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Beware of Classroom Rewards

classroom rewards

Deciding whether or not to implement a classroom rewards system is a decision worth putting some thought into.

Scroll through Pinterest and you can find all kinds of reward systems: sticker charts, brag tags, token economies, dojos, punch cards, candy rewards and coupons. The ideas are truly endless.

But, are these systems right for your students?

On one hand- reward systems are a positive behavior modification tool, meaning you are not directly punishing student behavior. Positive is better than negative, right? I used to think so…

But, I’ve taken a step back and am looking at student behavior from a different perspective now (read about it here). And with that step back I can see more negatives than positives with reward systems…

Raise your hand if you have or have ever had a treasure box in your classroom?

I had a cardboard one, (you know that you have to put together) but I truly envied a fellow teacher because she had a plastic one and it was really realistic looking. I’d fill mine with stickers and small toys and allow students to choose 1 piece of ‘treasure’ if they had good behavior all week. Oh, the junk inside of those things….Now that I’m a parent, I curse at my old self. Think about all of those little junky things coming home… I digress.

So, basically I was bribing my students for good behavior. But, here is the funny thing… the students that would have behaved regardless, are now getting a reward. A reward they don’t need because they are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing (a very important human trait). But, the students that need help following rules aren’t getting the reward because they can’t go the whole week without tripping up. OR those students are getting rewards for behaving but will not behave if there isn’t a prize at the end. Either way it was bribing and in no way am I proud of it.

Not to mention that I was setting up those munchkins for a serious failure because when you’re an adult, there is no treasure box for having good behavior all week. Do we wish there was? Heck yeah, we do. But there’s not. Never have I ever gotten a flashy plastic ring on Friday for keeping my inner most thoughts to myself.

Having good behavior is just expected out of us adults, isn’t it? So, why would we teach tiny humans that good behavior gets a treat? You know what does get us rewards… hard-work and dedication.

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Classroom Reward Systems

Anyone try out the marble jars or compliment parties? Yep, me too. Trying to get the class to behave as a whole by offering a reward sounded like a good idea. But, I regret all those whole class reward systems too.

WHYYYY on earth did I ever think that a whole classroom reward would be a good idea? Now, when I think about what I did, I think about it this way: If I went into a staff meeting and my director said, “If you all can be quiet during this meeting, I will cater in lunch tomorrow.” I’d think, hmmm.. sounds pretty good. I can keep my mouth shut for quite a while.

But…. I know someone on staff who can’t. So, one of two things is going to happen. Basically I’m going to give up before I even start because— that teacher over there, Susan, she can’t keep her mouth shut for more than five minutes. OR Number two, I’m going to give the stink-eye to anyone and everyone who even lets out a whisper. And I’m going to grow super frustrated with Susan until I snap in yell, “Will you just shut it woman!” And either way my colleagues and I are going to kiss that reward goodbye. Just think of all the damage in relationships I’d have for all those stink eyes I gave out…….

Sounds super frustrating. My reward was dependent on Susan and as much as I love Susan (Susan is a great person), she can’t shut her mouth. In the 50 years she’s been on earth, no one thought to teach Susan about interrupting. And so, sadly I have a little bit of anger towards Susan because now I have to eat my leftovers for lunch. All because Susan couldn’t stop.

But, then I think about Susan, I mean poor Susan, she can’t stop talking. No one taught her. And she’ll know she’s to blame for the whole staff having to eat leftovers. People will be irritated with her and she will leave that meeting with less self-esteem than she came in with…….

Class rewards divide a classroom. Using peers to pressure children into behaving isn’t cool.

So to say I’m regretting the whole group rewards and that marble jar, that’s an understatement.

Susan needed to be taught. Just like the children in our classroom.

But, what about individual reward systems?

Let’s say a student is struggling with hitting other students during free play. So, you come up with a reward system that encourages him to keep his hands to himself during playtime. He gets a punch on his punch card for each playtime period where he doesn’t hit. When it is all filled up he gets some time to do something extra special. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, you see him improving and the hitting stops- so in turn you wean down his reward. He notices and feels angry. So, in turn he begins to hit again in hopes you will put his reward back in.

Would he stop hitting if you weren’t watching? probably not. What is the reason behind him hitting? he doesn’t get the toy he wants when he wants it. Is there a missing skill he needs to be taught? YES! So, if I taught him how to ask for a toy and handle the response I wouldn’t need a punch card? So many times YES!

You see, it’s my firm belief that you don’t need all that stuff. Let it go Elsa… because it was never going to work anyway.

Stop keeping track of behavior sheets, punch cards and marble jars. And for pete’s sake stop filling up that treasure box!!! If you do, you will have a weight lifted off of you- I promise!

What you need is simple…. relationships, a little detective work & teaching – not classroom rewards.

Read on here to learn how I built strong student relationships (it’s easier than you might think)!

Then, read to learn about how I analyzed the WHY in my student’s behavior (channel your inner Scooby Doo!)

Finally, read about how I took on teaching my students missing social emotional skills, rather than using punishments/reward systems.

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