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  • Writer's pictureMegan Mariano

Why I Don't Do Tangible Rewards or Points-Based Classroom Management

Many of you are planning your classroom management "systems" if you are reading this in August. I'd like to just share with you why I never use tangible rewards. You can read my blog post about what works in my classroom here.

What are tangible rewards and how do they connect with point-based systems?

Tangible rewards are rewards that are quantified, i.e., stickers, toys, candy, etc.

I remember, a few years back, I had a prize box. In that prize box was all sorts of toys, pencils...junk. I would give out raffle tickets when I felt a student deserved it. They'd cash it in for a prize.

Many teachers use systems like this to encourage positive behavior. Many times they are points-based. For example...a marble jar. (I did this, too). I used to have grouped desks. If a particular group filled their marble jar because of good work and behavior...prize box.

How about the stoplight? Ever see that? Yep. I've used that, too.


What about Random Acts of Kindness tickets? Get caught something good, get a ticket, get enough tickets, get a prize. That counts too.

Why tangible rewards and points-based systems are problematic...

First, I'd like to point out some major points by philoshoper Alfie Kohn. He wrote a book called Punished by Rewards. While yes, some of this can be heavily debated, I do feel many of this has validity.

Here are Alfie Kohn's points:

Rewards punish: Rewards are manipulative, “Do this, and you will get that” is not much different to “Do this, else here is what will happen to you.”
Rewards rupture relations: Excellence depends on teamwork. Rewards destroy cooperation.
Rewards ignore reasons: To solve problems, people need to understand the causes. Rewards ignore the complexities of the issues.
Rewards deter risk-taking: People are less likely to take risks, explore possibilities, to play hunches.
Rewards undermine interest: Rewards are controlling! If people focus on getting a reward, they tend to feel their work is not freely chosen and directed by them.

Will a student be nice because they SHOULD be or just because they'll know they'll get a stuffed animal? Should they read 30 books because they'll get a pizza party or because it's brings them knowledge?

We should be encouraging children that the reward should be instrinsic not extrinsic.

Tough...I know...I'll get into that later.

Now, for the points stuff...that's just legit unfair. I mean, kids can visibly see that Suzie has more points because she did all her homework, behaves all the time, etc. That wouldn't motivate me. That would discourage me. Oh, look at Suzie, she's so much better than me.

How can you assign points to kids? They are all so developmentally different. It just doesn't make sense to me.

Take a look at this pic below. This was in MY CLASSROOM 10 years ago. It's super problematic. So yea, you got the total class points...I suppose that's better because it's the entire class. But, they had to have a minimum number of parts to participate in the whole class activity. So, while at some point, they may have contributed to the point total, that makes no difference if they don't have enough points. Talk about destroying community building. Plus, this was super annoying to keep up with. I'd constantly be too busy to do it.

So kids can't be rewarded at all? That's not fair! Some students really deserve it!

I am not saying we can't reward kids AT ALL. I am saying BRIBERY is not the way. Presenting an incentive before achieving something puts the focus on the incentive more than the journey to get to what you want them to get.

Of course, if any person is respectful and hard-working, they deserve recognition. The reality is, that's not always what happens. I always tell my son, it's not about what you'll get, it's about just doing what's right. Hopefully, the external world around them will be the reward. You're a nice person? You'll become surrounded by people who appreciate that. You work hard in your academics? You get good grades...and in the future, scholarships.

However, a lot of these external rewards are long-term and we know kids like immediate gratification. So how do we motivate them? Especially middle schoolers?

What to do instead...

First of all, your goal ALL year should be promoting acceptance, kindness, diversity, inclusivity, and respect. You should consistently be taking time to read texts that show this, that culture will be imbued into your community all year. If you have these types of conversations all year, that'll make things all the easier.

You don't need a prize to feel good. You don't need things to feel a sense of accomplishment.
What DO we need? Praise. Recognition. Compassion.

Here are some things that I do:

  • Basic everyday praise. If I see a student doing anything well or better, I SAY something to them. If they are introverted, I send them a GoGuardian chat with a brief little "I love how you're..."

  • Positive emails home. I've got to get better with this. I do it every year, but not often enough. Typically, you'll get an email back that makes you feel better about yourself, too, because a lot of times the parent praises you back!

  • Books read ALWAYS focus on social issues. All year. My mentor texts are always about compassion and empathy.

  • Modeling. This is huge. If you are professional, respectful, and treat students like humans, they tend to perform well.

  • Publishing work on Padlet. This could go south if you don't establish expectations. Students publish their writing on Padlet and I send it out to parents. Parents comment and I monitor HEAVILY. Peers also comment. Only positive comments allowed!

  • Shout-outs! Be careful with this. Some students are mortified by this. We have morning announcements. I haven't done this yet, but I am planning something this year in which reading accomplishments are announced on the loudspeaker IF A STUDENT WANTS IT TO BE. These won't be GRADES or how many books read or anything...just something basic like "Suzie read a book she never thought she'd read and loved it!". It's a work in progress.

  • 40 Book Challenge. Read my blog post about that. This is not a competition. From the start, students know they are only comparing to themselves. If they read 5 books last year, they aim for 10. I've only had a few students do less than the year before.

  • Helping younger grades. My students love to go down to Kindergarten to help out.

My 6th graders reading with Kindergarteners.
  • Extra credit. Yea, this is old-school, but I am okay with this. Put in the extra work, you deserve to get a higher grade.

Also, EVERY teacher/parent needs to read the book Unselfie.

Bottom Line

Classroom management is not some fancy system you have to create, I promise.

Will this work 100% of the time? Nope. I had 3 kids this year in my 7th grade that none of this worked. In these 3 cases, they all had individualized systems in place, developed with me and school psychologists. You have be a squeaky wheel and not doubt your abilities. If it's working for 90% of the class, then you have to take different steps for other students. And that's okay.

You also have to be flexible. I am not saying my classes are these amazing, perfectly academically-gifted children. I will say, the academic motivation has been more difficult to achieve than the behavior, in my experience. But, for me, if the behavior is on-point, I can no longer stress about those who are not achieving super high grades. There is only so much I can do about that.

Read this post below for more of my classroom management tips.

Here are my book lists to help promote inclusivity and diversity:

*****Want a CUSTOM BUNDLE from me? Click below!

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