9 Free and Effective Classroom Rewards for Students

Girls eating lunch together in classroom
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It's no secret that schools only provide the bare minimum, so teachers often need to dip into their already shallow pockets in to supplement what the school provides in the classroom.

Material rewards are one easy place where we can cut corners and still remain effective educators. You really don't need to spend your money on candy, toys, stickers, and other little goodies to extrinsically motivate, reward, and recognize your students' good behavior.

Emphasize intrinsic motivation and teach that learning and good behavior are rewards unto themselves. Your students will rise to your heightened expectations. 

Easy, Free Rewards for Your Classroom

Save yourself the trouble and consider some of the free ways you can give your students a meaningful "thumbs up" when they do something right.

Lunch Bunch 

Recognize a well-behaved table group by inviting them to Lunch Bunch with the teacher. The chosen kids bring their own lunches and eat in the classroom together with you. If you have a TV, find some cartoons to watch. Or, have the kids bring their favorite CDs from home to listen to during lunch (check the lyrics first!). They can also play games when they finish eating. The children feel special because they get to stay inside and you may even find that you enjoy this unique, low-key time with the kids as much as they do.

Longer Recess 

This is a great one because it doesn't have to involve extra time from you. If possible, reward a child by letting them stay outside and play until a later bell. For example, after my third graders come in, the fourth graders get to play about 10 more minutes. So, I can reward a student by letting them stay out until the "fourth grade bell." You may need to double-check with yard duty supervisors before doing this. Also, you probably won't want to use this one all the time. The kids do miss some instructional time and you are relying on the supervisors to help you out.

Special Seats 

Reward a well-behaved (or much-improved) child by letting them work at the teacher's desk for an entire day. Or, you can set up a special seat "on the rug" and let chosen students have a chance to sit there during story time. This free reward is zero hassle for you and quite a thrill for the kids!

Whole-Group Rewards 

Let individual students earn points towards a whole class reward. This works especially well for students who crave attention because they will earn positive attention from the whole class for their good behavior. For example, the student can earn a table point for their table group, or a few marbles for the class marble jar. This helps difficult students feel like a real part of the group and it provides for a little positive peer pressure to keep them performing well.

Read-In Party

Stay away from popcorn parties that require extra money and preparation from you. Tell the kids that they can wear pajamas to school that day (discuss appropriate attire, first!). They can also bring their favorite stuffed animal and a pillow. Use the day to celebrate the joys of reading. The kids get to lounge around the room for part of the day, reading, relaxing, and savoring the joy of books. You can also add in other literary activities for a rewarding day that sends a clear message to the students: Reading is Fun!

Afternoon of Art and Music 

Art and music are worthy academic subjects. But, if you're like most time-strapped teachers, you can't fit enough of them into the school day. Motivate your class with this simple reward. Let the class listen to music while they work on an art project. They'll love it and so will you!

Good Phone Call Home

Why do phone calls home always have to be negative? Set this standard on its head by letting parents and guardians know how great their child is doing in your class. Most students will work really hard to get this kind of individualized recognition that will make a big difference at home. This is also a wonderful opportunity to solidify your relationship with parents. They want to know that you love their child and this is an easy way to make everyone happy.

Help in Another Class 

This is a great one for reinforcing academic content and building self-esteem in kids who really need it. It's hard to implement in kindergarten and first grade classes, but with other grades, it works great. Recognize a worthy student by letting them help out in a lower grade for awhile. Use your professional judgment to make it work in your classroom and school environment.

Hand Stamp

Don't get stuck on costly and consumable stickers. Use the simple ink stamps that you already have to let a student know that they are A-okay! Simply stamp your sign of approval on the back of the child's hand. You may want to clear this with parents first, since they might not appreciate ink on their kid's hand.

It may sound too good to be true, but if you don't introduce material rewards in the first place, your students will never miss them. In elementary school, children are so eager to please and so pleased to receive any little special recognition. They really will bend over backward for these types of rewards that don't cost you a penny!

Edited by Janelle Cox