The Best Incentive You Could Ever Give

Because I believe it’s a mistake to reward students for good behavior, I’m often asked, “So, then, the stickers, prizes, and such . . . should teachers refrain from giving them out at all?”

Well, yes and no.

Anything that whiffs of bribery should be avoided. No doubt about it. Promising a reward if your students do this or that—or don’t do this or that—creates a Pandora’s box of new problems and doesn’t change behavior in the long run.

Simply by cutting incentives of this nature out of your program, it will not only calm and mature your students, and begin fueling their intrinsic motivation, but it will make your teaching life gloriously easier.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to throw away your prize box or stop giving out pencils and stickers altogether. In fact, when presented in a certain way, they can indeed help improve behavior—albeit in an indirect but much more authentic way.

The key is in the giving.

Instead of doling out prizes based on what you receive in return (i.e. good behavior), you’ll hand them out for no reason at all. In other words, they become no longer an incentive in the traditional sense, but a free gift.

Hey, before you leave for the day, I’ve got cool pencils for everyone!”

It’s a simple way of showing your love and appreciation for your class. Nothing more. But here’s the thing. Small gestures like this, along with the personality you bring with you to the classroom, and a few other things, will cause your class to reciprocate that love.

And herein lies its power. Creating a classroom your students look forward to is the most powerful incentive you could ever offer—bar none. It is so effective, in fact, that the leverage and influence it affords you is the key to having the rewarding teaching experience you’ve always longed for.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to give out pencils or prizes, or anything at all. It isn’t required. But if it’s something you enjoy doing, then it can certainly add another element of fun and enjoyment to your classroom.

A common complaint from teachers is that they’re under-appreciated by students. But this is a natural consequence of using rewards in exchange for good behavior. To students, it’s a tit-for-tat business transaction. And it takes the heart and soul right out of the relationship. I do this, you give that, and we’re even.

I know a particularly effective third grade teacher who on Friday afternoons holds what she calls a dance party. Ten minutes before dismissal she puts on some music and her students get up and go for it—the wildest and silliest dances you’ve ever seen.

They love it and look forward to it every week.

The dance party isn’t a reward, however, and it isn’t a strategy. It’s nothing more than an expression of joy, an uninhibited celebration of another week of learning together. It’s also one more reason to love being in her class.

Now, a very interesting happens while the students are dancing. The teacher will walk around the room pretending to be a judge. She’ll pull glasses down on her face, carry a clipboard, and make believe she’s scribbling notes.

Every once in a while she’ll point to a student, or a group dancing together, and say, “Go get something from the prize box!” They’ll rush over and pick out a bouncy ball or bracelet and then rejoin the party.

She chooses different students every week, and they all get chosen multiple times, but you may be wondering, Don’t the other students get upset when they’re not picked to get a prize?”

The answer is no, because they know that a trip to the prize box or a rare sticker or pencil giveaway is an entirely free gift. It can’t be earned. There is no heartless exchange of goods and services. There is no bribery or manipulation. There is no “do this and get that“ culture to produce envy and jealousy.

There is just a classroom they can’t wait to get to every day.

And this makes all the difference.

Note: To an observer, the dance party appears effortless. The students are appropriate and well behaved and the teacher is having as much fun as they are. But what you don’t see is the strict accountability, the detailed routines and procedures, and the teacher’s remarkable, influential presence.

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14 Responses to The Best Incentive You Could Ever Give

  1. Claudia Rhymes June 1, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    This makes so much sense! Thank you for showing me how to teach my students with respect and caring.

    • Michael Linsin June 2, 2013 at 7:54 am #

      You’re welcome, Claudia!


  2. Marcie June 3, 2013 at 5:54 am #

    What do you think of rewards for academics? For example, I was having problems with my class’ Math homework/independent work. They weren’t putting forth their best effort. So, I started passing a candy bucket for those who got 2 or less correct. This seemed to motivate the whole class to work harder on Math. Do you think this would produce the same problems as rewards for behavior? Thanks for your articles. They have been career saving all year!

  3. Marcie June 3, 2013 at 5:55 am #

    Ooops! In the previous post, I meant 2 or less wrong, the rest were correct. 🙂

    • Michael Linsin June 3, 2013 at 6:27 am #

      Hi Marcie,

      I think given in the manner in which you describe, and as long as it’s a rare occurrence, it’s generally harmless. However, I’ll be sure and write about this in a future article.


  4. Jennifer August 3, 2013 at 6:19 am #

    I’ve been doing stuff like this for years…never put the math together like this before! I work with At-Risk Students, who don’t always get “love” at home, so I do what I can to create a sense of “family” in my classroom…it’s reciprocal because it’s so much more fun teaching students who “want” to learn…and the first step to achieving that is to make them FEEL wanted. So, while I don’t give out “prizes” or “treats” on a “just because” random basis…each holiday I have my teenage daughter help me bake homemade cookies/cupcakes for all of my 170 students…and the rascals get so used to it, sometimes they actually make requests! (the stinkers!)…but, I’ve never had “Classroom Management” issues…but had no idea this little practice of love of mine could be a defining reason! I just do it because I love my kids…I might be strange, but the “worst-behaved” is usually my “Teacher’s Pet!: lol Thanks for sharing!

    • Michael Linsin August 3, 2013 at 8:16 am #

      Way to go, Jennifer!


  5. Katie September 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Does this work with 1st graders? I am currently giving out tickets for good behavior that at the end of the week they can cash in for time at a fun center but am thinking of changing to a prize at treasure box. (centers got crazy). But I like the idea of a dance party and prizes just because I care. I am using the warning, time out, letter system but do they need a reward system too? Thanks for your help.

    • Michael Linsin September 16, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

      Hi Katie,

      Yes, it works with 1st graders and no, you don’t need a reward system. Be sure and read this article: Why You . . .


  6. Pam February 8, 2014 at 7:37 am #

    I love your ideas in this article and I’m sorry to see our educational leaders requiring that complicated positive behavior programs be implemented in all classrooms. That being said, I still love sharing rewards and treats with my students. The key is that the reward must be genuinely given, not rotely earned! Several years ago, I was introduced to I’m in Charge of Celebrations, by Byrd Baylor. I now read it to my class at the start of each school year and let my kids know that my personal favorite things worth celebrating are their successes. Since I love giving gifts, I choose to hand out my treats as “celebrations” of their accomplishments. Often everyone receives the treat as we celebrate each others’ successes; indirectly building a spirit of caring and camaraderie along the way.

    • Michael Linsin February 8, 2014 at 8:01 am #

      Thanks for sharing your ideas, Pam!


  7. Ashley December 16, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

    Michael, I am a first year teacher that just stumbled on to your site. I absolutely love your philosophy on classroom management and am planning to purchase your books! I am currently at a school that requires all teachers to use PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) management in the classroom. Each classroom is required to use a program called Class DOJO. Basically it rewards students who are doing the right thing with “green points” because in theory every student should want to earn green points thus deterring negative behavior. The green points then have to result in some kind of reward for the management to have any effect. Personally, this system has made my first year a nightmare and left me feeling like an ineffective educator. I was wondering what you thought of PBIS and programs such as Class DOJO? Do programs like these work if properly implemented or do they perpetuate problems further down the road? Thank you so much for your time.

    Lost first year teacher

    • Michael Linsin December 17, 2015 at 7:58 am #

      Hi Ashley,

      They run counter to what we believe here at SCM and are indeed bad for students in the long run. We’ve written about why and what to do instead in a number of places on the website, as well as in our books. The Rewards & Incentives category of the archive is a good place to start.


  8. Ashley December 21, 2015 at 9:09 am #

    Thank you so much! I will start there.