alfie kohn, education reform, rewards

GIve Me Back that Gold Star or How Do You Reward Your Students When You Don’t Believe in Rewards

Image taken from here

It used to be when a student did something exceptional, I would place a cute sticker on their worksheet, homework, or test.  I had a drawer just meant for stickers and I lovingly picked new ones for each year in the office catalogs.  I also had Bravo certificates and even great stamps that quickly but distinctly told them exactly how I felt.   Who doesn’t feel great after getting a stamp with a big thumb on it telling you “Thumbs Up!?”  Sometimes, when I had a little more time,  I would even write “Fantastic” next to that sticker just so that they knew I really meant it.

If the class was having a great day I couldn’t wait to dole out those kid points (if I remembered) so that they could earn another party. Never mind the fact that they knew they would earn it eventually because odds were they would have many more great days than bad days. I thought my kids knew that I thought they were great. I thought my kids understood why they were great.   In fact, I even had an “Awesome Wall” where all the A+ work would go up. Of course, I hoped that all kids would eventually have their work prominently displayed, but truthfully some just never did.

So this year I threw it all away. Well, I kept the stickers but they are for my daughter and husband – he loves motivational stickers on his honey-do lists.   The awesome wall got replaced with a world map, the kid/teacher points disappeared. And I felt so empty; after all, how would my kids know when they did a great job? Wouldn’t they miss the stickers and the fantastics? Ummm no. In fact, no kid ever asked me for a sticker this year. No kid ever asked me to explain their fantastic remark because I didn’t write them often.  Truthfully I found out that kids really didn’t need those extrinsic rewards, that learning still happened, that the kids still stayed motivated, of course some days more than others because guess what, they are kids.

So in throwing out all of my rewards, I found out about the biggest reward of all; time.  This simple concept that I know we have precious little of in a classroom is a hot commodity to everyone.  Now when my kids deserve recognition (which they do every day) I give them time.  Whether it is to take the time to speak to them about their work, or to write feedback.  Whether it is to give them time to work or just time to speak to one another.  How about time for a sledding party?  Or time for 5 minutes of meditation after that awesome assembly?  How about the time to just be a classroom, to just hang out and celebrate all the amazing things happening in our room, in our school, in our world?

So don’t feel like giving up rewards will steer your classroom management off course, I believe it will actually heighten it.  I believe that when you push the superficial things out of the way, deeper connections arise and the students become more willing to share, more connected, more motivated.  Finally, by getting rid of rewards I also gave myself the biggest one of all; the chance to connect deeper with my students.  The chance to speak to them more.  The chance to have them all be equals and not labeled and ranked according to grades or homework.  The chance to finally all be “Fantastic.”

9 thoughts on “GIve Me Back that Gold Star or How Do You Reward Your Students When You Don’t Believe in Rewards”

  1. Knowing that there are teachers who believe in giving students feedback, the opportunity to share a thought or anything to give students a chance to self-reflect instead of a meaningless sticker or a quick word written on the paper gives me hope for the future of education. It is not the judgment passed by the teacher that it is important, it is the student's ability to find ways to personally grow and progress. I love that you are giving your students a chance to do this.

  2. I don't believe in giving out individual rewards because they are so subjective and tend to focus on the wrong thing. They also create a sense of competitiveness and can take away from the community spirit. What do you think about class rewards? My class enjoyed getting marbles. They decided what they as a class wanted to work on and how many marbles they would give themselves if they achieved those goals. For example, in Art, the art teacher was frustrated with the amount of talking they did during lessons so that was something they needed to work on. They decided they would give themselves 5 marbles if they succeeded in not talking out less than 3 times during a lesson. Another way they liked to earn marbles is if they got a compliment from another teacher or if they transitioned in less than 1 minute. I also threw in handfuls of marbles if we accomplished something together as a class or if they just did something I was just so amazed at (which was often) I also plopped marbles randomly during the day for fun. For example, I played a game called Lifelines. A volunteer would come up to the SMARTboard and solve a long division problem. They were allowed 3 lifelines (help from a classmate) The class received a marble for every lifeline not used or sometimes I would say "Okay! Who can remind us what the 3 parts of an atom are? I will be so impressed if someone remembers this!" and I would give us a marble for someone who remembers and the class would cheer. As a class, they decided that when they had a certain number of marbles (I had a student who kept track of the number and posted it on the board) we would do something and they brainstormed ideas and voted on one. I don't know. Even though I am so not into rewards, they really enjoyed it and because it was a class effort and really not subjective (other than my handfuls) it seemed to be a positive thing.

  3. You deserve a gold star for writing such a great post–I could not agree more. I don't usually comment but your post inspired me in many ways–thanks!

  4. I absolutely agree! Written comments, or a quiet personal spoken word of encouragement are much more meaningful than stickers. With class reward things, I forget so often (or we run out of time at the end of the day by the time a student reminds me), that they are much less meaningful. For a long time, I have cut way back on this kind of thing. I hope your experience holds true at my school, and the kids won't miss the stickers because you've inspired me to try giving up rewards next year. Thanks!

  5. I apologize for the late response to comments but I have been traveling. Thank you all for reading the post and letting me know your thoughts. I read every comment and often they make me think. Rebecca, you are the reason I wrote the post today instead of just answering your question. So please read the new post today "My Barren Wasteland…" because that is indeed your answer. Rewards never was a big deal to me because I really hadn't given it a lot of thought. After reflecting on them though I now see how detrimental to education they can be and I will never re-implement them. That does not mean that i am trying to judge anyone that does, I was there, I did it as well. But if my writing one post means someone else will start to reflect, then mission accomplished!

  6. I am teaching in 8th grade this next year. I tried several different things to help with the discipline of my class. I am like one of the post up above. I would forget to put up the tallies for good behavior. I do love the idea of giving them time for good behavior. I have found a lot of brain break stuff online and feel that some of these might be great ways to give back time. I also think just talking to an adult about real things would open them up too. I have even thought about a 20 question box for these talk times. It can be with me as a whole group but this time back could also be in pairs or groups of 4. Relationships are so important. Thanks you for sharing this info. I found you on Pinterest.

    1. I love giving kids time to explore but ten to not just give it to a select few (ie. the good kids) because then it becomes another form of rewards/punishment. I think giving freely of your own time and really listening to the kids is a wonderful way to give back, thank you for writing to me.

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