Most nights, after the kids are in bed, the last dish is washed, and the house is finally quiet, I do what any self-respecting parent does: I tuck into my Facebook newsfeed. A few nights ago, as I scrolled past cat videos and listicles, I noticed the same article shared by a couple of friends and a mommy blog I follow. It was a KQED article – a public radio affiliate out of Northern California – called “How Ending Behavior Rewards Helped One School Focus on Student Motivation and Character”.
Northview High School in Florissant, Missouri, stopped giving students bracelets as a reward for good behavior and started talking to them about the school’s expectations of respect, responsibility, and work ethic instead. Teachers offered private words of encouragement in place of monthly, school-wide student character assemblies. Not only did students not miss the bracelets, their behavior actually improved. They decided to do away with the tangible rewards to avoid “breeding a new generation of kids who are well trained to be reward and recognition torpedoes.”
I finished reading and immediately focused in on the sticker chart on the wall encouraging our oldest kiddo to help with chores and brush her teeth. Rewards for good behavior happen all the time in our house. I mean, our youngest gets an M&M if she successfully uses the toilet. Am I accidentally raising these kids to think they should only do something if there’s a reward in their foreseeable future?
I work with researchers at the University of Oregon who help schools implement token economies as part of their school-wide system of behavior support. When I think about Northview High School, it sounds less like they got rid of rewards and a little more like they created a school-wide system for helping students know what the expected behaviors are. They replaced tangible rewards with verbal ones. Before I put a full stop on sticker charts and M&Ms, I wanted to know what the research says on the matter.
A quick search on the benefits and downfalls of using rewards in school leads you to two key people: Judy Cameron and Edward Deci. Both studied the effect rewards have on a student’s intrinsic motivation – that thing that’s inside all of us telling us to do something simply because we enjoy it or it’s the right thing to do. Both come to a decidedly different conclusion on the topic. If two people can look at the same body of research and come to two different black and white conclusions, reality probably falls somewhere in the gray area.
Maybe it’s not the rewards affecting whether our kids want to do something; maybe it’s the way we’re offering those rewards that’s the problem.
I spoke with Dr. Rob Horner to get his perspective on rewards and the differences between Deci and Cameron’s findings. He explained it to me in a card game metaphor that goes something like this:
Let’s say you’re playing cards for a little bit, when someone comes in and tells you “I’ll give you a dollar for every 10 minutes you keep playing.” What would you do? I tell you what I would do: I’d take that money and keep playing. At some point, that same person comes back and says they’re going to stop giving you a dollar for your play time. Cool. I’m probably gonna stop playing…like immediately…I’ve been playing for an hour and, honestly, I’m ready to move on.
Now, what if you’re not that great at cards and someone wants to teach you how to play bridge? They tell you they’ll give you a dollar for every 10 minutes you stick with the game and keep playing. You take the deal. You get the money, but you also start getting better at bridge. When they decide to stop paying you to play the game, what do you?
Deci’s study was a little like the first example. He gave participants a reward for doing something they already knew how to do and already enjoyed. He found they stopped playing cards when he stopped paying them. The scenario Deci created seems unlikely to occur in my house, or your classroom. When was the last time I told my 2-year-old I would give her chocolate if she kept playing with her trains? I don't need to reward her for independently playing with her toys; the independent play is already rewarding. Cameron’s analysis is most similar to the second example in our card playing metaphor. She found when students were rewarded for tasks they didn’t like to do or weren’t proficient in, the reward actually motivated them to keep going. In other words, you might just keep playing bridge (even after they take away the reward) because now you understand the game and it’s starting to get fun.
After reading Cameron’s analysis of 145 studies, I agree with her when she says “it is not tangible rewards, per se, that undermine motivation; instead, undermining of motivation depends on instructions and the statement of contingency.” In other words, maybe it’s not the rewards affecting whether our kids want to do something; maybe it’s the way we’re offering those rewards that’s the problem.
Based on the research, what can we do to offer rewards that encourage students to start doing the things we want them to do?
1. Don't Bribe Students
Just because Cameron’s findings showed “no evidence for detrimental effects of reward on measures of intrinsic motivation” doesn’t mean she didn’t find all the ineffective ways we can offer rewards. One example is when we offer an expected reward for simply doing a task. Something along the lines of: I’ll give you this ticket if you line up in a straight line.” Essentially, when we use a reward to bribe students into doing the thing we want them to do, they’re less likely to do that thing on their own later on.
Do Celebrate Achievements
Acknowledging students for doing something they find challenging is where Cameron found teachers used those rewards most appropriately. A challenge for one student might be persevering through a math set they really don’t want to do or partnering with another student when they prefer to work alone. When the task at hand is a stretch for one of your students, offering an unexpected reward to show them you noticed their effort increases their motivation to keep going.
Where one student finds math challenging, another student might excel. For those high-interest tasks, it turns out a little competition – either within themselves or with each other – goes a long way. If there’s a goal you want students to meet, offer a reward when they exceed that goal; it tends to increase their interest. When students start to feel competent in something, you help them improve by acknowledging when they’ve done better than ever before.
2. Don't Make It All About Getting 'the Thing'
In token economies, it is so easy to focus on the tangible reward. My 7-year-old comes home some days telling me all about how she got this many “Bolt Tickets” today. When I ask her what she did to earn those tickets, I get the all-too-familiar response: “I don’t know.” She is excited about the ticket, but has no idea why she got it. Maybe she’s just seven and this is how her short-term memory works. Sometimes, this happens because we’ve made our system all about getting the thing.
Do Let the Token be Your Reminder
On our best days, we’re operating on all four cylinders. We’re handing out positive reinforcement left and right. We’re acknowledging the good and reframing the missteps. On most days, we’re busy and something falls through the cracks. We hit the end of the day and realize, we spent more time putting out fires than we did paying attention to the brilliant moments where students succeeded. That’s when those tangible rewards come into focus as a strategy meant just as much for us as they are for the kids. Think about the students in your class you have a hard time connecting with. Set yourself a goal of reaching out to them every week. Then set aside that many tickets. Those tickets in your hand are an efficient way for you to make sure to bridge the gap between yourself and the students you teach.
3. Don't Make Students Guess What They Did
Maybe it goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. When students are rewarded and they don’t know why, the reward doesn’t work. It’s the equivalent of saying “Stop it” and not really knowing what you were just asked to stop.
Do Use Your Words
In all the research findings, across the board, verbal praise is always a good thing. In every analysis, verbal rewards increased a student’s internal motivation to continue doing whatever it was they were asked to do. Even the school in the KQED article – the one that stopped giving out bracelets as rewards – offered student’s verbal encouragement for the behaviors they wanted students to keep up. Lauren Collins and Lysandra Cook suggest the impact your words have depends on your delivery. Your praise should be positive and non-judgemental, specific, sincere, and immediate with proximity. Here are some examples:
4. Don't Turn a Group Reward into an Individual Punishment
Sometimes, a reward for a long-term goal becomes a reward for some students and a punishment for others. Maybe it’s an all-school assembly everyone can attend so long as you don’t get a referral. The reward appears to be available for everyone, but it isn’t likely all students will get through the year without a referral. If students effectively lose the reward without a way to earn it back, they’re excluded from the group reward.
Do Let Students Earn a Group Reward
How could we turn the previous example into something literally everyone in our school can attend? Rather than focus on how you lose the reward, give students something they earn. Instead of no referrals being your ticket to get into the assembly, maybe all you need is a literal ticket you earn through demonstrating one of your school’s behavior expectations. It doesn’t matter how you got that ticket; maybe a friend gives you one of theirs. If every student in your building can attend, the group reward serves as a real reward and not a punishment.
5. Don't Be a One-Trick Pony
Tangible, external rewards can absolutely work in your building…but they can’t be the only way students receive acknowledgement. For one, it’s expensive to buy all those things. It’s also not going to work for everyone. Some of your students will be less than impressed by that unsharpened pencil in your prize box. Other students will hoard those tickets and never turn them in. You need more tricks in your bag than the one.
Do Mix It Up
You want to make your school a place where achievements are celebrated, where students are self-motivated, and everyone is engaged. One way to assess what you’re doing in your building is to create a matrix of all the ways you acknowledge students.
- What are you doing school-wide?
- How do you acknowledge your classroom when everyone is doing well?
- Do you do something different when you want to connect with a student individually?
- How are we acknowledging staff members as colleagues?
- How do subs get in on the action?
Once you’ve got them all listed out, take a step back and see if there are any people you’re neglecting in your strategies. Do any of your rewards inadvertently exclude anyone? Do you rely heavily on one thing or are there too many things happening in your building? When you’ve got your manageable list, try it out. As always, regularly ask yourself how it’s working out and whether you should make changes.
At the end of the day, the research comes down to two camps: Those who think we should reward students and those who think we shouldn’t. Can you do school without offering external rewards? Probably. Although, what happens when you can't connect with a student using your words? Tangible rewards can bridge those gaps and help build trust in your classroom when words fail. If you're afraid to give a token because it feels like a bribe, then don't make it a bribe. Use those tangible rewards as a way to help students through the aspects of their day they find challenging and would rather quit. When those times get easier, they won't need the token. There are lots of ways to acknowledge students - both verbally and tangibly. Take a look at the ways you use rewards in your building and try implementing some of these strategies to improve your system today.