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Rewards, and
More Rewards

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Do rewards motivate students? Some say no, but many teachers think they do. This week, Education World takes a look at a wide variety of rewards used by teachers in the classroom. If you are looking for a way to reward successful students or good behavior, you might find the ticket here!

A few times each week, Beverly Maddox calls a different student's parents. And, surprise of all surprises, she tells them something positive about their child. Hers is a reward that doesn't cost money or function as a bribe. "I ... [often] call parents of a kid who rarely gets noticed," said Maddox, a teacher at Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Junior High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Once, for example, she noticed a student picking up trash from the ground and putting it in a trash can. He wasn't a "good student, a good athlete, or a high achiever at anything. His mom gets a lot of calls about his lack of motivation. Well, she got a call concerning this act of civic responsibility that made her day," Maddox said.

"I find parents are so grateful for these positive calls, I treat myself to two or three per week," Maddox added. "It always gives my spirits a boost. Sometimes, I notice changes in the kids afterward too."

That's just one kind of reward. (Later in this article, we'll give concrete tips about other kinds of rewards used by various teachers.)


Aren't we all working for rewards of one kind or another? Many of us would say yes. Yet there is a small chorus of naysayers who claim rewards actually act as a disincentive and prevent children from doing well in school for intrinsic rewards, such as personal satisfaction and pride in their work.

Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, is a prominent proponent of that philosophy. In an article published in the Boston Globe ("Studies Find Reward No Motivator"), Kohn cites several studies done that demonstrated students offered extrinsic rewards, particularly for creative work and work involving higher-order thinking, were less productive than those students working for intrinsic rewards.

Although such studies provide food for thought, the reality of the classroom is such that many teachers do offer rewards and find them useful motivators. Following is our sampling of various kinds of rewards from teachers around the country. Most of these ideas come from middle-school teachers, but many can be adapted for lower or higher grades.


"I teach sixth- to eighth-grade communications arts in the inner city," said Ellen McClurg of Turner Middle school in St. Louis, Missouri. "I have a program I set up called S.T.A.R.S.: Students That Are Really Serious. Every time I catch them doing something positive, they get a star for their chart. I give stars for being on task, turning in homework, participating in class, helping me out, and so on."

Once students earn 50 stars, they may choose from the following rewards: a homework pass, sitting in the beanbag chair during class, listening to music as they work, a class period in the library for independent study, or a food item (candy or chips).

"I have to say this program changed my class a lot," McClurg told Education World. "I had fewer problems with poor behavior -- I'd say a reduction of 80 to 90 percent this year over last. They even remind each other to have correct behavior now. Positive rewards when used with the negative consequences are very effective. I prefer to be positive, but there are times you have to give the consequences."


"The students in grades 6 through 12 at our school have a perfect attendance field trip for each semester of no absences," said Denise Funfsinn of Earlville (Illinois) School. "It occurs at the end of the school year, and our principal, a couple of teachers, and parents take the kids to a local state park for hiking and a hot-dog cookout.

"We also have 'No Detention field trips' each semester. The first semester students in grades 6 through 8 go on a ski trip at a man-made ski resort in suburban Chicago. The second-semester trip is to a local water slide/mini-golf park."


"I think when you give students a Free Homework Pass, it sends the wrong message. If the students can really do without that homework, why assign it in the first place?" said Diane Butler of St. Stephen's School in Austin, Texas.

"When I realized that I needed the students to do all of their homework, I made the reward a Late Homework Amnesty coupon, which meant they could turn in a homework assignment with no penalty for being late. ... There are always lots of good reasons for not doing homework -- I was sick -- it was my birthday -- I had to finish my science project -- it was my grandparents' 50th anniversary -- but with an Amnesty, I just don't have to listen to them all!"


Preferred Activity Time rewards students for saving time during instruction. Students earn the time they save and can use it for a preferred activity. Playing games is one possible activity -- computer games are especially attractive, if you have access to them. Actually earning time occurs, for example, when no students are tardy, for which they all earn one minute, or when students make a transition quickly, earning two minutes. Students may redeem the earned time on a Friday, when everyone is ready for a reward.


In Indiana, school districts have the option of rewarding graduating high-school students with cash. Districts receive $800 from the state for each graduate who earns an "academic honors diploma," and the law says the district may pass the money directly on to the student.


Another teacher says each teacher on her team chooses a student of the month. The choice is based on grades, a project, citizenship, or whatever the teacher chooses. The student of the month receives a free ice cream and his or her name is placed in a raffle to win $5 to be spent at the school store. Students who complete all their homework over a set period, such as one month or one semester, earn a homework pass, which allows them to skip a homework assignment. Students with no detentions or suspensions are rewarded with a trip at the end of the year. They might go to a baseball game, a movie, or roller skating.


Looking for additional suggestions for rewards? You can find more ideas on the Classroom Discipline [archived copy might be slow to download] Web page. This Web page was developed by a third-grade teacher in the Sturgeon School Division of Alberta, Canada. You won't find any negative discipline tips on this page. Following is a handful of her suggestions. Check out the Web page for others.

  • Award tokens for good behavior and completed work that can be traded in for various prizes and activities on a weekly basis.
  • Provide a weekly auction for students for which money is earned on a point system. One point equals $1 of play money. At the end of the week, students use the money they have earned to bid on different prizes. Children develop math and social skills while receiving rewards. A precaution: Mark the money so kids can't bring extra from home.
  • Give both group rewards and individual rewards, helping students learn and practice social skills. Total each student's points daily, and post the information on a clipboard. That way, students know how many points they have and how many more points they need to do or obtain what they want.
  • Award small rewards -- stickers, ink stamps, small wrapped candy -- to students for staying on task.
  • Keep a small jar filled with jellybeans on your desk. After students have completed all their assignments, they can guess how many jellybeans are in the jar. At the end of the week, the student who guessed closest is awarded the jellybeans. Only those students who finish their assignments are allowed to guess.
  • Have a question of the week that requires research and effort to answer. Give an award to any student who answers the question correctly.
  • Once a week, have a math or word bingo game for students. This will help students learn while having fun. Award small prizes to the students who get bingo.


    Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator"
    In an article in the Boston Globe, Alfie Kohn cites several studies that indicate extrinsic rewards do not succeed as motivators.

    Punished By Rewards? A Conversation With Alfie Kohn
    This question-and-answer session further explores Alfie Kohn's contention that rewards can actually have a negative effect on student performance.

    Article by Sharon Cromwell
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2010 Education World

    Originally published 03/28/2006
    Last updated 06/28/2011