Rewards are commonly used in schools as incentives for students to meet a desired expectation. Some of the most common examples are reading for a certain number of minutes, reading a certain number of books, demonstrating desirable classroom behavior, returning homework, and even meeting hallway and lunchroom expectations. Rewards for these behaviors often come in the form of food, extended recess or free time, little trinkets or gifts, certificates, and even parties.
Teachers don’t use rewards because they love to attach incentives to desired outcomes, but as a way to get children to do what they need to do. Sometimes it can feel like giving rewards is the only way to motivate students and reach a desired result. This is a type of operant conditioning: behavior that is rewarded has a greater chance of being repeated, so we use extrinsic rewards to motivate people. Unfortunately, using rewards to motivate students only exacerbates the problem because it reduces intrinsic motivation. When we provide a reward for a specific behavior, we unintentionally communicate to students that what we expect them to do is undesirable. We’re also conditioning them in the absence of such a reward, we expect undesirable behavior from them. We’re also conditioning them to ask, “What’s in it for me?” We want the focus to be on growth and learning, not the reward.
How can you move away from offering the extrinsic motivation of rewards and toward helping children develop the intrinsic motivation to complete a task? We have a few tried-and-true suggestions.
- Reinforcing words—Let students know you see them and support them. Instead of praising, highlight their character with statements like, “You should be proud of yourself for persevering and not giving up.” Or “Your respectful behavior made it so both you and your classmates could focus on your work today. Doesn’t that feel good?” or “What is your responsibility in this?” Highlighting respect, perseverance, attitude, responsibility, determination, and hard work puts character at the center and provides confirmation and the encouragement to continue.
- Give them attention—Often students want to know we see them and will give them a few minutes of our time. When conferring with students, focus on their specific goals and performance. Ask questions and use their answers to inform your instruction and deepen your relationship. We want students to experience the joy of attention for positive behavior.
- Set goals—It is motivating to visualize and feel progress. Have students graph their progress where applicable and describe in words or writing the feeling they get from growth and personal achievement. This provides motivation to learn for the sake of learning and reaching a goal, and what is better than that?!
- Provide feedback—When conferring with students about learning or behavior goals, provide feedback that is specific, timely, actionable, and clear. Feedback has a powerful influence on achievement: it lets a person know where they are in relation to a goal and how to take steps toward reaching it.
- Change the purpose—If your school or classroom holds reward parties for various reasons, have the party without making the focus rewards based. Instead of having a party for everyone who reaches a specific goal, or for the class that achieves the most, have a party to celebrate the hard work of a job well done by all. You may still post individual class results to make them visible, but do so without a reward attached to the top earners. There is a time and place for extrinsic rewards. Taking time to focus on the purpose of the goal will help you determine if you want to increase intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, and you can plan accordingly.
Helping students develop intrinsic satisfaction for a job well done, a goal hard won, and an expectation met will not only benefit them today, but set them up for success in life after they leave us.