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.


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

image from icanread

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.



Ten Reasons I Ditched Traditional 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 one first appeared October, 2011.

I used to be the queen of the awesome board, the gold stickers, and definitely the special lunches and privileges.  I thought my kids loved it, and sure some did, but after a huge hallelujah moment, I realized that I was doing more harm than good in my seemingly innocent hand out of rewards.  So I ended all individual rewards as I knew them, because here is what I realized.

  1. Students don’t actually need rewards to work.  Sure they work in the short-run but guess what after a while you have to up the ante and keep going up because it just isn’t going to be very effective for long.  And yes, students will take rewards if you offer them, but they will actually also work without the perpetual carrot dangling in front of their noses.    And you won’t believe me until you actually try it.
  2. Rewards tend to go to the same kids over and over and over.  We say that it is really up to the students to get the rewards but at the same time we can probably all list the kids that would have a hard time earning one.  So then who are we fooling?
  3. Rewards split the students.  If you ever want to create a class of have and have not’s in your classroom just hand out rewards; the students will quickly figure out who the “smart” kids are and who are not.  Or worse, who the teachers like and who they don’t.
  4. Rewards devalue the learning.  By attaching a reward to a learning task, you are telling a student that the task is not worth doing if it weren’t for the reward.  That is not how learning should be.  Learning should be fun, exciting, and curiosity driven, not mechanical and focused on the end point.  When a reward becomes the end point, then that is the focus.
  5. You keep giving rewards; the students won’t work without it.  With rewards you create a culture of “what’s in it for me?” and the learning just isn’t enough.  And yet the learning and experience should be enough for the child, provided it is meaningful and purposeful.  So set them up from the beginning to earn rewards and soon there will be hardly any extra work or deeper digging into concepts.  If the child knows that they “just” have to do whatever to get a reward, or an A for that matter, then that is what they will do.  The learning stops wherever you dictate it to.
  6. The students will argue with you.  My first year students would get upset over which sticker I gave them because in their minds certain stickers were worth more.  A sticker!  Now equate that to extra recess, or books, or special lunches and think of the conflict it creates.  You want to make sure your struggling learners keep feeling more disenfranchised; keep up the rewards.
  7. Rewards become the measure of success. If you don’t reward a child then they don’t think they have succeeded.  No more handing them back a project with great feedback; if that sticker or some recognition isn’t attached then it just isn’t enough.  I had students collect stickers and notes to showcase to the other students, it became a competition of who could gather more.  It wasn’t about what they had learned or how great a project was, it was only about how many they had.
  8. Students lose their voice in the learning process.  When a teacher is the only one deciding on success shown through rewards, the classroom does not belong to the students.  That teacher is therefore the ultimate power within the room and the kids know it.  If you want to create a student-centered classroom, you cannot have such a vast difference in learning authority.  To build the kids confidence they have to have a voice.
  9. But they all  get rewarded….  Some schools run weekly recognitions of students for whatever reason, or some classrooms do.  And while this may seem innocent enough, after all, there is nothing tangible tied to it, it still causes jealousy and anxiety.  If a program calls for recognizing every single student for the same things, then why are we recognizing in a public way in the first place.  Wouldn’t it be easier just to state the expectations and then tell the kids that we are happy they are all living up to it?  There is no need to create weekly recognition if we are doing our jobs right as educators; making our students feel valued and respected as part of the learning community.
  10. Rewards create more work for the teacher.  I was so worried that everyone had been on my “Awesome board” that I kept track = more paperwork.  I also had to make sure that I was eating lunch with all of my students = more paperwork.  I also had to make sure I could justify to parents why one child got a certain privilege and another didn’t = more paperwork.  Do you see where I am going?  Rewards and trying to keep it “fair and balanced” creates more work for us without providing any long-term benefits.

So you may assume that my classroom is one stripped of rewards and recognition, yet it isn’t.  My students have parties, except they get them after the fact, when we have something to celebrate.  I have high expectations for my students to “represent” as much as they have for me.  We strive to create a learning environment where we all feel comfortable messing up and trying again, because we know that the learning journey is the focus and not just the end result.  So I recognize and I reward but I do it through the learning and the conversations.  I don’t have a classroom where students expect things to do their jobs, I have a classroom of kids eager to learn, on some days more than others, but who are always willing to be a part of what we consider our second home; our classroom.  All without the use of rewards.

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.



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.

Confessions of a Former Rewards Addict

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 one was from 2010, as I first started my in my no rewards classroom.

I admit it.  Gold stars, super duper stickers, sticks, names on the board; I have done it all.  And when one reward system failed, another one took over.  Never one to sit and reflect that perhaps it was the system that was faulty and not just that the students grew tired of it.  After all, that carrot at the end of the stck was essential to my teaching success.  Those stickers meant I cared.  That Awesome board where A+ work was proudly displayed gave students something to strive for.  That certificate if you got an A on your math test meant that you were smart and that other students should look up to you.  Right?  Wrong again.

Oh, I thought I was clever.  I thought I knew how to motivate students and after all, what could a little reward do that would possibly hurt the child?  Well, after reading Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards,” I realize just how wrong I have been.  Those papers on the awesome board did nothing to improve unity in my room.  Instead they acted as the great divide, highlighting the students that could from those that could not.  Those stickers I doled out for anything above 90%; not a cheerful way to celebrate achievement, but rather a glaring marker showing which students did the best in the room.  Those great “You did it” award certificates stapled to their math tests, not great posters of pride but instantaneous feedback on where a students falls within the grade hierarchy.  And yes, the students knew exactly where they fell within the classroom.

So this year I am throwing it all out.  Well, most of it anyway, I do like those stickers and will use them for good rather than evil.  And I am petrified.  After all, this is how I was taught to teach.  If a student does something good they should be rewarded and nothing says “Great job! I can tell you worked so hard” better than a smiley face sticker.  Except when it doesn’t.   A smiley face sticker says; “If you work hard, you will get a smiley face sticker.”  And when in life does that ever happen?  This year, I plan on talking to my students even more.  Telling them what was great, asking them what they thought was great and then peeling apart things that didn’t quite get there and figure out what went wrong.  We shall learn from our supposed mistakes, those will be our rewards.

So while I am excited for this new no-reward agenda, I do shudder a little bit at the implication it has.  No longer will I be the cool teacher with the Awesome board, the one you get to have pizza with if your stick doesn’t get moved, the one that doles out classroom parties as if they were clean socks.  Instead, I will be the one that shouts the praise the loudest to every kid.  The one that talks to all my students and highlights all the things they did right.  The one that creates more work for herself because talking rather than just placing a sticker takes more time, more effort, more thought.  And I can’t wait.  Will you join me?

H/T to this post from George Couros “The Impact of Awards

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.

My Barren Wasteland – A Room Without Rewards

When I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress last summer I mistakenly assumed that all posts would seamlessly transfer.  I have since found the error in my thinking and have decided to re-post some of my more discussed posts that didn’t survive the move.  This is one of those posts.

A barren wasteland with no smiling allowed.  A silent classroom with a teacher standing sternly at the front slapping a ruler against their palm waiting for the next kid that dares to actually have a good time.  These are all images people tend to get when I say I do not believe in rewards.

Recently I wrote a post detailing how I reward my students through time rather than extrinsic motivators.  One comment I received asked me whether I believed in whole classroom rewards or not, which is a question I often get.  The answer is no.  I don’t believe in the idea of rewards and agree with Alfie Kohn when he states that “Rewards and punishment  are ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning.”

I believe that rewards twist the focus of the classroom and provides students with a false reason to want to engage.  I believe that rewards always end up benefiting the same students and some are always left out.  I know some will say that classroom rewards are the answer to that inequity, but ask yourself; how often have you taken away classroom points or not given marbles based on the actions of one kid or just a couple?  I know I used to even though it did not reflect the behavior of the whole classroom.  So you still produce an inequity because the other kids certainly know who it is that makes them lose points and believe me that plays into social situations sooner or later.

The bottom line for me is when we perpetually stick a carrot in front of students faces whether it be through points, letters, or marbles, we are teaching them that they should not do anything without a reward.  So while in the short term it may work to have kids get points to earn something as a classroom, in the long run it is not shaping their behavior to want to behave simply for the greater good.  I need kids that want to be in my classroom and I expect kids to take responsibility for their behaviors.  So I do not make kids “earn” anything in the reward sense, and I do not single out kids.  Instead we celebrate class-wide whenever an occasion arises.   Celebrations are given not earned and they can be based on whether we have achieved something or it is a certain time of year.  Often students and I discuss how we should celebrate something and it is never ever taken away from them.    I never use it is a way to manipulate their behavior or to point out anything.  We simply celebrate, and there is always a lot to celebrate!

So while classroom rewards may seem harmless, think of what it projects.  Think of what message it really is sending the students.  Are we trying to tell them that we do not expect them to behave without some sort of reward?  Are we trying to tell them that society will always reward them extrinsically whenever they do what is expected of them, because if we are, those kids will be mightily disappointed in adult life.