One Of The Worst Classroom Management Strategies I’ve Ever Seen

Smart Classroom Management: One Of The Worst Classroom Management Strategies I've Ever SeenRecently, 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.

If you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving new-article updates in your email box every week.


67 Responses to One Of The Worst Classroom Management Strategies I’ve Ever Seen

  1. Danielle November 5, 2016 at 8:17 am #

    A most hearty “Amen!” Well said! I will be posting this in our faculty room. Thank you for readdressing this – and dong so so eloquently and passionately.

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

      Thanks Danielle!


    • Alesia November 6, 2016 at 10:37 am #

      Surely it is the lack of “tools” that teachers are given or being exposed to about/for intrinsic motivation that accounts for all the extrinsic behavior rewards and programs out there. Kids should be told that doing the RIGHT THING and how it makes them feel and what it makes them accomplish IS the reward. THANK YOU for spreading the news. It’s logical, practical, and right. Intrinsic motivation is easily built in a classroom where care (trust, and mutal respect) is practiced – even in the earliest of the primary grades. However, when districts adopt those extrinsic programs, it’s hard! I say shut your door, and practice what’s right!

  2. Anthony Butler November 5, 2016 at 8:30 am #

    I appreciate your insights about this topic. One of the most disturbing fallouts is that this mindset travels with many students and manifests itself in their adult lives. “Expected behavior” is just that…expected behavior. Just reflect on how many adults expect to get employee or parent of the month for doing the expected. 🙂

    Thank you for articulating how to inspire students from within!

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

      You’re welcome, Anthony. Thanks for sharing. I always appreciate your insights.


  3. Barbara Barr November 5, 2016 at 8:45 am #

    I was taught the “proximity” method years ago in my credential program. I tried it, but it always felt manipulative. I have spent the past few years modeling that strategy to my students as one I will not be using with them. I ask for a student volunteer and add a little dramatic style to the scene. We have a good laugh about the many ways that strategy belittles students and praises expected behavior. We also talk about the time it wastes trying to get someone to change his or her behavior. Then, we discuss the value of intrinsic motivation and come back to our plan for success. Thank you for your continued support of teachers!

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

      Hi Barbara,

      I love that idea–very SCM. The practice has become so prevalent that I think our students should know in case it happens—or has happened—to them.


  4. Sharon Rogers November 5, 2016 at 8:49 am #

    I totally agree. Thank you for articulating what I’ve always felt in my heart. I do sometimes say after a re-direction, “Thank you, those of you who are doing the right thing.”

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

      You’re welcome, Sharon.


  5. kala November 5, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    Dear Michael,

    I wish to thank you for yet another insightful and inspiring article.After being a teacher for over 12 years, I was often frustrated hearing about ‘class room management strategies’ such as the one you have mentioned that was endorsed by the trainer- praise the student next to the bad behaved one.

    I value Integrety and truthfullness highly and was almost thinking of changing career as it seemed to me (from these kind of pseudo techniques) that manageing students was all about bribery, false praise and so on.
    Coming across your website was a refreshing change and I have started using your amazing strategies with good positive results. Thanks a lot for that.

    Just wanted your opinion about a couple of areas- what do you think about teachers addressing students in endearing ways such as – darling, honey etc. I am a female and I teach teenage boys and girls. Some teachers in my school use such words while addressing students, wish to know your opinion on this.
    second one is – in todays high tech world, would you allow students to use mobile phones in class? say to take a picture of the project they are doing (I am an art and design teacher) or reserach some thing quick on their cell phone. My school’s policy is a bit fuzzy in this area. Many thanks for your suggestions. Once again thanks a lot..

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:42 pm #

      Hi Kala,

      I don’t like it at all. Never, never, never. I’ll try to incorporate why it’s a bad idea in a future article. As for your second question, yes, as long as it’s beneficial academically and you’ve given express permission to do so for each instance. The examples you used are good ones.


    • Elizabeth November 5, 2016 at 4:27 pm #

      Hi Kala,

      In response to your question about students using their mobile phones to take a picture of their project or to research something project related I would say those are very good reasons to permit students to use their device. I too am an art teacher and at my new school (3rd school in 14 years) we use google classroom, which I love, so students need to be able to use their phone, ipad, or laptop to do various tasks such as look at a handout, re-read the directions, see the examples, research something furthur, etc. It saves a lot of paper, and it allows students to access the lesson again and again without needing me so much.

      At my first school that I was at for over a decade, there was no wifi in the art room so there was no need to be on your device. The school had a no phones policy, and teachers enforced or didn’t their own policy (not part of the school’s policy but you know how it is). One year the dean made a rule that students were not to bring their phones to school at all. Of course that was a totally unrealistic rule. Another year students were not to use their phones at all during the day, not even during their break or lunch. I felt this was also unfair and unrealistic.

      You could let them use their devices with your permission only. That seems like a good policy. Sometimes our lesson revolves around the device, sometimes no one should have their device out. Fortunately at my new school, in Thailand by the way, the behavior of the students is the best I’ve ever experienced so there are very few issues. A couple weeks ago a student was openly looking at their device while I was addressing the class at the beginning of the period and I sort of “woosed out” a little. I said, “If you have your device out please put it away, I’m giving a lesson and you need to give me your full attention,” and I should have been direct and said, “Conor, put your phone away.” Or maybe I should have said, “Great job everyone who is NOT using their phones right now!” Haha.

      I hope this helps. In a nutshell, with your permission, and that could be individual at times, and classwide at other times, students could use their devices for project related purposes.

      • kala November 5, 2016 at 9:08 pm #

        Thanks Elizabeth, agree with your comments. That’s what I tend to do – that is let them use it as per the situation and requirements with my permission. If I catch them texting and face booking through their cell, I take it and keep it on my desk till end of lesson.

  6. Sharon November 5, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    Yes!!! I agree that the token economy destroys intrinsic motivation. I have some very low performing students from difficult backgrounds and I have seen the difference when you hold them accountable and steer them toward positive behavior and academic achievement. My toughest kid this semester will wander to the back of the room with his paper in hand, get my attention so we can give a private “air high five” and then he wanders back to his desk. He still isn’t comfortable with his friends knowing he is improving, but it now means something to him. I didn’t buy or bribe that into him, he had to work towards it himself.

  7. Ellen McKinley November 5, 2016 at 9:17 am #

    I have been so glad to see someone I respect who shares my view about token economies in a positiion to spread the word! I’ve been teaching for close to 20 years (how did that happen?) and have always thought token economies did more harm than good, and am glad to know there is research to support this.

    My question is, at the 5th grade level, which is new to me, what are good consequences to use as part of my behavior management plan? I hate taking recesses, as it seems like the ones who lose it are the ones who need it most, but I have a hard time coming up with other things. I like to keep it so the consequence is related to the infraction when I can.

  8. Kenna November 5, 2016 at 10:11 am #

    In a world currently punishing labor with low wages expecting people to work for praise alone… using social memes to manipulate unfair exchanges for work done… I would caution one solution does not fit all. I suspect the moderator will be deleating opposing viewpoints. If children cotton to exchange of tokens as how the world of work becomes fair…
    I suspect all of us would be less like slaves working for others at our loss.
    Life is a mix of social expectations, and earned rewards.

  9. Vivace November 5, 2016 at 10:22 am #

    “Give them feedback they can use.” I want to do this in my classroom. My struggle is what language to use with my students when what I want to say is: “You are trying to manipulate me right now to get your way. I don’t like it.” Or, “I know you didn’t do your best because I have seen you do better. I also know that right now you are playing games with me.” In other words, I want to use language that is, I think, on their level and can be clearly understood, but I am afraid I am being too, too frank. And, how will it sound if they repeat it to their families? My teacher says, “I am playing games with her.” I struggle with the honest conversation that really needs to let them know the truth and not sugar coat it.

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:51 pm #

      Hi Vivace,

      I’ve written about this topic in the past, but will be sure to cover it again in the future.


  10. Sarah November 5, 2016 at 10:29 am #

    Thanks for writing this. On tough days, especially when colleagues are using these types of strategies with “success,” it can be easy to fall under their spell. But I ageee that false raise and rewarding basic behavior that only meets expectations is beneath our profession, unfair and manipulative to students, and hurts relationships, and destroys the intrinsic motivation that we want to build in our future leaders. I needed this reminder during our “November Slump.”

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

      Hi Sarah,

      I’m glad it came at the right time.


  11. Emily November 5, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    Mt principal recently asked us our thoughts on a certain token economy she saw at some conference. I gave my opinion as being at odds with our school values.

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:51 pm #

      Way to go, Emily.


  12. Tonya Chrislu November 5, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    Wow! I couldn’t agree more! Thank you for these comments. It’s exactly what I’ve been saying for months!

    As parents, we know it’s poor parenting to pay kids for tasks like taking out the garbage, cleaning up their rooms, drying the dishes. Why do administrators so easily gravitate to a program like this?

    If you read the book “Drive,” by Daniel Pink, he exposes the ineffectual and even detrimental effects of using carrots and sticks. I heartily recommend it to your readers.

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:52 pm #

      Thanks Tonya. I reference Pink’s book in The Happy Teacher Habits.


  13. Kristen A November 5, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

    Do you actually teach in a classroom? Just curious? If so what grade level? Are you given a pay check for working and meeting the requirements and expectations in your job description. What’s wrong with all of your opinions is that they are disconnected from reality. If you are a teacher I’d love to observe your management system to see exactly how you manage to ignite the intrinsic desire to learn and behave in all your students.

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

      Hi Kristin,

      You can read my bio along the menu bar at the top of the page. As for your question, you’ll find many, many articles on this website that tell you step by step how to create an intrinsically motivated classroom. (Please check out the archive) In fact, everything we do here at SCM, every article and strategy, supports this goal.

      Also, I’ve written about this topic comprehensively, and in detail, in The Happy Teacher Habits. I encourage you to give it a try. I think it will open your eyes and change your mind, as well as your teaching, for the better.

      I’m glad you found our website and I hope you consider subscribing.


  14. Deanna Maynard November 5, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    Though I appreciate much of the clear and straightforward advice you provide regarding classroom management, in this case, I have to disagree.

    Systems of recognition for expected behavior (which can include verbal, non-verbal, and tangible acknowledgment) are present and necessary across our society as a whole – in personal relationships, in business, in the community, in sports, and pretty much any other setting you can think of. Recognition increases the likelihood the expected behavior will occur again in the future. It should be part of a larger system which includes developing environments to increase the likelihood the expected behavior will occur in the first place (like clear expectations, developing relationships, and using structure and pre-corrects to prompt desired behavior).

    Token economies are one strategy to increase the likelihood students will perform expected behavior. Tokens should ALWAYS be paired with positive specific feedback. Conversely, all inappropriate behavior should be responded to with specific corrective feedback. Ignoring the inappropriate behavior and just giving someone else positive feedback and a ticket is a misrepresentation of the use of this strategy. Teachers should be giving super-high rates of positive specific feedback for behavior that meets expectations throughout the day, every day – whether paired with a tangible or not. By attending to expected behavior at a high rate, the likelihood of problem behavior is reduced. That’s the science of behavior.

    Recognition, tangible or intangible, does not decrease motivation. That’s a misunderstanding of the continuum of motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic. Almost nothing a person does in the course of the day is “intrinsically motivated”. Intrinsic motivation means a person does something purely for the sake of finding joy in the activity – no additional outcome. Some examples might include children swinging on a swing set, a person singing in the shower, or stepping outside to watch the first snowfall. These are not comparable to the behaviors we need students to use in the classroom. No student is standing quietly in line or completing math homework for the pure joy of it. To some degree, there is an external motivation (a grade, pride, pat on the back).

    Then there are some things for which we are purely extrinsically motivated, and there’s no problem with that. The reason we pay our electric bills is because we have to do it to keep the lights on. Sure, we get entertainment, heat, ability to keep food fresh, and a host of other benefits from the electricity, but we only pay the bill because it’s required. Purely extrinsically motivated behavior.

    Pretending that all behaviors related to school need to be “intrinsically motivating” is just nonsense. Students will be somewhere on the continuum from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation for all manner of things during the day. Extrinsic motivation can be employed strategically to change behavior, and that can be a good thing.

    • Meydan Elbaz November 6, 2016 at 10:08 am #

      Wow! So clearly. Its just about behaviour modification. Its science! Deanna Your answer was exact.

    • Chris S. November 6, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

      I must agree here with Deanna. I, too, greatly appreciate much of the information on this website. However, as Deanna has expressed so well, there is nothing inherently wrong about extrinsic motivation, as long as it is used correctly, and it is often a very present and effective factor in adult life as well.

      I think Michael’s main issue was that he found praising well-behaved students to help encourage misbehaving ones to correct themselves dishonest, manipulative, and unhelpful in terms of feedback. I would say this is only true if it is implemented dishonestly.

      I prefer to think of this as encouragement and praise, because I have seen what an amazing difference it can make. Consider it this way:

      -Students hear positive swords about what they’re doing right, rather than only hearing reprimands about what’s wrong.

      -Quiet students whose good behavior often gets under-appreciated finally receive praise.

      -Praising correct behavior provides a clear, live example of what the expectation is–no need for individual feedback.

      As for Michael’s being against praising them for minimum standard of behavior that they should already be doing without thought for reward, in principle I agree. But I discovered that a great many students at my school (from rich backgrounds, I might add) had not been taught what used to be standard expectations. Therefore, I had to start with these basics before I could gradually phase them out and focus on higher things, or else nothing was getting done. The 180-degree change in results speak for themselves (from students who ran around without listening to ones who sit still, take turns to speak, etc.).

      If we have a system of warnings and consequences for misbehavior, then why not also rewards for good behavior, yes, even basic behavior if that is what is needed initially? Rewards provide invaluable feedback on individual progress. Some of my students astonished me by reciting from memory what weekly behavior grades they had received for several weeks past! It truly works. I’ve seen that it helps in a positive way, without teaching false values.

    • Carleta J. December 11, 2016 at 7:49 pm #

      Thanks Deanna, I was just about to write my response and saw yours. You are absolutely correct, this strategy follows the principle of applied behavior analysis or behavior modification and can make significant changes if done correctly.

  15. Christine November 5, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

    Great article, and I totally get this now. I wish I’d understood this when my sons were young.

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

      Thanks Christine!


  16. Theresa November 5, 2016 at 4:07 pm #

    Thank you for this article! It truly supports what I feel yet struggle with among my parents (who would like more rewards for their children and tell me so), my colleagues who use it and my administrator that feels I should because it seemed to work for the teachers that had these students before me. My thinking is, if it worked, why do I still have problems?
    I am new to your site and need to delve deeper as I have a challenging young group but want to do them right. I will be taking time to learn more of your suggestions and strategies! Thanks, again!

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

      You’re welcome, Theresa. Welcome to the website and our approach to classroom management!


  17. Darren November 5, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    Although i wasn’t at the training you attended …..i am not sure how it was described but to be fair to the procedure which is called a “pivot praise” it is meant as a small tool in a teachers tool box and can generally be used for off task small behaviors….it is used so that teachers don’t draw attention to the negative behavior but rather give attention to a person on task in hopes that the off task person picks up on the cue ….it is not a large scale intervention or anything other than a brief technique to give positive attention to those who are demonstrating the correct behavior …it would be unfair to call a token economy the worst strategy in the world and it may be detrimental to ESE students who are in the general ed setting who may need that intervention in general education classes to improve attention focus or overall behavior. Your statement blankets all students and gives people like myself that try to work with gen ed teacher an even more uphill battle to get something for the children that need. There are many other techniques such as response cost, isolation and inappropriate physical promoting that should earn the title of “worst strategy ever”… if people read your wonderful blog and think that reinforcing positive behavior with rewards is innappropriate i would be let down because this site provide lots of valuable information weekly . thanks for reading

  18. Naomi November 5, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    I just started using a token economy and got my class and parents all excited about it. How do I stop using it and backtrack when I just implemented the token economy? I don’t want to come across as a wishy washy teacher !

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 4:43 pm #

      Hi Naomi,

      This is an important topic that I don’t have the time or space to cover here. I’ll put it on the list of future articles.


    • Carleta J. December 11, 2016 at 9:03 pm #

      Naomi, I wouldnt stop using this technique all together. Further,ore, it is not meant to be in place forever. Ultimately, the reward system should be used heavily for a few weeks then gradually decrease the incentives as a reward. I am a psychologist and also an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapist. I have seen how this technique has increased awareness of the teacher to praise students and good behaviors are also increased overall within the classroom.

  19. Chris November 5, 2016 at 4:35 pm #

    I been a subscriber to this website for many years and have been using the techniques and suggestions. I can’t say I get it right all the time but I’m trying. I have a mixed age class from Kinder to Grade 1. They show great respect for each other during discussions and we have recently dispensed with putting up hands as they can now take turns letting each other speak without talking over each other. It is wonderful to watch them work together. Thank you for all you have taught me.

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2016 at 4:44 pm #

      It’s my pleasure, Chris. Thanks for being a loyal reader!


  20. Carren C. November 5, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

    Wow!!!! What an amazing article! I so support intrinsic motivation as opposed to extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation has long-term effects as opposed to extrinsic motivation which is merely appreciated “in the moment.” I also do not believe in rewarding “expected” behavior, which is clearly outlined in the beginning of the school year and throughout the school year. Rewarding exemplary behavior is understandable, but not rewarding behavior that makes a classroom run smoothly wherein all students benefit.