Who Cares?

My second grade teacher had some sort of behavior incentive program involving points. I was never really clear exactly what it was. I knew she carried around a clipboard and made notes on it with her pencil (usually with an angry expression on her face) but I really had no clue whether points were being taken away or given out or both. I also didn’t really know what I had to do to earn points except “be good,” or how many points I needed to get to see the movie on Friday, or even how many points I had at any given time. Sometimes I got to see the movie, but more often I didn’t, and in my mind it had nothing to do with me. It was completely up to the teacher.

This is what is known as a bad incentive plan.

Because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t really care about it one way or another. My teacher, on the other hand, really cared about it a lot. She talked about it all the time and seemed to think I would instantly snap to attention when she threatened to take away points or give points or whatever. Meanwhile, I just muddled along, being an impulsive kid.

As I teacher, I’ve done incentive programs, too. I’ve done whole-class incentives, individual behavior contracts, group table points, and many others. And the one thing they all had in common was I really wanted the students to earn them.

Think about it. If I’m offering 30 minutes of game time on Friday, I won’t have to do lesson plans. In fact, I might be able to get a good start on my planning for next week while the students are playing Yahtzee or dominoes. Also, I know that if students don’t earn the incentive, they will feel like losers and might blame me. So I might tend to stretch the rules or offer extra chances or lower my standards to make sure the students make it. This, of course, teaches the students I don’t mean what I say, or causes confusion about what they are expected to do, or both.

Incentives can be great tools for acknowledging our students when they are exhibiting positive behavior. They can also be a helpful motivator for students while they are learning habits that will help them succeed, as long as they are carefully designed. Here are four things to consider:

1 – Is it clear to the students what they need to do to earn the incentive? Or is it left up to the whim of the teacher? “You’re too noisy, so I’m taking away a point” can seem arbitrary and unfair. “Your group will earn a point if you don’t talk for the next 5 minutes” is clear.

2 – Do the students know why you want them to learn or do this behavior? Why is it important that they get started on their work within 2 minutes of coming in the room? Or turn in their homework? How will this action benefit them and help them grow?

3 – Does this incentive program create winners and losers? Will some students feel like this program is not for them, so they won’t even try? Instead of offers that expire (such as getting to see a movie if you earn 5 class points by Friday) try offering an incentive for being successful, no matter how long it takes (for example, if the class cleans the room in under 5 minutes three times, the class will get to leave 1 minute early the very next day.)

4 – Do the students care as much about this incentive as you do? As I mentioned before, when you care more, you will be inconsistent, and your incentive won’t work.

Have you used an incentive that worked really well for your students? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment or email me.

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


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