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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