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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

Rewarding your child: 10 Alternatives to food

My son gets more candy and food rewards than most other kids.  Everyone wants to reward him because he’s such a hard worker: therapists, special education teachers, general education teachers, paraprofessionals, art, music, religion and foreign language teachers.

Because of the natural gifts of autism, he usually wins math speed drills and spelling bees with their candy prizes.  He’s a high energy kid, so he cheerfully joins me on all of my errands, and he gets candy rewards for being my helper from the cashier at the grocery store, the bank teller, even at some doctor’s offices.

Then there are the candy holidays at school: Halloween, Thanksgiving, the winter holiday party, Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, the spring holiday party, the last day of school.  Don’t forget the candy prizes at school events: the fall carnival, the winter carnival, March Into Reading Night, the fifth grade trade fair, the spring garden festival.  I’m not joking.  I refuse to accept most of the candy and junk food, but it’s out of control.

What are the benefits of offering food or candy as a reward? 
I looked it up in the Pub Med database at the National Institutes of Health.  I checked with non-profit health organizations, such as the American Diabetes Association and the American Dental Association.

Not only are there no benefits of offering food as a reward, but doing so may cause serious harm, especially to children in a school setting.

These are the top 10 reasons not to offer food as a reward:

10. Sweet Tooth
Increases taste and preference for the sweet or salty foods which are usually offered as a reward.

9. Lack of Activity
Prevents children from associating their mood with healthy activities such as exercise or reading.

8. Tooth Decay
According to the American Dental Association, consumption of sugar influences tooth decay and development of cavities.

7. Obesity
Obesity is caused by poor diet and lack of exercise in most cases.  Between 16 and 33 percent of American children and adolescents are obese, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Hypertension, heart disease, problems with breathing and sleeping, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder are possible complications of obesity.  Obese individuals are also more likely to perceive a greater reward from eating rich foods.

6. Diabetes
Diabetes is linked to obesity and overeating.  25.8 million Americans now have diabetes, and approximately 79 million Americans are pre-diabetic, according to the American Diabetes Association.

5. Mood Swings
Sugar intake causes increased production of insulin, which in some individuals may then cause behavior and mood changes that are disruptive to a classroom environment.

This is of great concern for parents of children with autism, since recent research at Rice University found impaired glucose tolerance and hyperinsulinemia (similar to diabetes) in individuals with autism.

4. Reduces Self-Regulation
Actively reduces self-regulation by teaching children to ignore hunger cues and to eat when rewarded.  This is a type of classical conditioning, first studied by the Nobel Prize winning physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who noticed that his lab dogs started salivating in expectation of receiving food whenever an assistant entered the room.

3. Risk of an Allergic Reaction
The prevalence of food allergies is increasing in American schools.  About 2.5% of all Americans have food allergies, but many children are undiagnosed.  Taking the risk of triggering a severe allergic reaction or leaving an allergic child out of all food rewards are both unacceptable options.

2. Food Coloring and Hyperactivity
Artificial food coloring and preservatives, present in most types of candy and processed foods, are associated with hyperactivity.  In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 1,873 children, significantly increased levels of hyperactivity were reported after consumption of artificial food coloring and preservatives, and hyperactivity was reduced when these additives were removed from the diet.

1. Hypocrisy 
Contradicts lessons on nutrition and healthy lifestyle – this compromises the learning environment by creating an attitude of ignoring what is taught.

Marlene Schwartz, co-director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said, “Rewarding children with unhealthy foods in school undermines our efforts to teach them about good nutrition. It’s like teaching children a lesson on the importance of not smoking, and then handing out ashtrays and lighters to the kids who did the best job listening.”

Here are my top 10 alternative rewards, all of which support a healthy lifestyle:

10.  Social Reward
A “social reward” is a highly effective motivator.  Instead of over-using the phrase “good job,” substitute the sentence “You did it!” or “I knew you could do it!”  or “Thank you!”  A high-five and a big smile also work.

9. Lead the class
The privilege of leading the class in the Pledge of Allegiance or an educational classroom game.

8. Relaxing Time
A peaceful walk in the woods or local park.

7. You Get To Choose
The privilege of selecting a book for class story time.

6. Points
Use a token or point system so that students can earn paperback books by demonstrating good citizenship.

5. Head of the Class
The privilege of teaching the class for a few minutes (it could be something as simple as show-and-tell with an item from home).

4. Change of Venue
The privilege of having a lesson or story time outdoors.

3. School Supplies
School supplies such as pencils, erasers or glue sticks.  One teacher gave my son pencils with his name printed on them – a treasure!

2. Positive Reinforcement
A phone call, e-mail or letter sent home acknowledging the student’s accomplishment.  My tenth grade math teacher called my mother once to say that I was a diligent and hard-working student.  That phone call made quite an impression.

1. Special Party
At my son’s former school, there was a 20 minute dance party for students who had behaved responsibly every day during a calendar month.  Every month, my beaming son led the conga line around the gym.

Karen Wang

Written on February 2, 2012 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"