All teachers prefer to rely on their students' intrinsic motivation to encourage them to come to school, do their homework, and focus on classroom activities, but many supplement the internal drive to succeed with external rewards. The teachers say rewards -- free time, school supplies, or tasty treats -- can help kids master the expectations of acceptable classroom behavior and scholastic achievement. Included: Ten tips for using rewards in the classroom!
"I don't know if it is any more appropriate to use rewards with inner city students than other students, but I have seen it work," said Kristina Campbell, a fourth-grade teacher in Indianapolis. "My students come from backgrounds that I couldn't even imagine at their age. Many of our students don't eat regularly (unless they are receiving the free breakfast and lunch from school), they spend more time on their own than with parents or family, and they receive very little encouragement in regards to school.
"In the past, we have had children with severe behavior problems at our school, kids who simply act out because they are so mad at the world," Campbell continued. "By offering rewards, we are trying to show them that by attending school and getting an education, they will be rewarded. There are the immediate rewards, such as prizes and treats, and long-term rewards, such as a job, college, and a future."
During the three years that Campbell has been teaching at the Evans Academy, she has come to realize that her students want a better life but struggle with the amount of effort required to achieve it. They do not realize that applying themselves while they are young will make it easier for them to reach their goals. The rewards used by the school help them get over that hurdle.
"By using rewards, we encourage the students to put aside some of their home problems and find a reason to apply themselves in school," Campbell stated. "As we progress through the year, I increase the amount of work needed to earn the rewards, gradually phasing them out altogether as the students begin to show responsibility for their own behavior and work ethic. It also helps that they see the association between completing work, behaving, and getting good grades.
"I have seen the same students who were in my room for fourth grade bring this work ethic with them to fifth grade," added Campbell, "which, of course, is the point!"
Campbell has worked with rewards in different classroom settings. In a middle school resource classroom for emotionally handicapped students, her students earned points for meeting their individual behavior goals. With their points, they were able to purchase things such as soft drinks, candy, chips, computer time, school supplies, or lunch at McDonald's. For nearly all the students in her class, the program worked very well.
In her first year of teaching fourth grade, Campbell used a mini economy system. Students earned "money" for doing jobs in the classroom and lost money for not turning in homework, wasting time in class, or having behavior difficulties. They could then exchange the money for established rewards. At the end of the school year, Campbell had an auction where students brought in things such as toys, books, and games that were in good shape but that they no longer wanted. Students then used their "money" to bid on those items.
Campbell's school also instituted what they called "Free-Time Fridays."
"We began using Lee Canter's card system, in which students begin on green and flip a card for having problems with behavior in class," she explained. In this system, students have a green, a yellow, and a red card. Students begin the day with the green card and move through the yellow and red cards if their behavior requires that they "slow down" or "stop."
"If students were able to stay on green or yellow for the whole week, they received 25 minutes of free time on Friday," said Campbell. "Free time might consist of playing games, playing on the computer, or having outside recess."
The initial impact of the school's program was positive. However, some students lost their free time early in the week, and they had difficulty maintaining their self-control. Campbell said that the system seemed to work very well with students who did not commonly have behavior problems and not as well with those who experienced chronic problems. She felt that those students with chronic behavior problems needed more instant gratification; waiting up to five days to receive the reward was simply too much.
Last year, Campbell established a ticket system. Students earned tickets for such things as wearing their uniforms, turning in homework, and receiving compliments from other teachers. They could then use their tickets for rewards such as lunch with the teacher, something from the prize box, soft drinks or popcorn on Friday, or homework coupons. As the school year progressed, the number of tickets required to earn the rewards increased. By the end of the year, the students were behaving well without the incentive, and Campbell was able to give random surprise rewards to her class.
"I think that when rewards are used variably, when they are of value, and when they are given for showing responsibility, they can have a very positive impact," Tory Klementsen told Education World. As a teacher at Marysville (Washington) Pilchuck High School, she has found that pitting kid against kid for a piece of candy can work at times, but if the technique is used too much, it can really put a negative spin on the classroom environment.
"The kind of reward I use is time," explained Klementsen. "Students are allotted a period of time each week. They can use it or abuse it as they see fit. The class receives 15 free minutes a week. Extra time is rewarded for on-task behavior, such as if everyone is in [his or her] seat on time. Time can be subtracted (or "spent") when students show up late, disrupt the class, and [display] other behaviors that detract from learning. At the end of the week, the time that remains is used for a preferred activity."
During the first three weeks of class, Klementsen spends a great deal of time awarding and spending the students' Friday time. After that, she says, the students continue to earn it, but she uses the system infrequently. The students seem to understand what is expected, and they modify their behavior accordingly.
"No management system can be based on rewards and punishment alone," said Klementsen. "A system starts with a firm idea of what your classroom should look like when all students are actively engaged in the learning process. Then you develop a system that will help you and the students reach that goal. If the system is something that is going to take a huge amount of time and effort to keep track of, it probably won't work. If instead it is used as a catalyst to appropriate behavior, that works much better."
She added, "It is more than just how they behave and how you, the teacher, react. It is how the room is arranged, how the atmosphere makes them feel, how they are seated, who they are seated next to, how the teacher greets them, when they start work, when they end work, when they hit their seats, when they leave their seats, how you get their attention, who makes the major decisions, and how those decisions are made. It's not just a bag of tricks or a bag of candy; it is a strong leader who understands his or her role as a teacher and is willing to take that leadership role and be firm and flexible at the same time."
Karen Peters suggests that rewards as they are commonly used can actually stand in the way of learning. Although she uses them in her classroom, her concern as a fourth-grade teacher at McConnellsburg (Pennsylvania) Elementary is that students may come to expect rewards for all of their actions.
"Good habits can be started, and for those with extreme behavior problems, sometimes a form of behavior modification can give short-term results," Peters said. "Rewards are nice also when given just for the fun of it: 'You have worked so hard this week; let's go out for a 15-minute extra recess.' When the kids help come up with the goal, it works much better."
In addition to classroom rewards, students at McConnellsburg Elementary can earn school "Spartan Bucks" for academic achievement and "Caught You Being Good" rewards for behavioral achievement. Community businesses donate prizes, and a school store is open once a month for the spending of the "bucks."
"The class and I choose together a behavior that we need to work on each month, and that is what the 'Caught You Being Goods' will be given for," explained Peters. "For September, we worked on lunchroom behavior. That had been a problem last year, so I wanted us to get off to a good start. For October, the kids came up with getting ready for the next class within a minute. They earned a point each time they got ready in a minute, and at five points, they got the reward."
Like many of her colleagues, Peters has discovered that classroom rewards can work. Her students have actually been organizing their desks so that they can grab things quickly and waste less time with "personal invitations" to certain students to get their things out!
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