Behavior Incentives in the Classroom

Consider the Role of Extrinsic Material Incentives in the Classroom

A teacher puts a sticker on a behavior chart
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Classroom incentives and prizes make up a highly controversial area of teaching. Many teachers see extrinsic material rewards as appropriate and effective behavioral management techniques while others feel that they qualify as "bribes". All teachers agree that the goal is for students to feel intrinsically motivated to behave and perform on their own but there is much disagreement about how to achieve this.

Many teachers find that each academic year brings new obstacles and some groups of students respond more positively to rewards than others—keep this in mind when making your decision about incentives. If you do decide to move forward with a system of rewards, read the following conditions of incentivization to determine how best to manage the needs of your class.

Limit Incentives at the Beginning of the School Year

The idea of classroom rewards is an especially important concept to consider at the beginning of the school year. If you lay on the rewards from the start, then your students will probably begin to expect them and even work toward them rather than academic growth. Instead, limit the prizes offered from the beginning of the year to make the system run more smoothly.

Remember that it is not your job as a teacher to reward your students for doing what is expected of them and that their hard work needs to be the norm, not the exception. Instill a healthy concept of "hard work pays off" in your students with a limited but fair reward system.

Practice Careful Timing

Teachers should think carefully about the trajectory of the whole year when deciding how to add incentives to their practice, not just the beginning. You might find it beneficial to restrict your use of rewards during times of the year that are not particularly difficult for students. For example, students are generally on their best behavior during the first few weeks of the school year and after a couple of months once they are settled into routines. Encourage, without necessarily rewarding, students that are naturally meeting your expectations.

On the flip side, many students find it difficult to focus and perform in school around the holidays, before summer break, and even sometimes just on the first day of a new week. Be on the lookout for students that are trying their hardest and improving despite distractions and boost morale with incentives if appropriate. Show your class that you recognize the ways in which behavior ebbs and flows throughout the year and that you appreciate extra hard work. 

Avoid Material Rewards and Overemphasis

Best teaching practice with regard to incentives is to entirely avoid the use of material rewards. Teachers are not expected to spend their own time and money stocking prize boxes and sending some students home with fun items and not others is hugely problematic. Stay out of trouble with families and administration by steering clear of material prizes altogether.

Equally dangerous to the goal of incentivization is overemphasizing the rewards. While a certain degree of healthy competition is natural, a teacher should never be the source of competition between their students. Every student has their own capabilities and a teacher should hold different standards of good behavior for each of them. Similarly, students should not be taught to improve their behavior for the sake of a reward system, so refrain from making incentives too prominent in your routines. Suspend the system and regroup if you feel that your students are beginning to perform for the wrong reasons.

Ultimately, there is not a single correct way to implement incentives into your class but know that placing too much weight on rewards and using physical prizes will do much more harm than good.

Incentives and Rewards to Try

One popular system of class incentives is a drawing or raffle-type activity that randomizes the rewarding somewhat. Each time you feel that a student has earned it, you may give a ticket that puts their name into a drawing. At the end of the day or week, draw to find out which student gets the prize. You can either leave the rest of the names in the box or remove them to start over. This method raises no questions about favoritism and will save you time and energy. Consider having students help you monitor the raffle process—by drawing the name, counting tickets, etc.—to impress in them a sense of ownership.

The following winnings might motivate your students to get their names in a drawing as many times as possible.

  • Help the teacher take attendance
  • Help pass out supplies for the day
  • 15 minutes of free choice time
  • Choose a writing prompt for the class to answer
  • Be the messenger between other classes and the office
  • Choose the Morning Meeting greeting or activity
  • Choose your seat for the day (if this is not a regular routine)
  • Read aloud to the class

Think about your class to determine what time of prize they will find most meaningful. Many students really enjoy class jobs, making them great to use as rewards. You may also choose to have the class work together toward larger goals such as extended recess, ice cream parties, parent days, etc. Check with your school before making any of these decisions.