Rewards in the Classroom

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Children can be categorized as intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Children who are motivated intrinsically exhibit a desire to learn. Usually they pursue a subject for the pleasure of learning or for a feeling of accomplishment. Intrinsically motivated students tend to prefer challenging tasks and to understand information in depth. They are more likely to choose projects that demand greater effort than extrinsically motivated children who usually work to receive some reward or to avoid a penalty. Extrinsically motivated students tend to gravitate toward easier tasks and are inclined to put forth the minimal amount of effort for the maximum reward. Even though children who enter school are often inclined to be either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, a worthwhile goal for educators is to foster intrinsic motivation in children.

Many teachers believe that student motivation can be "jump started" by providing tangible rewards such as stickers, candy or prizes. They assert that reinforcing appropriate behaviors can have positive results since children tend to continue or repeat an action that is rewarded. They state that some parents do not encourage their children to do their best at school and hence the students are indifferent to learning. These teachers insist that tangible rewards can help these students develop a reason to apply themselves. They state that through the use of rewards children learn to listen, to complete work, and to behave appropriately.

Others argue that rewards devalue learning and counteract the development of self-discipline and intrinsic motivation. For example, when a child does an assignment to get a piece of candy, you have not taught him or her the value of hard work or learning. These opponents assert that tangible rewards produce short-term changes and only serve as motivators if children want them. They contend that the use of rewards fosters competition and the "What's in it for me?" attitude; the more they are used, the more incentives students expect. They maintain that rewards can have a negative effect upon student initiative and performance because they are seen as bribes used to control, and that older children in particular may feel insulted and/or manipulated when rewards are offered. Critical observers point out that rewards have not been shown to change behavior when children are left unsupervised.

One teacher reported: "I used to use tangible rewards because they had immediate results. Now, instead, I use praise and positive feedback that is sincere, timely, and specific. I believe the children cooperate in class because I respect them, and because I impress upon them that what they are learning is important to their future. Giving tangible rewards does not foster a sense of pride in work well done. I worry about children who are accustomed to being rewarded constantly, i.e. the first time my class played a game, the students ask, 'What do we get if we win?' I replied, 'The satisfaction of knowing you did a great job.'"

If a teacher decides to use a tangible reward program it needs to be simple to manage. Involving a student or students in selecting a reward can contribute to its successful use. School supplies and/or foods that have some nutritional value are preferable to candy, unhealthy snacks or prizes. Ideally, after the rewards are given and the desired results are obtained, the teacher will modify the program by raising his or her expectations, reducing the rewards and phasing them out altogether.

Many teachers report that they prefer intangible rewards over tangible ones. These teachers provide opportunities for their students to earn points or tokens that can be exchanged for special privileges. Some examples are free activity time, reading time, computer time, choosing a book to be read to the class, assisting the librarian, extra recess, leading a class game, eating lunch with the teacher, or having their picture taken with the principal (see Effective Praise and Motivating Children). Also timely, sincere verbal comments like, "I notice Ally is sitting down and ready to listen. I appreciate that." Written positive comments such as, "100! Super work! On to division!" also serve to motivate most children. Another example is when a teacher calls a parent to comment on a child's progress. Or, when a class has worked particularly hard on a project, having a surprise popcorn party can serve as a reward that promotes a feeling of classroom community.

Rewards can involve a contract with an individual child, be offered to a class or used to acknowledge a school-wide accomplishment. Counselors or teachers may contract with individual children to extinguish inappropriate behaviors such as fighting, not completing homework, talking out in class, or truancy. Having a child or children participate in goal setting increases their interest in attaining it. For a class-wide reward, the students may decide on a weekly goal; for example, that each class member will follow the lunchroom rules without one reminder. The intangible reward could be an extra fifteen minutes of free time on Friday afternoon. Achieving a school-wide goal of reading one thousand books with each student participating could be celebrated by having a special event for all students.

To instill intrinsic motivation in children teachers need to create a noncompetitive, caring environment in which each child feels valued, respected and acknowledged (see Educator's Guide to Enhancing Children's Life Skills or Successful Teachers). Cooperative learning that recognizes improvement in each child is a way to enhance intrinsic motivation among students so that classroom management is not dependent upon the use of rewards.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website []. 5/04

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