Recently, I had a chance to visit a classroom management training for new teachers.
The trainer was an expert in a program that has gained popularity in recent years.
I won’t mention the program by name, but at its core, it’s a token economy, whereby students are rewarded in exchange for “good” (i.e. expected) behavior.
I’ve written about this strategy before, but because we’ve received so many questions about it since, I decided to revisit the topic.
If you’ve been a reader of SCM long enough, then you know how strongly we feel about token economies.
They send the message that expected behavior—that which is minimally required for success in school—is worthy of special recognition, turning what is inherently rewarding into work students deserve to be paid for.
They also encourage unethical behavior like cheating and stealing. They weaken the student-teacher relationship, making it coldhearted, transactional, and even hurtful.
They make creating a happy and productive classroom harder, not easier.
Worst of all, though, token economies snuff out intrinsic motivation. You can read more about this topic, including what the research really says about external rewards, in The Happy Teacher Habits.
But on this day, as I stood in the back of the room, the trainer was demonstrating how to handle misbehaving students using a form of praise called “caught being good.”
The way it works is that if you notice a student misbehaving and off-task, instead of holding them accountable using a predetermined set of rules and consequences, you would praise the students around them.
In other words, you would ignore the misbehaving student, but effusively inform those in proximity how wonderful they are for doing what they’re supposed to do.
The idea, in theory, is that the student in question would also want to receive praise, and thus would be compelled to stop their unwanted behavior.
So what’s the problem?
Well, besides being dishonest, it communicates that fulfilling the barest minimum is somehow special and on par with what is truly exceptional—lowering the bar of excellence down around the shoe tops.
It’s also cruel and demeaning and, in this case, uses well-behaved students as pawns to elicit compliant behavior from the misbehaving student.
Furthermore, it offers no genuine feedback they can use to improve their behavior in the future.
That this method is endorsed, taught, and even promoted in school districts around the country is tragic and shameful.
It takes the high calling of being a teacher and tosses it into the gutter of trickery and manipulation, ripping apart both its heart and its soul.
Teaching isn’t about just getting through the day. It isn’t about curbing misbehavior momentarily or deceiving students into doing what you want.
It’s about inspiring real change in students and making an impact that lasts a lifetime.
So what’s the alternative?
Be straight with your students. Establish a boundary line of behavior that protects their right to learn and enjoy school and then defend it to the hilt.
Do what you say you’re going to do. Hold them accountable fairly and respectfully and give them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
Praise only what is praiseworthy. Look for legitimate improvement, new learning, or greater effort than they’ve given before, and then let them know you notice.
Smile and make eye contact from across the room. Leave a note folded over and attached to their desk. Tell them they did well.
Shine a light on concrete evidence of their progress.
Treat every student with dignity, eschewing all forms of false praise, bribery, and disingenuousness—which only set them up for future failure and disappointment.
Be the same dependable, consistent teacher every day. Build relationships based on love and forgiveness, kindness and honesty, humor and humility.
Look your students in the eye and tell them the truth about their successes and mistakes, as well as their failures and triumphs. Give them feedback they can use.
Prepare them for life beyond the classroom by being a leader worthy of their respect and admiration.
This way, your words of praise will mean something to them, firing their intrinsic motivational engines deep within their heart.
They’ll know that if you said it, it must be true.
And the truth will set them free.
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