Why We Still Need Gold Stars For Good Behavior

A classroom game used in elementary schools is being financially supported by a health-plan provider based in Oregon because it has proven to reduce kids’ likelihood of smoking cigarettes when they grow up. “The Good Behavior Game” successfully teaches children the benefits of positive behavior at an experiential level – which is one reason the initiative has proven successful. For performing simple yet meaningful behaviors such as paying attention to their teachers, sitting with correct posture and working hard on their assignments, children in the game earn “gold stars” and other rewards meant to instill a sense of accomplishment and the enjoyment of a reward well earned.

What makes The Good Behavior Game so effective in youngsters? In a word: neuroplasticity. Neuroscientists have discovered how the brain is able to “rewire” itself to establish new patterns of thought and new responses to challenges arising from outside of ourselves. As the children playing the game grow accustomed to the positive rewards of good behavior, their brains make lasting changes to the way they perceive and interpret their choices and decisions. The game imprints youngsters with the belief and understanding that positive behavior leads to the most desirable outcomes. This is why the children in the study were much less likely to pick up self-destructive behavior such as smoking cigarettes. Their brains could not naturally associate such behavior with a social or personal benefit, only a detriment.

As adults in the workplace, we play a kind of “behavior game” without even realizing it. Our minds are constantly adapting to the outcomes of different behavioral patterns and establishing new patterns based on what brings about the most positive outcomes. As adults, we still receive “gold stars” for good behavior, but our grown-up version of gold stars includes things like positive relationships, recognition for our achievements and a larger income. The process is the same behind the scenes: when we exhibit more effective behavior, we experience more positive outcomes, and our brain takes note.

We obviously do not have benevolent teachers guiding our every step and doling out shiny stickers in the workplace, so the responsibility for establishing new habits falls entirely on ourselves. The good news is that we do have the ability to control the cycle of reinforcement by intentionally establishing new patterns of behavior. By taking control of our behavior, we can begin to see more positive outcomes in our interactions with others, including more productive conflict, greater collaboration and enhanced results from working with teams. As we experience these positive outcomes, our new behaviors become patterns of habit that begin to come naturally and subconsciously. As we solidify each small victory along the way, accumulating many “gold stars,” we begin to establish even more positive habits to achieve even greater outcomes.

According to an article in Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, a previous study of the Good Behavior Game resulted in reduced rates of drug and alcohol dependence, antisocial personality disorders, violent crime and thoughts of suicide between the ages of 19 and 21. As adults in the workplace, the outcomes of our own subconscious behavior game can include fewer bridges burned, fewer opportunities missed, reduced impacts of stress and greater results in our careers over the long term.

Although it may seem simple, new behavioral patterns can be very challenging to establish, and positive habits do not form by accident in our adult lives. To make the kind of lasting change we seek, we must take the initiative to learn and practice real-world competencies to increase our Social Intelligence. By seeking to understand how Behavioral Style, Mindset and Emotional Intelligence affect our ability to work effectively with others, we can find the gaps in our own behavioral patterns. By making time to intentionally put Social-Intelligence skills to work, we can begin to break the habits that hold us back and form new habits to take our lives and careers to new heights.