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 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.