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The New Teacher Advisor

Motivational Tools

Motivating students to listen and learn and remain on task is not an easy thing to do. All teachers, of course, hope to present lessons so engaging and exciting that students intrinsically want to behave and learn, but in the real classroom, you’ll often find that you also need a little something extrinsic to motivate reluctant or restless learners. At those times, you might consider the use of a reward system.

Implementing reward systems can be tricky, however, and they require careful thought. You don’t want a system that inadvertently punishes students. You also don’t want to get into a situation in which students always expect “something” in return for good behavior or class participation. What you need is a balanced system that’s goal oriented, that allows for mistakes, and that can be gradually withdrawn as its importance to students diminishes.

The first step in developing a successful reward system is to determine your goals. Is your goal to increase or maintain good behavior? If so, your reward program should reinforce good behavior. Is your goal to encourage class participation? Then your rewards program should reinforce participation. The system you develop should help you keep track of whether or not students are reaching those goals.

The concept of rewards involves using an extrinsic incentive (the reward) to encourage certain actions and behaviors from students. A reward program is the procedure you use to encourage and record desired behaviors and to distribute rewards. Reward programs can be used to affect behaviors of individual students in the class or the class as a whole.

The three programs below are designed to address individual student behavior.


Classroom Management Series

Be sure to see all the articles in Emma McDonald’s classroom management series:

* Laying the Groundwork
* Forming Good Habits
* Setting the Tone
* Freedoms and Responsibilities
* Consistency and Flexibility
* Motivational Tools

Red Tickets: This system encourages class participation and offers everyone an opportunity to get a little something special. It’s not an overall system, but can be used as a motivational tool. As students participate in class discussions, complete a quick in-class assignment. Award tickets based on thought and depth of student contributions, helping others, and making good choices. Have each student who receives a ticket write his or her name on the back and places it in the red-ticket jar. At the end of class, or at the end of the week, draw four or five names from the jar and give each of those students a reward. Discard the remaining of the tickets and start fresh each week.

Stop Light: This program is based on the red-yellow-green stoplight concept. Students start each day on “Green.” Poor choices during the day move them to “Yellow” and then to “Red.” Good choices can move them from Red to Yellow and back to Green as well. At the end of the day, students record their final color on a small behavior calendar. When a student has recorded 10 Greens on his or her calendar, award the student an incentive of some sort.

Path to Incentives: This path can take any shape you’d like. I’ve seen some teachers use a football field with each “stopping point” being the 10, 20, 30.... yard lines. Others have made a racetrack with cars speeding along the path. Still others have made the path look like a trek through Texas. You might consider a pathway that focuses on a theme for the school or even on a concept you’re teaching in class. Whatever path you choose to use, each stopping point should represent an incentive, and the incentives should start out small and get larger as a student proceeds along the path. Every day that a student makes good choices in work and behavior takes him or her one step closer to the next incentive.

The preceding are just three types of reward programs; there are countless others. Some teachers use points; when a student has received a certain number of points for good choices, an incentive is received. Some teachers use a jar of marbles or beans to record good behavior, awarding an incentive -- to individual students or to the class as a whole -- when the jar is full.


In addition to considering what system you’ll use, you also need to think about the types of incentives you’ll offer. If the rewards you offer are not of interest to your students, then your system will not work -- no matter how cute or fun the actual program might seem.

Keep in mind the age of your students, and look for rewards that appeal to both boys and girls. A treasure chest of small toys often works for younger students. Students in intermediate grades might respond to a pizza party, popcorn party, movie day, or no-homework passes. Older students respond well to the same kinds of parties and to such additional freedoms as extra computer time, being named class leader for a week or month, being the first person to leave the room at the end of class, or being a teacher assistant.

When developing a reward system, be aware of how students might react to the program. Some reward systems feel more like punishment because certain students never have an equal chance to “win.” After a while, those students purposefully misbehave or stop participating. Those types of systems are counterproductive.

Other systems masquerade as reward programs, but are really punishment-based. Those types of systems start out with every student having the chance to earn a reward, but if a student misbehaves, the reward is taken away with no chance to earn it back. More active students consistently lose their chance to earn a reward -- a punishment for bad behavior -- with no incentive to improve their behavior.

When developing your system, be sure every student can earn the incentive. It might take some students longer than others, but everyone should have the ability to achieve it at some point. Be sure you allow students the opportunity to redeem bad choices. That sends a positive message that hard work and making good choices do make a difference.

Finally, balance is important when implementing a reward system. To encourage good behavior, good choices, and class participation you might want to use rewards frequently at the beginning of the year. But remember, verbal praise is also a powerful reward. By alternating between physical rewards and praise, you can help students understand the intrinsic pleasure that comes from making good choices. Many teachers start out using a reward system consistently at the beginning of the school year, intersperse it regularly with verbal praise, and then wean students off the extrinsic rewards throughout the year. You might want to consider that as well.

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