I overheard Melissa talking to a friend the other day. She was explaining her day. “In social skills group, I get a tiny bag of skittles like the ones you get on Halloween. Mrs. R gives us a chocolate kiss after music. Miss Sally gives me jelly bellies after I do my writing exercises. In Mr. White’s class I have a chart for when I listen carefully. When I get 10 stickers, I get to pick a piece of candy from the jar.”

Use of food as a reward system in schools is not new. It is an easy and universally understood token for students of all ages and abilities. It’s common for a class of students to work toward a pizza party or other food-related event. However, for students with Down syndrome and related disabilities, the use of food rewards can become so prevalent in teaching methodology it gets the way of lunch! For Melissa, the candy appears to be the most exciting part of the day.

When working in isolation, these rewards seem harmless. However, the totality of the candy offered throughout the day is a very real problem. Not only do they provide too may empty calories in a day, but the process, the habit, of earning food can wreak havoc later in life. Think about the behavioral lesson. What is this student learning? She is learning that if she complies with the rules, she gets candy. She is learning that food is an expected part of a good day at work. For some students, this becomes a well-established groove into adulthood that is difficult to break. For others, good work triggers the desire to eat. It’s difficult to find a good reason to continue to offer food as any sort of regular reward.

What to do?

First, use the accommodations and modifications section of your child or student’s IEP. An appropriate accommodation for this student is “No food rewards.” This will serve as a reminder to all team members. However, whenever a technique is taken away, it must have an equally effective one. This is where the team work comes in to play. I encourage parents and teachers to create a list of the things that motivate each student. For many, the best reward is a social connection: a high five, a statement of praise, time with friends doing an infrequent, favored activity, and so on. A visual tool for this would be a reward chart with stickers, building up to special time with friends. One young lady I worked with was more excited about earning clips and bows for her hair than anything else. We all knew when it was an especially good day when you could barely see her hair for the clips and bows.

When working with middle school and high school students, sit down with them to create the reward list. Ask them what it is they would like to do. Involving students in classroom contracts makes them more meaningful.

Of course there are times when a classroom party is the most appropriate activity for students! Focus the party on activities and what they did to earn the party more than the pizza or ice cream. Regardless, food is an integral part of life. Our job, as parents and educators, is to use it wisely.

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