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

Books

  • 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:

  • Why Threats and Punishments Don’t Work
  • Saving Time on Paperwork and Grading
  • 7 Strategies to Deal With the Pencil Sharpener
  • What’s the BEST Classroom Management Strategy?

Online Courses

  • Taming the Chaos: How to Create and Effective Classroom Routine
  • Making Money as an In-Demand Substitute Teacher
  • A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher
  • The Substitute Teacher’s Troubleshooting Guide

Gain Instant Access to the Awesome Teacher Nation Resources Library

With Solutions for Administrators, Classroom Teachers, New Teachers, Substitute Teachers, and more

Changing One Word Can Make a Huge Difference

Have you ever had one of those backhanded compliments? Like, “Wow! You actually smell good today!” Yeah, me too. And yet, too many times I see educators giving backhanded compliments to their students without even realizing it.

“You did a great job on that writing assignment, but you need to work more on your spelling.”

“You got 99% of those questions right, but you need to do the last one over.”

“You got ready for dismissal quickly, but you are still too noisy.”

What “But” Really Means

Do you notice what each of those sentences has in common? It’s that nasty little word “but.” My 5th grade teacher taught me that whenever someone uses a sentence with the word “but” in it, you can ignore whatever came before the “but” and just pay attention to the rest of the sentence, because that’s what the speaker really means.  And in truth, that’s exactly what happens with our students. Many times, they give much more weight to the criticism than they do to the praise.

As educators, we make statements like these because we want to soften bad news or criticism, or we want to let our students know how they can continue to make progress. Unfortunately, using sentences containing “but” doesn’t do what we want, and may actually feel manipulative and dishonest to our students, which will cause them to resist us.

A Simple Fix

So what can we do instead? I suggest a simple word substitution. Any time you want to use the word “but,” substitute “next.”

“You did a great job on that writing assignment. Next, let’s work on some of those spelling words.”

“You got 99% of those questions right. Great job! Next, I’d like you to work on that last one again, and see if you can get it right, too.”

“You got ready for dismissal quickly. Thank you. Next, I’d like you to wait quietly.”

Words are important, and sometimes small changes make a big difference. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.

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

Katrina Ayres, Positive Teaching Strategies

Additional Awesome Teacher Nation Resources

Books

  • 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:

  • Why Threats and Punishments Don’t Work
  • Saving Time on Paperwork and Grading
  • 7 Strategies to Deal With the Pencil Sharpener
  • What’s the BEST Classroom Management Strategy?

Online Courses

  • Taming the Chaos: How to Create and Effective Classroom Routine
  • Making Money as an In-Demand Substitute Teacher
  • A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher
  • The Substitute Teacher’s Troubleshooting Guide

Gain Instant Access to the Awesome Teacher Nation Resources Library

With Solutions for Administrators, Classroom Teachers, New Teachers, Substitute Teachers, and more

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!

PS – If you enjoyed this classroom management hint, you may want to join the Awesome Teacher Nation tribe so you can get weekly positive teaching strategies, hints, and tips delivered straight to your email inbox. Join us now – it’s totally free!

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Katrina Ayres, Positive Teaching Strategies

Additional Awesome Teacher Nation Resources

Books

  • 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:

  • Why Threats and Punishments Don’t Work
  • Saving Time on Paperwork and Grading
  • 7 Strategies to Deal With the Pencil Sharpener
  • What’s the BEST Classroom Management Strategy?

Online Courses

  • Taming the Chaos: How to Create and Effective Classroom Routine
  • Making Money as an In-Demand Substitute Teacher
  • A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher
  • The Substitute Teacher’s Troubleshooting Guide

Gain Instant Access to the Awesome Teacher Nation Resources Library

With Solutions for Administrators, Classroom Teachers, New Teachers, Substitute Teachers, and more

Classroom Rewards Systems That Work

Classroom rewards systems can be super effective at motivating students. They can also consume a huge amount of time and money, keep students from developing intrinsic motivation, and lose their effectiveness over time.

I couldn’t believe how well-behaved my students were the first week. They focused on their work. They raised their hands. Transitions took half the time. It was awesome! Then the problems started.

One year I implemented a money reward system in my classroom. Students earned Behavior Bucks for keeping their desks clean, turning in homework, walking quietly in the hallways, and a variety of other positive behaviors. They paid Behavior Bucks for interrupting, forgetting supplies, using disrespectful language, and so on.

behavior-bucksI couldn’t believe how well-behaved my students were the first week. They focused on their work. They raised their hands. Transitions took half the time. It was awesome!

Then the problems started. Students lost their Behavior Bucks wallets. A counterfeiter emerged. Bullies extorted Behavior Bucks from other kids. The students who needed the most motivation decided they didn’t care anymore, while others seemed to think of nothing else. I was no longer running my reward system. It was running me.

If you’d like your classroom reward system to work better than mine did, I suggest three things:

Keep it Simple

checklistWhether you’re using table points, marbles in a jar, tokens, or class currency, if it takes a lot of time or effort to keep up with, it will not be sustainable. Make sure your tracking system is quick and simple, and avoid long lists of ways to earn and lose incentives. If you have to put it on a chart so you and your students can remember it, it’s probably too complicated. I suggest offering incentives as they are needed in the moment, instead of making a list of what you will reward and what you will not.

Be Fair and Consistent

Don’t reward only one student for a behavior that several are exhibiting, or over-reward struggling students while ignoring students who always do the right thing. If you promise a reward, be sure to follow through. Also, don’t give a reward that isn’t earned or punish a whole group for the behavior of a few students.

Recognize and Motivate Instead of Manipulate and Control

How teachers can use rewards to motivate instead of manipulateUse your classroom rewards system to recognize what students are doing right. Students enjoy the challenge of working toward a goal. Many of them also feel good when someone notices something they did right. No one enjoys feeling like a puppet on a string. A reward system will succeed or fail based on how it makes your students feel. If they feel good, it will work. If they feel bad, it will fail.

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

Katrina Ayres, Positive Teaching Strategies

Additional Awesome Teacher Nation Resources

Books

  • 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:

  • Why Threats and Punishments Don’t Work
  • Saving Time on Paperwork and Grading
  • 7 Strategies to Deal With the Pencil Sharpener
  • What’s the BEST Classroom Management Strategy?

Online Courses

  • Taming the Chaos: How to Create and Effective Classroom Routine
  • Making Money as an In-Demand Substitute Teacher
  • A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher
  • The Substitute Teacher’s Troubleshooting Guide

Gain Instant Access to the Awesome Teacher Nation Resources Library

With Solutions for Administrators, Classroom Teachers, New Teachers, Substitute Teachers, and more