When a difficult student has a good day it’s normal to want to reward them for it.
You’ve just witnessed behavior you’ve been hoping and praying for all year, and you want to seize the moment.
You want to make it special and memorable.
You want them to feel good about their accomplishment and start believing that they really can do it, that they really are capable of following your class rules.
So you rifle through your cabinets looking for an award or certificate you can present them. You dig into your prize box. You rush to their side and excitedly share how happy and proud of them you are and how wonderful they behaved that day.
And it all feels so good and so right.
But the truth is, the best response you can offer a difficult student after a good day is no response at all.
Good behavior is its own reward.
When you reward students for good behavior they become externally motivated. They begin to view anything and everything positive they do as work they deserve to be paid for. They become blinded to the truth that good behavior is a reward unto itself.
It’s an expectation that is beneficial to them and to the community they’re a part of. For difficult students in particular, this healthy perspective is hidden from view in a forest of excessive praise and ginned-up awards.
It’s a “do this and get that” economy that is manipulative and hurtful to their long-term success.
Real and lasting change only happens when difficult students are intrinsically motivated to behave. In other words, when it comes of their own volition, and not because they are offered—implicitly or explicitly—something in return.
When difficult students are allowed to experience success without it being purchased, the quiet satisfaction vibrates deep within their internal motivational engine.
It gives them the warm feeling of being a regular and valued member of your classroom, rather than an outcast who needs bribes and special attention just to get through the day.
A True Reward
Although they may smile, they may even be excited to receive a cool pencil or toy or special recognition, if you look closely you’ll find sadness behind the eyes. Because it cheapens their good day. It puts a price tag on the priceless.
It replaces the intrinsic with the extrinsic.
That isn’t to say that you should shun or ignore difficult students after a good day. You’ll just treat them like everyone else. You’ll joke with them, smile at them, and enjoy their company.
You’ll support the wonderful feeling of being a regular student—just one of the girls or boys. You’ll allow them to experience a reward that is honest and abiding and can’t be purchased for any price.
You’ll restore their self-respect. You’ll remove the labels they carry with them like so many overstuffed backpacks. You’ll pave the way for the rest of your class to see them in a new light.
But most important, you’ll empower them to start seeing themselves differently.
Instead of a weak constitution, tossed about, manipulated, and cheaply bought, they can begin envisioning their future. They can see possibilities where before there were none. They can feel their dreams power up and surge like a tidal wave.
Maybe a day or so later you’ll catch them looking at you—knowingly, appreciatively. No words need to be exchanged. No explanations offered or needed. For how do you describe the view from the summit of Mount Everest?
But you want to acknowledge the start of something special, of true improvement in behavior.
So you approach and reach out your hand.
And they reach back and shake it.
Note: For more on intrinsic motivation, please see The Classroom Management Secret. Also, if you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving classroom management articles like this one in your email box every week.