Effective Classroom Rewards

“Never underestimate the power of just noticing…the greatest classroom awards for student effort is a teacher who cares.”

This quote of mine sums up my feelings on the value (or lack of value) of a classroom awards system, or the use of classroom rewards to encourage effort or appropriate behavior.

I touched on this topic briefly in what qualities make a good teacher, where I discussed teachers who buy affection from their students with treats.

Motivated students perform better. Period. And high-level performance is what effective teachers are after; if we are putting in max effort, then we want our students to do the same.

What *Really* Motivates Students?

Here’s the bottom line: Children are not dogs and they should not be conditioned to perform for tangible treats, whether food or pencil erasers or certificates. It doesn’t work in the long-term…or even in the short-term in most cases.

I am certainly not saying that children should not be rewarded – on the contrary, they should be constantly rewarded. It is the nature of the reward that is the key.

NOTE: Treats are sometimes called extrinsic rewards – in essence, motivation from something that is separate from the task itself…vs. feeling good simply from having done a good job.

Stop a moment and think about which approach will bring out your own best effort at your job:

Just say "no"

Just say “no”

A. An M&M, with a promise of an entire Snickers if you earn enough small candies.


B. An unsolicited, out-of-the blue compliment from your boss, who then highlights your contribution at the next staff meeting.

There’s no comparison about what is the better motivator for an adult, and you are fooling yourself if you think that a kid would really, deep down inside, rather have the chocolate. Try highlighting a student’s exemplary work in front of the class and watch that child’s face glow with pride.

Do you get the same reaction from a candy?

The need for appreciation and recognition is a universal human constant that kids feel deep down in their bones, even if they don’t realize it. They want it from their peers, but if they respect the authority figure in their school life (that’s the teacher, by the way), they really want it from them.

Working with your school

Let’s get this straight right away: If your school has a building-wide or classroom awards program, then you must honor it and participate in it. It may be monthly “good citizen” awards, or “most improved” rewards or whatever, but if such a thing exists then you need to administer it fairly and place appropriate importance on the process.

Just don’t assume that this program is all that you need to keep kids motivated and encourage their best effort and behavior.

In general, institutional awards motivate a small percentage of the kids in a school – usually the kids who would be pretty good anyway – and the tangible aspects of the awards are too far in the future to provide the day-to-day incentive to behave or perform.

Don’t reward good behavior with bad food choices

Another misconception is that a teacher can bring out the best in his students by promising a classroom award in the future for behavior over a period of time. You know…the “You’ll get a pizza party if you can go a whole month turning in your homework” gambit.

I said earlier that children aren’t dogs…but maybe they are like them just a little: They respond best to immediate praise, not a promise of a reward in the future.

Instead of classroom awards or rewards, I’d like to refer to classroom incentives. So what does an effective classroom incentive program look like? It can be divided into two categories – performance and behavior – each with three levels.

Performance Incentives

  • Level 1: Noticing and complimenting individual effort…pointing out what they are doing well as they work.
  • Level 2: Noticing and complimenting individual work…leaving notes and the rare sticker on assignments, tests, or homework.
  • Level 3: Showcasing individual work…using the overhead projector or document camera. I’ll occasionally highlight a student’s work for the whole class if something is very well done. Of course, students regularly share their work with each other, but this is a time when I highlight something that really stands out to encourage all students to try a little harder.

Example: A student going above and beyond the standard approach to show the calculation of a mode in a math lesson.

Compliment the work in a specific manner

Focus in on the actual behavior or performance you have observed:

Hey, great word choices! Very descriptive!

…rather than:

Wow, you are writing really well!

Compliment exactly what you want more of.

Behavioral Incentives

  • Level 1: Noticing and complimenting individual behavior…
  • So nice of you to put your chair up quietly.

    Notice the small behaviors and compliment the expected outcome.

  • Level 2: Noticing and complimenting group behavior…
  • Blue group, thanks for keeping your voices down while you worked.

  • Level 3: Showcasing individual or group behavior to the rest of the class…
  • Take a look over in the corner. Jon, Elisha, Kim and Stacie – hold up your map and tell the rest how you labeled so neatly.

If you take a moment when the class is quiet to recognize the behavior you want to see, the next thing you know you’ll have ten kids trying to do the same thing.

Full disclosure time. I don’t believe in giving kids treats as classroom awards, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally just give them treats because…well, just because I feel like it.

I don’t like a classroom filled with junk food, but that hasn’t stopped me from bringing in the occasional sheet cake or bag of popcorn. I never tie it to performance and I always make sure it is a surprise. I never set up a barter system for effort.

The issue of classroom awards, rewards and incentives ties into the over-all classroom discipline plan. Be very thoughtful and intentional in your use of specific compliments and focused attention and you’ll find yourself well on your way to the ideal classroom management system.