Be the change, classroom management, new year, Student-centered

How to Make Your Anti-Rewards Philosophy Fit in A Pro-Rewards/PBIS School

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4 years ago I decided that rewards in its most basic sense of trinkets, special events, and things to earn had no place in my classroom.  I threw it all out, decided to go rewards free and then held my breath.  3 years ago my former school adopted PBIS.  And I was in a dilemma.  Questions like what do you do when you are anti-rewards but part of a school that has a school-wide reward system?  What do you do when you are seemingly the only person like this?  How do you follow the expectations and rules without betraying your own philosophy? surrounded my brain.  Turns out I am not the only one in this situation.  In fact, this is one of the most common emails I get from people who have read my book “Passionate Learners” or this blog; how do you fit into a school that does rewards when you don’t believe in it yourself?

It would be easy to say that you stand your ground.  That you refuse to give them.  That you tell everyone how wrong they are and that you will never, ever participate.  But let’s be real.  If I had done that it would have been put in my file as being a non-team player.  I also would have looked like a jerk.  And nobody wants to look like a jerk.  So instead there is a few things you can do if you find yourself in this situation.

You can participate like everyone else.  I did this my first year.  I followed all of the expectations, didn’t ask any questions (for a while any way) and made sure I gave it a chance.  I did not want to judge something that so many people loved before I had fully tried it.  What I discovered helped me shape how I worked with the expectations in my own classroom.

I discovered that PBIS, or similar all school “management philosophies” works on noticing the positive.  That I could stand behind.  It also works on common expectations and common language.  That I also believe in.  So those parts were fine with me.  What I didn’t like so much was the handing out of rewards to earn something materialistic, the singling out of certain students, and the exclusion of others.  I had a hard time being okay with handing a student a ticket for walking properly in the hallway, following normal rules, and pretty much just doing what was expected.  And yet I had to work with it, not against it and thus make it work.  So, some ideas to work with this are:

  • Create your own “awards”– rather than trading tickets in for things, my students could show them to me and get a thumbs up/wohoo/high five etc.  This may sound totally ridiculous but my students work on being noticed for their great behavior and so I worked on noticing those.  Often we get too busy with teaching that we don’t see or say when kids are being great, a few seconds here or there for positive call outs go a long way.  So when students were awesome, I told them that.  When students weren’t so awesome, I also told them that.  They would rather have words from me than a ticket.  However, if you have to hand out tickets for students to earn things, see if they can earn time with you, earn time to read more, earn time to read a picture book etc.  That way you are still following school rules but getting rid of the trinkets.
  • Have class parties.  My students never earned these in the traditional sense, I would surprise them with a special afternoon when they had worked really hard.  Parents knew and would help behind the scenes, but the students most of the time did not know it was coming.  They never acted in a certain way to get something and no one ever lost the privilige to take part.
  • Have students pick students to be recognized.  I was put in the uncomfortable position or picking two kids to honor at an assembly.  Uncomfortable because I really had a lot more than two that could have been honored.  So instead of picking, I let the students vote.  That way they were recognizing their peers, which meant more in the long run.
  • Have them set their own rules.  Yes, we were a PBIS school with PBIS rules, but I also wanted students to set their own expectations for behavior within our class.  I wanted them to decide how they would get the most out of school by deciding what their learning environment should look like and feel like.  This was not to replace what the school had decided but to supplement it.  Students made rules that worked for them in their language and then modified/fine-tuned throughout the year.
  • Plant a seed.  It is okay to start a conversation on how PBIS or other all-school reward/award philosophies can be changed to fit your school and all kids better.  You don’t have to come out with guns blazing, you can bring up small questions and points, thus planting the seed of change.  You can discuss how you would rather not reward students with trinkets for what they are supposed to do, and then offer alternatives.  You can discuss how you work with it in your class.  You can also have students discuss it.  When I asked my students whether they thought the tickets made a difference, some of them laughed.  They did not care much about them and saw them as silly since it seemed random as to whether they got them and the prizes associated with them were not very good (gotta love 5th graders’ honesty).
  • Band together.  Find people who also question some of the philosophies and discuss it with them, this is not to form a terror group of “we are right, you are wrong” but rather to not be alone in presenting your views.  If more than one person is questioning certain parts, a better conversation can be had with differing viewpoints.
  • Make it work for you.  I think we can take even some of the strictest systems and make them work for us by starting thoughtful conversations with those in charge, by asking for small tweaks and changes and explaining why.  Don’t try to ridicule the system because parts of it does work, but find ways to work with it without making yourself sick.  There are always battles to pick and fight, but compromise goes a long way as well.  Yes, in a perfect world, we would not have to change our own philosophies to fit our school’s, but we work in buildings with many needs.  What works for us may not work for others and if we model that belief we can create a space where we all fit.

I know I am not the only one in this boat, so what has worked for you?

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.



13 thoughts on “How to Make Your Anti-Rewards Philosophy Fit in A Pro-Rewards/PBIS School”

  1. Thanks for a well reasoned look at these systems. I’m with you, the energy they require could be spent more authentically in my opinion.

  2. Yes! Yes! Yes! And here I thought I was the only one who felt this way. Like you, I am behind the common expectations and looking for the positives, but beyond that I have been extremely quiet about the rest of our PBiS and how I use it with my class. Thank you for making me feel less alone in this. Pernille, someday I would like to meet you in person because I feel we could be good friends.

  3. I love this post and have found it very helpful as my school begins its move towards PBIS. You have such a brilliant way of advocating for change so respectfully and leaving space for other possible ways other than our own. I am thankful for your words of wisdom as we all navigate a path towards finding balance between our own beliefs and the beliefs we find ourselves working within.

  4. As the internal coach at a PBIS school, I don’t like trinkets. We don’t use them. We do use “Wildcat Card” for students that are following expected behaviors. I love, as you said, the common language. I also love the fact that we have common expectations in common areas. No one should have to guess what they should do just because someone else is supervising that day!

      1. Kent, I think what Trish might mean is that different teachers can have different expectations beyond that of being courteous and respectful. I have had students reprimanded by other teachers for using more than one paper towel to dry their hands off, and then be reprimanded by another for shaking their hands dry instead of using two hand towels. In areas like the lunch room, where it could be a different teacher each day (it is at our school), kids wonder which teacher will allow them to get up to use the restroom without asking, which will be mad even if they ask, which will require them to raise their hands first, etc.
        Common expectations for common areas, like hallways, restrooms, lunch rooms prevent a lot of unintentional conflicts.

  5. This anti-rewards philosophy is also something parents should consider. Many years ago, when my children were growing up, I read Alfie Kohn’s book, “Punished by Rewards”. It helped me to reconsider some of my parenting assumptions. At the same time, it was difficult witnessing my children’s continued manipulation with rewards and incentives throughout their school years. I would’ve loved and appreciated a teacher like Pernille.

  6. Yep! I found myself in this situation for years. I waited until the kids asked about them, threw them in a basket and told the kids to pick them when they did something that they thought merited the tickets. Yes, we had a conversation about not taking bunches, but sometimes a kid would walk in and say, “Mrs. so and so awarded tickets to her students who were walking quietly in the hall.” I’d answer with, “That sounds nice.” We’d have a talk about how parents are different and do things differently and that’s kind of the way it worked at school.

    Sometimes it would lead to, “Why don’t we get tickets for walking quietly?” and I’d answer, “If you’d like a ticket for walking quietly, please feel free to go get one.” I had them on my desk in a corner and the kids would always explain to me why they thought they deserved 1 or 2 or many. It worked out well for some kids and the others honestly didn’t really care. I made sure to let kids know that it wasn’t something I chose, but reminded them by saying things like, “Wow, you must be proud at how hard you worked on that paper” or “I bet it felt great to finally conquer those fractions.” The kids got it.

  7. Great post, Pernille! Much of what you share falls in with my personal/philosophy (let’s face it-how do you separate the two?) as well. I don’t believe in rewarding kids with “stuff”- no trinkets, doo-dad’s, etc. I will admit to stickerfying my classes during my first few years as a teacher, bc that’s what we did in the late 80’s. We are rolling out our PBIS program this year and what has me exited us that our focus is on the recognition aspect-the high-five/woot-woot you write about. I appreciate the focus on the positive. In our school, an Arrow ticket is simply an acknowledgement of a good choice. That’s it. Nothing else happens. Do we set goals and celebrate when we reach those goals? Absolutely! But celebrate dies not translate into “stuff” . It signifies teamwork and all of us working together to reach our goal. When you succeed, you help us succeed. Too many of our learners hear more negatives than positives from the people in their lives and need to be recognized for making the right choices, need to be acknowledged for the effort. I like the focus on the teaching aspect- we simply can no longer assume that all children come to us with school acceptable behaviors having been modeled and taught. That is not the reality they live with. Yet in education, there has been a strong tendency to punish for the lack in such a skill set. I believe we need to do a better job of seeing the good. Perfect system? Absolutely not. But, at least in the way that we are using PBIS, it feels more like the teachable, positive acknowledgement system than the “get a ticket, get a toy” some have turned it into. As an administrator, I appreciate your effort to find common ground in a system that you to exist within, while remaining true to your own beliefs. That is a difficult line to maneuver. Well done, friend. Thank you, as always, for making me truly consider just what it is I believe.

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