Schools Sour on Giving Students Sweet Rewards

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

Schools around the Washington region are quietly removing Jolly Ranchers and Tootsie Pops from the teacher's desk, ending a long tradition of rewarding classroom obeisance with candy.

In the District and many suburbs, school systems have imposed rules during the past two years that discourage teachers from using candy or other junk food as an incentive. Some policies reject any offer of food as reward, or denial of food as punishment, on the theory that students should not be taught it is a privilege to eat.

Regulation of classroom candy is part of a broader "wellness" movement that has swept public schools this decade. Federal law required school systems to establish rules by fall 2006 to govern Gummi Worms in cafeterias and sodas in vending machines, birthday cupcake parties and Halloween binges, physical education and recess, as well as the proliferation of candy and other food of questionable nutritional value in contests, promotions and everyday classroom activities.

"Food should never be given as a reward," said Lynn Rubin, a Montgomery County parent who worked with the principal of her daughter's Gaithersburg school to eliminate candy from classrooms three years ago. "It just makes a bad connection. We eat food to nourish our bodies."

Even in nutrition-conscious Montgomery, most parents don't seem to mind the occasional M&M or Skittle dispensed by a well-meaning teacher. But the sweets can add up. Often neither parents nor children are able to track how much has been consumed in a day.

Among those concerned with juvenile health, a consensus is emerging that food as a classroom incentive sends bad messages. It encourages children to eat when they are not hungry, and eat poorly. It can fuel a habit of overeating as a reward. It contradicts lessons about nutrition and balance taught in school.

Nancy Brener, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who oversees surveys on school health, said: "You're giving them a mixed message, because you're teaching them in health class that they should be eating more fruits and vegetables, foods containing whole grains and low-fat dairy products. And then you're not giving them any of that."

An informal survey found eight area school systems that discourage candy as an incentive or encourage alternatives: those in Anne Arundel, Arlington, Calvert, Fairfax, Howard, Loudoun, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Public schools in the District and Alexandria forbid candy as a reward. St. Mary's County schools have no specific rule about candy incentives. Policies and regulations have been adopted in the past two years, but efforts to remove candy from schools have been underway since at least the start of the decade.

Montgomery principals have long been advised in annual memos to limit candy, as well as caloric classroom parties and potential allergens. Parent-teacher groups at several schools have mobilized against cupcake fests in classrooms and syrupy fruits in the lunchroom. One Chevy Chase e-mail list hosted a fierce debate about how to celebrate Halloween.

"I guess there's a role for sweets to play in kids' lives, but a very limited role," said Eden Fisher Durbin of Kensington, a mother of two schoolchildren. "Some kids can handle the sweets, and some kids can't."

For generations, candy served a vital Pavlovian role in the classroom: a cheap, abundant and effective reward for the student who found the correct answer, sat the most quietly or managed to spell the multi-syllabic word on the board.

Candy has not disappeared from classrooms entirely. But teachers are increasingly embracing rewards that are inedible, even intangible.

Tammy Ripley, a music teacher at Cloverly Elementary School in Silver Spring, uses a series of color-coded "karate belts" to reward students who learn musical compositions of increasing difficulty.

Kathryn Ingraham, a third-grade teacher at nearby Highland View Elementary School, places students' names in a basket when they are "caught being good" and draws the names for privileges such as being first in line to go to recess.

At Strawberry Knoll Elementary School in Gaithersburg, every employee keeps a supply of Berry Cents, a system of school-wide currency that can be exchanged for items at a cart parked in the school breezeway. School leaders introduced the reward system three years ago after parents complained about the excessive use of candy.

"It's the size of a business card; we run them off by the thousands," said Rubin, one of two parents who led the anti-candy campaign.

A CDC survey in 2006 found that 26 percent of school systems prohibited food and food coupons as student incentives. An additional 20 percent discourage them. The survey was done just before the federal deadline for school systems to adopt wellness policies. Brener, the CDC researcher, said a follow-up survey in 2012 may yield higher numbers.

"It's not just from the wellness policies," said Brener, whose own children have brought fast-food coupons home from their elementary school in Cobb County, Ga. "We'd like to think that this is a direction that we're all moving in."

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