How to help children who experience reward differently

In this Science to Practice video, Family School Co-Director and Consultant Psychotherapist Brenda McHugh gives some practical examples of how teachers can help children who may experience reward differently because of experience of abuse and neglect.

One of the wonderful things that you’ve taught us, from the world of neuroscience, is that not all children experience reward in the same way. So, it may be that a child sitting in front of us can wait until Friday and get ten stars a day before we actually celebrate his or her success, but another child may actually barely wait till half past three, before we can celebrate their success. Because their default system is saying nothing ever comes — don’t expect success. My memories are that everything goes wrong and I’m not worthy anyway.

So, for those children. we need to realise that it’s a different pace about rewarding. It may be over time we can extend that system. But, again, the courage to be able to talk to colleagues and say, this child is going to get a reward today. And also, to some parents who might say, well, that’s what I expected him or her today to do. Why should that be rewarded? The idea that to warm-up the experience of getting a reward earlier might help with some of the rewiring or might help with some of that memory is really, really valuable.

I think as a class teacher you can still talk to other children if you have these reflections saying, you know, we need to, with this young person here, reward the fact that today there was a moment when we saw him step away from something that yesterday he might have thought he needed to take action on and yippee! Let’s really celebrate that. And for this child, you’ve been doing that for some time and now you are being able to wait until Friday, when we know that your reward is this. It can be differentiated; in the same way we differentiate curriculum. As long as we can rate that and hold it with confidence.

Learn more

You can find the Childhood Trauma and the Brain animation and additional resources to support your learning on our here. This includes a downloadable guidebook, explainer videos, and articles on the research. The animation is also available with Welsh subtitles.

This video was generously funded by the Economic Social Research Council.

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