Our goal for students is always that they become self-motivated learners. This means intrinsic motivation of their own volition. Studies have shown that if children are constantly rewarded for certain behaviours they can learn to only perform when a reward is on offer, however, in the classroom there is still a solid place for rewards and motivational tools if used in the right way. Here are some tips to ensure students are truly benefiting from the rewards on offer:

Rewards still work because kids are still kids. Many children do not move to abstract thinking and reasoning until 8 or 9 years of age, meaning that there will always be a place for rewards for students who are not yet ready to self-motivate. They also tend to work well even for older students or classes who are highly distracted and need structures and motivation to stay on task.

Rewards are also all about timing. One study of students doing drawing activities was very interesting. One group of students was promised a sticker and a certificate after doing a drawing, and the other was not promised their reward right after the activity, but at a later time. The group that was not expecting the immediate reward spent significantly more time completing their drawings. So depending on what behaviour you are after – speed or in-depth attention – you can promise your reward at a more immediate or later time. Rewards should also be used sparingly and saved for times when your students are most lacking in intrinsic motivation – at the end of a long term or after a busy, hot day when they are struggling to stay on task.

Another issue is that when promised a reward, students tend to choose the path of least resistance and make ‘safe’ choices about their learning opportunities. They choose activities which are sure to net them a reward. So using rewards not for completed tasks, but for students who use initiative, go above and beyond, think outside the box, take risks and challenge themselves is a more effective way to enhance learning in the classroom.

Food rewards have been shown to distract learners from doing quality work – the kids are thinking more about the food than doing a good job! That’s why token boards and sticker charts have an advantage in this area.

Sticker charts with long lines of stickers near student’s names who excel can serve as a demotivator to those who struggle and need motivation most. The best kinds of rewards are finite and achievable for any student in the room.

Group rewards also work in classrooms because of positive peer pressure. When students need to work as a team to earn class rewards they can help one another the reach goals that individually could not be achieved. Of course, kindness must be expected, so that no student is singled out for ‘losing a reward’ or being the one on whom the earning of the reward rests.

In this regard, we must also take into account the fact that all students learn better when there is an element of choice involved. If the class is able to choose their own goals and rewards, the use of these will be more beneficial to the students than goals which are teacher-led. Student choice creates higher buy-in to the earning of rewards and a higher level of teamwork and positive pressure in order to get there.

So token sheets and reward boards are here to stay, and hold a valid place in classroom management. Used well, these can be a stepping stone for building intrinsic motivation and growing your students’ positive learning behaviors.

I hope this saves you time and gives you some ideas for how to use classroom rewards to motivate your kiddies!

All the best from Anna at Tea4Teacher!