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Arizona Stories from School: I Don't Use Rewards -- But My School Does

When I set up my classroom as a first-year teacher, I created a daily game system where students would compete Jeopardy-style, for intellectual dominance. The winning groups would receive candy bars. I also added a Spencer Store, with photocopied artificial money bearing my face (think Shrute Bucks from The Office) and a dollar amount. I also created a PAT time system that Fred Jones had recommended.

It worked. For a week. Then kids started complaining that the game wasn't fun and that the candy bars weren't enough. So, I upped the ante a little. The students were right. Fun size candy bars? Two bites and they were gone. What's the fun in that?

So, I moved to full-size bars and eventually king-sized candy bars. PAT time failed, too, because it made more sense to be disruptive for a full hour than to behave in boredom for two days before earning twenty minutes of free-time.

Finally, the Spencer Store had a sudden inflation problem, as students engaged in counterfeiting and began trading services for Spencer Cash. It wasn't that the system had failed. I had created extrinsic rewards based upon economic norms and the students, for their part, had become excellent consumers. They gamed the system so that they could do as little possible for the biggest reward.

It had me thinking about the world's greatest teachers. None of them used rewards. Socrates didn't pass out pizza coupons (or perhaps pita coupons). Jesus didn't offer to turn water into wine if his disciples would just stop squabbling and start getting along for the next ten minutes. Instead, they were motivated by purpose, meaning, creativity, and fun.

I mention this because my son came home with a packet explaining his school's behavioral management system, filled with PAT time and Roadrunner dollars and cards that you pull if you're bad (creating a literal scarlet letter right next to the board if you suck at sitting still and keeping your mouth shut). The letter implored us to participate in a similar system at home.

Why Rewards Fail

The following are a few reasons why rewards fail:

  1. Students cheat, because they are working from economic rather than social norms.
  2. Students no longer cooperate, because they are in a competitive behavioral system.
  3. Students become risk-averse.
  4. Students learn that it's more about following the rules than doing what is right.
  5. Students lose the desire to learn.
  6. Students see behavior as something externally managed.
  7. Students lose out on a chance to think ethically about their actions.

A Different Approach

So here I am, over a decade into teaching. I don't give PAT points or cards or stickers. I have no special Treasure Chest where students can pick out a toy if they have done well. I don’t hand out pizza coupons for great readers and I don’t believe that field trips should only be meant for the best-behaved kids.

Instead, I use a relational approach to build a community. I treat behavioral issues as learning opportunities, both for the student and for myself (often behavioral issues are due to bad instruction). The following is how I would summarize my approach:

Beforehand:

  • Have clear procedures
  • Communicate my expectations
  • Make sure the lessons are meaningful and engaging
  • Offer the right scaffolding for students who are struggling
  • Pay attention to the pace of the lesson

In the Moment:

  • Utilize space proximity
  • Use eye contact
  • Gently pull a student aside to remind him or her of expectations

After an Incident:

  • Have a reflective conversation with the student
  • Create a plan of what the student can do next time

The results of this approach is that the class tends to be well-behaved. There are moments when I’ve gotten impatient. There are times when kids screw up. However, when those things occur, I handle it relationally and personally rather than passing out makeshift Shrute Bucks. I haven’t written a referral in almost two years. Most of my parent phone calls are positive comments about the work I am seeing.

So, here’s the problem: We are now doing PBIS at our school. We are required to pass out our version of Shrute Bucks. The schoolwide system runs counter to everything I believe about behavior and motivation. What’s the solution? How should I handle the conflict between what I believe to be best for kids and what I am asked to do as a member of the faculty?

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John Spencer

John Spencer has been a teacher coach and a classroom teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, for several years. He has written five books, including: Pencil Me In, an alleg...