that allows them to truly believe they are worth more than another person.
The bottom line is this: Children do not behave in unhelpful ways for no reason. They are not running around to fluster the teacher. I firmly believe that unhelpful or otherwise distracting behavior is born of unmet needs. There is a limitless list of reasons why a child might behave in an undesirable way. The only way to truly guide the child through what is likely an unpleasant experience for them as well, is to inquire about what is needed and work to meet that need. This ability is an art. To be the kind of teacher that can help a child become self aware and learn how to self regulate requires deep dedication to a long term practice, much like yoga.
So, come on kids yoga teachers, decorate a folder with all those lovely stickers! (And use it to keep thoughtful notes on your students).
The reward of yoga practice is the balance and peace that naturally arises. At the end of a practice, invite students to share a word or phrase to describe how they feel. Let this be the closing reward. Steep in the benefits for a moment, wallow in the sweet feelings of bliss and harmony. Please don’t let a sticker put a damper on what is truly a profound process.
***By the way, none of this is to say that giving meaningful gifts doesn’t have a place in yoga teaching. Part Three of this series will offer up multiple ideas for utilizing gifts and experiences in conscious, healthy ways to promote community, balance, and harmony in the classroom.
*NOTE: If you absolutely must use stickers, consider giving them right when children enter class as a reward for showing up and a token of gratitude for being there. That moment you spend with each child saying “Here, this is a reminder that you are in yoga and that you are a special person to me,” may just alleviate the need to use stickers for behavior management because in that moment, you consciously mirror the wonder and beauty of every child, even the ones that push your buttons.
Disagree? Please share your thoughts! Agree? Please let us know!
Other posts in this series: