When Incentive Programs Backfire

This time of year, I see lots of incentive programs going on. Marbles in a jar to earn a class party. Table points to earn an extra recess. Class money that can be spent at a “store” at the end of the year. Tokens that go into a drawing for big prizes.

4 Ways Your Incentive Program Can Go Terribly WrongIncentives can definitely help students regain their focus, but they can also backfire big time, because incentives can feel like threats. “If you do X you will get Y” also implies that if you DON’T do X, you WON’T get Y. This can lead to all kinds of problems, including:
Incentives Are Only For Good Kids

  1. The perception that the incentive program is only for the “good” kids. Students who struggle with their behavior anyway will have a hard time earning the incentive. They may decide to give up without even trying.Incentive Feels Like a Threat
  2. A damaged teacher-student relationship. Students often associate the bad feeling of the threat with the person who made it (the teacher.) This is especially true if the student’s behavior keeps the whole class from winning the reward.The Spoiler
  3. An opportunity for attention-seeking behavior. Many times the student will get more attention from the teacher and the other students for NOT going along with the program. Think about it. Which student is getting lots of reminders?Students Who Cheat on Incentive Programs
  4. Cheating, stealing, and bullying. I once had a counterfeiter in my room when I had a class money system. I’ve also had reports of missing money, bribes, and extortion. If it can be done with real money, it can be done with fake money or tokens. Marbles can be added to that jar when you aren’t looking, too.

Watch Classroom Incentive Programs That Backfire on Awesome Teacher Nation TVIf we are going to use them, incentive programs need to be failure-proofed as much as possible. One way to do this is to avoid programs that encourage students to compete against each other. I prefer systems where individuals earn points that go toward a whole class reward.

Another failure-proofing method is to allow for partial credit. Instead of offering all-or-nothing rewards like “If everyone makes it to class on time, you will earn a class point,” offer two points instead. Then even if everyone doesn’t make it, you have the freedom to say, “Almost the whole class was here on time, so I’m going to give us one point this time. Thank you to those who made it.” This takes the attention away from the students who came late and acknowledges those who came on time.

Then if you want to take it a step further, you can offer a side deal for students who struggle. Take them aside and offer a bonus point for the class if THEY come to class on time. Do this privately so they will not feel threatened. Now they can’t mess it up if they fail AND they can help everyone if they succeed.

Have you ever had an incentive program backfire? If so, what did you do about it? As always, I’d love to hear from you!

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