Before You Hand Out Those Rewards – 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

I have been reward and punishment free for 5 years in my classroom.  I have loved it and yet rewards seem to still crop up every year, typically through school-wide initiatives or team decisions.  Because I try to be a team player, I go with it as much as I can, and yet, the voice inside of me still screams that for most students, extrinsic tangible rewards do not help.  Sure there are a few kids who may become more motivated because of a reward, but I have yet to see a child really change their behavior because of an extrinsic reward system.  And while praise also falls into the extrinsic reward category, this post is about the “stuff” we give kids, not our words.  So if you are not quite sure whether to give up rewards or not, please ask yourself the following questions.

1.  Will the rewards only go to certain kids?

Rewards have always, in my opinion, been the surest way to create a divided community within a classroom.  A community where there are those that get and those that don’t.  I really tried to make sure that all of my students had lunch with me, which was one of the rewards they could earn, and yet there were always kids that didn’t make it, at least not legitimately.  Those kids that seemed to slip through the cracks when I was handing out points, or tickets, or money or whatever it was I was handing out, and not because they weren’t well-behaved, but because they were quiet, that child that seems to slide through our day and does ok on everything, they tended to not get the rewards because of their middle of the road-ness.  I tried keeping track but that created more work. And the kids that typically were misbehaved, well, I had to go out of my way to make sure they were rewarded too but they were rewarded for  things like doing some work or staying in the classroom.  I remember how other students felt about those types of rewards being handed out and that inherent feeling of it being unfair. In the end, handing out individual rewards did little to create a deep community and so it was easy for me to give it up.

2.  Have you seen long-term changes as a result of giving extrinsic rewards?

I haven’t.  I have seen students willing to do something in the short-term to earn that thing they want but I have never seen long-lasting changes, unless the reward was increased over time.  So while the child’s behavior changed a small amount, the reward grew significantly until we couldn’t increase it anymore.  Then the child typically reverted to their old ways or even got worse.  I think when we spend more n a child earning something rather than the relationship we are building, then we are investing our time poorly.

3.  Will the rewards increase or devalue the learning?

I have found that when we tie anything academically into rewards, that becomes the focus, not the learning or the growth that students have shown.  When we reward students when they do their homework, do well on a test, or complete a project, we are telling them that the learning they just did is not the main focus but the completion of something is.  We are also telling them that they must get something tangible whenever they finish something, which is not at all the reality of our world. When we tie in rewards with learning we can create a cycle of “Gimme” which should not be our intention as teachers.

4.  Will students actually care?

Most of my students didn’t care one bit about the rewards that were handed out.  They shrugged when I handed them a ticket to pick a prize, or left the prize at school, some even traded their token cash away.  I remember being angry when I saw the prizes left behind, but later realized that because it was just another small thing, it didn’t mean anything to them. And why should it?  Most of our students are bombarded with trinkets and disposable things wherever they go.

What did matter to my students was the time we spent together and what we did during that time.  Not what reward they would get from me.  So I gave up rewarding the individual students and started celebrating more with the whole class.  I gave out more compliments.  I had more individual conversations to talk about behavior.  I started noticing more of what my kids needed and tried to give them that, rather than just dole out punishment or hand out a reward.

For me giving up tangible rewards (and punishment) was one of the best decisions I made.  Students don’t expect something other than learning when we are together, they don’t have the same sense of entitlement I saw at times, and they don’t have the threat of not being rewarded hanging over their head.  Bottom-line; giving up individual extrinsic rewards meant that I could focus on the child in front of me, rather than the systems I had in place.   What do you think?

To read more about my journey away from awards and punishment, click here

I also highly recommend reading Alfie Kohn’s book

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 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.  The second edition of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is available for pre-order now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

15 thoughts on “Before You Hand Out Those Rewards – 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Hi Pernille. This is something I have been struggling with ever since PBIS came into play a few years ago. The ticket system! You are so right that the middle of the road kids get left out, and the kids who are super stellar usually are that way because they are intrinsically motivated. We also end up praising the off-task kiddos for doing simply the basic requirement. That is what the middle of the roaders do. Why won’t they get recognized? In my former school, they went so far as to write the teacher’s name on every ticket, so they would know who passes them out and who doesn’t. So many layers of wrong in this approach. You also pointed out basic brain research, which is that the brain, if rewarded for a task, wants a bigger reward the next time to increase the motivation in doing that same task again. We have to ask ourselves, “What are we perpetuating with this system?” I believe in natural consequences and earning certain things through hard work, sure. But I cannot support the ticket system all schools seem to be using. Some of the ideas are good. Teachers should improve their practice of specific praise that focuses on work. Improve relationships with kids etc. I also believe that schools are looking for CHEAP ways to appear like they are trying to improve undesirable behavior, especially in Tier 2 and 3 kids. But I believe, that can only come with a stiff price tag and lots of creative thinking about behavior modification, psychologists, teachers and parents on board. In our new age of no suspensions and expulsions, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, schools are desperate to try new things WITHOUT the financial support that is needed. So, what is the answer? I don’t know for sure, but knowing the basics about what motivates kids and building real relationships with kids are probably two important pieces. Making school a prideful HOME for kids is also part of it. This is a pretty interesting talk about motivation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc You’ll notice that rewards don’t work for difficult thinking or high-level tasks. Thanks for the post.

  2. I absolutely agree that it’s all about investing our relationships!! One of my most poignant learning experiences as a teacher was when I was speaking with one of my fifth graders in the hall who had had repeated behavior issues. I told him that I knew he was better than the choices he’d been making lately, and we talked about what was causing it. Then, I told him that in the past for other kids, I’d set up behavior incentive systems to help them become better aware of their choices, and I asked him if he needed something like that to help him. He said no–he did not need candy to help him make the choices he knew he should already be making. I was so proud of him in that moment, and I told him so. He came out of that conversation a little taller, and the behavior issues all but faded. Thank you so much for challenging us all with such fantastic questions, Pernille!

  3. I also used the ‘reward system’ and hated it. So have abolished it for quite a few years now. We have a ‘trust thing’ going on in our room – from day 1. Called ‘the string of trust’ As a whole class, we weave a ‘ web of trust’ with a ball of string. It’s about trusting ourselves, and each other. Very powerful. Caught one of my Year 5 kids inappropriately using his iPad. He was ‘devastated’ that he had caused a knot in our string of trust. That was his only consequence. When he feels he has thought about his actions and is ready, he will undo the knot so that we may start again on a strong thread of trust. He said he would have preferred a consequence ( like staying in at playtime) This would have been over and done. But the ‘knot’ which represents lack of trust between him and his teacher was devastating for him.

    • I love your ‘the string of trust’!! Can you provide some specifics on this? does each student get their own piece of string? Where do you keep the ‘web of trust’; is this something that is visual for the year?

  4. Pingback: 5 Awesome Incentives for Classroom Behavior | HonorsGradU

  5. While I have liked PBIS systems, my mindset has always been that extrinsic rewards are short term interventions on the road to intrinsic rewards. There should be a plan to move beyond extrinsic rewards. I still celebrate events such as birthdays and class/grade wide work along with individual achievements – but not always with ‘a reward’ (for the kids that are still focused on extrinsic gratification, yes but on the pathway to not needing that). Great share!!

  6. So what do you do with negative behaviors and impulsivity? How do you encourage the child to correct or control the behavior?

    • Often it came down to figuring out a plan with that individual. It could involve some sort of self-monitoring tool and then a lot of conversation and communication. Generally, we didn’t do tangible rewards but rather praise and other positive attention.

      • Ah, okay. I was thinking of praise as a reward. Yes, I use self-monitoring tools a lot. Tallies and stickers (done by the student) work wonders when combined with praise and discussed strategy.

      • This thread is very interesting to me. It sounds like you are taking a stand more against tangible rewards and not extrinsic rewards as a whole, is that right? Praise and positive attention that you mentioned would be considered extrinsic rewards and you do give out those to students. I just want to be clear on what you are advocating here. I’m assuming that you find some value in extrinsic rewards in schools or else you would be only working for the intrinsic rewards that come from your work and not that extrinsic reward of a paycheck. Can you clarify your positions for me a little? Thanks!

  7. I have decided that in place/schools where rewards are common and expected, I will provide rewards, but the students will be the ones to decide when their work / effort earns it. Example: kids give themselves stickers. Expected outcome: at first some will go sticker crazy, some will be perfectionist about it, some won’t care at all…that in itself can say quite a bit about the child and their learning, which can be useful to the teacher. It also sets up an expectation that self-evaluation and reflection are valuable. I have yet to try it out. Stickers are cheap, and the insight this system might provide could be quire telling.

  8. Reblogged this on Changed ED and commented:
    Pernille Ripp reminds us why external rewards aren’t worth the trouble.

    1. They create a division of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
    2. External rewards weaken intrinsic motivation in the long run.
    3. External rewards take the focus away from the work
    4. If the value of the reward is undermined, so is the effort.

    He then goes on to suggest rewards should be abandoned altogether. He is not the first to suggest this. I’m not sure who is, to be honest.

    Alfie Kohn goes into this a lot in his book titled “Punished by Rewards”. Dan Pink also talks about this indirectly in his book, “Drive”. And there’s a handful of teachers who blog it (google it). So it does seem like this idea is picking up steam.

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  11. Pingback: 8 Tips For Non-Manipulative Classroom Praise | HonorsGradU

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