How Do You Reward Students When You Don’t Believe in Rewards?

When I moved this blog to WordPress some posts did not survive, so in an effort to move some of my favorite posts with me, I will be republishing them here.  This post first appeared in June, 2011.

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.”

I am a passionate  teacher in Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” can be pre-ordered from Corwin Press now.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

6 thoughts on “How Do You Reward Students When You Don’t Believe in Rewards?

  1. I really like your post and I think it’s great that your kids love learning. However, rewards and extrinsic things are a reality in our life. Do you teach and not expect a paycheck? You even said your husband loves getting stickers on his honey do list. I believe rewards are okay if not used to totally manipulate.

    • The husband comment was a joke, he doesn’t like stickers. Yes, we get paid to do our jobs, because we are adults and live in a society that requires us to have money. I don’t think that can be compared to handing out awards or stickers in school. For me it became a matter of having kids excited about what they would gain from their learning, rather than what they would gain materialistically. Having rewards in my classroom ruined the discovery that was happening.

  2. Hi Pernille
    Great post. I gave up ‘rewards’ several years ago after reading Punished by Rewards The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn. Like you I have not seen a drop in learning and no child has ever asked for stickers and I have taught 5 year olds to 12 year olds in this time.

  3. I never gave rewards, but when the psych came to my room because I had a child who wouldn’t do anything without a reward, I was ordered to start class rewards. This child was one step away from being in an emr room. I hate them too but at times you have to do rewards.

  4. Pingback: Resources for Ditching the Behavior System | mattBgomez

  5. Pingback: Classroom Rewards, goodbye to my great behaviour chart

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