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40 Hour Workweek

Uncategorized   |   Jul 10, 2010

Rewarding kids in the 21st century

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Rewarding kids in the 21st century

By Angela Watson

Read Part 1 of this post series: The day “reward” became a bad word

Read Part 2 of this post series: Ideas for student rewards and incentives

The whole-class behavior management system I used for the last few years I was teaching was something I created called the bead system. It’s a simple premise: kids earn beads which are traded in at the end of the week for additional center time. Bead distribution was fairly random and unexpected: the kids never knew when they’d get one because I didn’t dangle the promise of reward ahead of time with bribes like “If you’re quiet, you’ll get a bead”.  Instead, I’d give a task and watch for positive actions to reinforce with specific praise and a symbol of appreciation (the bead): “I love how you kept trying even when the work was hard” or “You were so patient and supportive when you explained that answer to him.”  I’d quietly slip the child a bead and watch her face glow with satisfaction, knowing that she’d made a good choice and it was noticed by someone who cared about her. I loved this system because it kept my focus on the positive things kids were doing, and I felt like most of them responded by doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do, and not in anticipation of earning a bead.


To be honest, I wasn’t sure exactly why the system worked so well until this week when I read Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Drive isn’t a book about education, per se (it’s a Malcolm Gladwell–type read that compiles research studies into really compelling stories), but most of what the author talks about is relevant to teachers since one of our biggest and most challenging tasks is getting kids motivated to learn.

Pink conducted a number of fascinating behavioral studies, including a bunch with children, to see what factors made them want to work hard and try their best. He writes,

When children didn’t expect a reward, receiving one had little impact on [did not detract from] their intrinsic motivation. Only contingent rewards–if you do this, then you’ll get that–had the negative effect. Why? “If-then” rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy…and that can spring a hole in the bottom of their motivational bucket, draining an activity of its enjoyment.

Instead of “if-then” rewards, Pink recommends “now that” rewards. The practical application? Think about recess, the classic student motivator. If you tell kids that if they get their work done, then they’ll get to go to recess early or have free time, you’ll take their focus off the work itself. Throughout the assignment (and every time you give one afterward), the class will be waiting for you to offer their motivation, and rushing through the task to get to it. On days when they won’t be able to have extra free time, there will be little incentive to complete the task. Kids not only expect the reward, but often start criticizing or questioning the teacher when they don’t get one.

But the outcome is totally different if you have students complete the assignment and afterward say now that they’re done, you’ll allow some extra recess time.  When you expect kids to do their work everyday with no mention of reward and then surprise them occasionally with a gesture that shows appreciation for their ongoing and continual hard work, they’ll learn to focus their attention on the task and not the reward. When you do provide one after a job well done, kids show gratitude and there’s a moment of shared pleasure as the teacher gets to do something nice for the children she cares about and they actually appreciate it.  It’s a totally different classroom climate (and one that’s completely attainable).

So is there a place for “if-then” rewards? Pink’s research tells us yes.

Carrots and sticks aren’t all bad. They can be effective for rule-based routine tasks–because there’s little intrinsic motivation to undermine and not much creativity to crush. And they can be more effective still if those giving the rewards offer a rationale for why the task is necessary, acknowledge that it’s boring, and allow people autonomy over how they complete it. For non-routine conceptual tasks, rewards are more perilous–particularly those of the “if-then” variety. But “now that” rewards–non-contingent rewards given after a task is complete–can sometimes be okay for more creative, right-brain work, especially if they provide useful information about performance.

“If-then” rewards were the basis of most class behavior management systems in America for many years, and for good reason: they’re pretty effective motivators for rote tasks, drills, and non-creative tasks.  But now in the 21st century, we want our kids to be problem-solvers and critical thinkers. The research of people like Daniel Pink shows us that when kids are involved in higher-level thinking tasks, we have to inspire them, not bribe them, to learn. If you’re using a traditional if-then reward system in your classroom and it’s working, that might be a sign that most of the assignments you’re giving are rule-based, routine tasks.

Ultimately, it might be more effective to focus on the type of tasks we’re giving kids than on how to reward children for completing them.  I’ve noticed that when I give an assignment that provides kids with a lot of choice and control over what they’re doing, they’re much more actively involved and don’t need “if-then” rewards. Instead, most children will work diligently and with a great deal of focus. If you’ve experienced this in your classroom, then you know one of the most beautiful and rewarding moments of teaching is to look around the room and see every child eagerly reading, writing, and discussing concepts they’re excited to be learning about. When creating more of those moments is our primary goal, we don’t have to worry so much about a creating a reward system.

What are your thoughts on motivation and rewards? What works in your classroom? What doesn’t?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. I felt like I went from polar opposites with my previous teaching position and the current on. The previous was in the first two years of implementing PBS (Positive Behavior Supports), and incentives were everywhere – anything from stickers to iPods. We even had aprons to have easy access to our daily incentives. Then I switched to my current school where there is a much bigger focus on intrinsic motivation and doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. When we do have something that could be seen as a reward, it is a school-wide celebration, not singling students out. From what I observed, the incentives at the first school did not seem to work well after the novelty wore off.

    I also recently read Pink’s book, and just as it appeared to do for you, it was fascinating to see how what I had been observing over the years of teaching was making perfect sense. I thought the distinction between “if-then” and “now that” was interesting as well, especially that if “now that” rewards are over-used they have the same effect as “if-then” rewards.

    It was fun to see your thoughts on this book.

    1. Yeah, there was definitely this feeling of oooohhhh, NOW I see why that worked so well! as I read the book. And it also explained why the type of stuff that happened at your old school (which occurred at some of my schools, too) weren’t effective in the long term. It will be interesting to see how the cash-for-grades program plays out, since in the short run, it’s been effective.

  2. Hi Angela!
    I have just discovered your site in the past month, and have downloaded & started reading your e-book. I’m loving it!

    I’m an elementary school music teacher (this fall will be the start of my 3rd year), so my classroom basically has a revolving door – a new group enters/leaves my room every 30 minutes. It’s difficult to reward individual students considering the short amount of time I have with the students, and because I see so many students, keeping track of this would be crazy. Because of these reasons, I tend to rely on a whole-class reward system. At the end of each period, I place a star or sticker on a class chart when the students have participated well, were respectful of each other, myself, and the classroom equipment, etc. Sometimes we discuss whether we deserve a star at the end of a period, but more often than not, it’s a surprise. Sometimes I will put the star up partway through the period if the class is doing really well…they love that! When the students achieve 10 stars on the chart, they get a reward. For example, I’ll take out special instruments for them to play, we sing a song they really like, we play a game they enjoy, we go to the computer lab to explore fun music game/activity websites, etc. I don’t give whole-class consequences; behaviour issues are dealt with individually – but students know that if they are consistently not helping their classmates to earn the star, they will not be able to participate in the reward activity.

    I really like the concept of the now-then reward. I may re-vamp my system a bit for next year with that in mind 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing your system, Alexandra. I know lots of “specials teachers” who use systems like that, since it’s so hard for you all to track individual behavior for 300-1,000 kids. I like that the students have to work together to get the reward, and that it’s completely rewards-based and not punitive.

  3. Another benefit of your system allows every student and every learning/behavior type to succeed — not all students can reach the same “if you do this…” standards, and it can be the same students garnering all the praise (or keeping the class from the prizes). I like these individual, unexpected ways to reinforce students doing things the right way; Student A may earn beads for focus and asking questions, while Student B gets rewarded for other actions. I do try to reward more publicly as a way of peer encouragement for some things, such as using a vocabulary word or connecting a lesson to another topic.

    1. Exactly, Joel! And what’s cool is that this allows students to see that they all have personal strengths and weaknesses, and they learne to recognize one another’s growth. In my book, I talk about how my kids often began spontaneously nominating each other for beads with comments like “Hey, John, you remembered to push your chair in without any reminders! Keep up the good work! You might even get a bead for that!”. There was rarely a “what about me” attitude, like, hey, I always push in my chair, why didn’t I get a bead? kind of thing. They realized that keeping the desk area clean and organized was hard for a particular child and they were excited when he was rewarded for progress. That’s such an exciting thing to see as a teacher. 🙂

  4. One of the most intrinsically rewarding aspects for my students (and me!) was when I assigned “research projects” we did during class time for science or social studies. I thoughtfully paired up students to write “research reports” (sometimes about the Rain Forest, certain animals, or the Solar System. Later, I conferred with both students to merge both reports into one. Then, one student drew a picture to illustrate, and the other (usually the one with the best printing), rewrote the report. The kids were SO excited to do this. They would ask and ask throughout the day, “When are we going to do those research reports?” I would say, “Well, we’ve got to cover reading and math first…” When “research time” came, they were so quiet and engaged! As a teacher, that’s about as good as it gets!

    1. Dorothy, I can remember many moments like that with my own students. Anytime I gave a research project in which the kids could choose their topics and presentation styles, they could not WAIT until it was time to work on them! I’m convinced that if we can incorporate more of that choice and exploration into other areas of instruction, students would be enthusiastic and engaged for most of the school day. That’s a great goal to work toward!

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