A Bribe or a Thank-You?

Henry was on a behavior plan. If he attempted his work, used respectful language, and kept his hands to himself during a class, he received points. If he received 12 out of 18 points during the day, he got to listen to music on his headphones the next day.

Ineffective Behavior Plan

I had Henry the last period of the day, so my class was make-or-break time. If he came to me with no possibility of making it, he would act out in class. What did he have to lose? If he already had it made, he would act out. What did he have to lose? And if he was close… I found myself giving him a lot of warnings.

“If you don’t get to work, I’m not going to be able to give you your point. So get to work.” Henry was smart. He knew I was trying to give him a point. So he would push the edge to see what he could still get away with, and earn his points.

Please don’t get me wrong. Incentives can definitely be effective in helping our students learn positive behavior, both in the short-term and long-term. In fact, we re-designed Henry’s plan so that every time he earned 20 points (no matter how long it took) he would receive his prize. That way, even if he fell short one day, he still had a reason to keep trying. Once we did that his behavior improved markedly.

What Works Better Than Incentives

But there’s something that works even better than incentives for most students, and it’s a lot simpler too. It’s acknowledgement.

Instead of telling students you will give them something in exchange for certain behavior (aka bribing them) look for positive behavior that is already occurring and give an unexpected prize, reward, privilege, or just plain “thank you.” The more random you can make it, the better.

For example, on Monday give a token to each student who is on time to class. On Tuesday allow students who are on time to class to be dismissed first for lunch. On Wednesday give a new pencil to every student who cleans up their area without being asked. On Thursday quietly and privately thank students who are working quietly at their desks, and allow them to choose where they want to sit. On Friday announce Listen to Music Day for the whole class because “almost everyone” turned in their homework on time.

Random Rewards, Consistent Expectations

The thing that should NOT be random is your expectations. Those should be consistent. For example, you always expect students to clean their area and work quietly at their desks when asked. You just choose different things to acknowledge in different ways.

The more you can become a Random Acknowledgement Machine without being insincere or lowering your standards, the more your students will learn positive behavior. And there’s a great side benefit, too. It’s fun!

Now go create a great day for yourself and your students!

Katrina Ayres, Positive Teaching Strategies

Additional Awesome Teacher Nation Resources


  • Create a Great Day for Yourself and Your Students
  • 5-Minute Classroom Management Hints
  • The Take-Charge Teacher
  • All The Ways I Screwed Up My First Year of Teaching
  • The Classroom Teacher’s Coloring Book
  • The Classroom Teacher’s Coloring Book, Volume 2

VideosAwesome Teacher Nation TV videos, including:

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  • Saving Time on Paperwork and Grading
  • 7 Strategies to Deal With the Pencil Sharpener
  • What’s the BEST Classroom Management Strategy?

Online Courses

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  • A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher
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