Should teachers reward students for doing what they’re “supposed” to do?

I wanted to do a Truth For Teachers episode about how to reward students responsibly: how to reward them in a way that considers the long term results and the type of character and work ethic we’re building in kids, not just how to get compliance here in the moment. And I realized that before I could even do something like that, I needed to first address the question of whether teachers should be rewarding kids at all.

Why? Because “reward” has become a bad word in many education circles.

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I once had a district science administrator conduct a walk-through in my classroom during my lunch period–surprise!!–to look for evidence of science inquiry teaching (Don’t ask.). The kids happened to be eating in the classroom with me and watching a (district-approved) movie. She was surprised they weren’t in the cafeteria.

I exclaimed loudly, “These students completed every one of their homework assignments for the ENTIRE week, so they get to spend their Friday lunch block eating with me in the room!”

I beamed. The kids beamed.

The administrator, with a broad fake grin and an over-enthusiastic tone that dripped with sarcasm, replied slowly, “Woooowww! You guys are soooo lucky! You get rewarded for doing what you’re already SUPPOSED to do!”

The kids’ smiles faltered. Their eyes shifted over to me.

The first thought that popped into my head was, Excuse me, Mrs. Science Bureaucrat, I literally wrote the book on classroom management.  Are you questioning how I reward my students? I motivated 21 out of 24 students in a Title I school to complete all their homework for an entire week–accurately, I might add–and they’re PROUD. I gave up my lunch break to reinforce their efforts and show them that I value the time and effort they spent practicing their skills at home. How dare you undermine what’s working for students you’ve seen for less than fifteen seconds?

My second, wiser thought was that I didn’t need to defend what I knew was best practice.  My happy expression didn’t change. “They’re hard workers,” I said back, smiling at my class. “They earned it!”

 Should teachers reward students for doing what they’re “supposed” to do?

That day I realized just how pervasive the backlash against rewards has become in some educational circles, and unfortunately, the trend is still gaining momentum. Rewarding students has become passe. Students are supposed to give 100% effort every day, all day, because they have developed intrinsic motivation and understand the inherent value of their work…which is not a difficult task since teachers always give them relevant, inherently rewarding tasks that they’re passionate about completing, right?

I love, love, love that concept in theory. Unfortunately, we teach in reality.

Sure, we want students to be actively engaged in authentic, real-world tasks that prepare them to be global citizens in the 21st century. But we all know that many students are relegated to taking multiple choice assessments and practicing for standardized tests for a good chunk of their school day, and teachers are mandated by their districts to keep it that way.

What is the incentive for a student to pay full attention and give 100% on the same mundane tasks every day?

We can talk education reform until we turn blue, but let’s recognize that students must have an incentive to work hard in their current learning environment.

Apathy is a bigger problem in today’s classrooms than ever before, and we can’t sidestep the need for incentives and rewards by pretending that students are consistently engaged in authentic learning tasks when the era of accountability demands otherwise.

Much of the anti-rewards fervor stems from the pretense that any teacher can create a highly engaging learning environment in which all students are intrinsically motivated 100% of the time. It’s simply not true.

 Should teachers reward students for doing what they’re “supposed” to do?

The other root cause of why reward systems have fallen out of favor is the overuse and misuse of incentives as common educational practice for many years. This is rightly so–it’s disturbing to encounter a classroom of students who constantly ask “What do we GET if we do this?” and only act like civilized human beings in exchange for a trip to the prize box. I think we can all agree that bribing students with candy and stickers isn’t a sound long-term strategy for motivating learners.

Teachers, of all people, know what it feels like to have hard work go unrecognized and uncompensated. Why would we want our students to experience that day after day?

But that approach is quite different from recognizing hard work and outstanding actions with a well-timed, related reward. Somehow in our shift away from the use of prizes and treats, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Heaven help the person who utters the word reward without prefacing it EVERY TIME by saying “Of course, the ultimate goal is to produce intrinsic motivation, so rewards should be non-tangible, used sparingly, and eventually removed altogether.”

There’s also a vocal minority who will argue that rewards don’t prepare students for the real world: “You don’t get a reward from your boss for showing up to work on time each day and doing what you’re supposed to do,” they insist.

But we do. It’s called a paycheck.

Come on, teaching is a tremendously hard job, not many of us would keep putting in these long hours if we weren’t getting paid. We as adults have financial rewards for putting in long hours of sustained effort on difficult tasks, and even then, it’s not enough sometimes. Some of us lose our motivation because that financial reward is too small, or because we feel unappreciated for our efforts and worked to the bone without so much as a thank you.

Should teachers reward students for doing what they’re “supposed” to do?

The little rewards we’re given are what keeps us going sometimes–the occasional catered staff lunch, or the announcement that teachers can go home early on a Friday afternoon.

These gestures of appreciation are most effective when some are unexpected surprises and others are planned so that we have something to look forward to. A thank-you note from a parent or administrator or a half-dead bouquet of dandelions from an enthusiastic student can make us happier to complete the hard parts of our job.

Simple rewards are how we know that someone’s paying attention and that our efforts matter. Why wouldn’t our students feel the same way? Is a compliment and an extra five minutes of recess the worst thing in the world?

I’m advocating for the return of the reward, and in next week’s episode, I’m going to share how do it in a way that’s responsible and effective.

P.S. If you want to find out what happened with that science administrator who thought it was ridiculous for me to let my kids each lunch in the room with me as a reward? Check the comment section.

Next week: Responsible rewards: using the “now-that” principle with students

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Colleen February 21, 2016 at 10:01 pm

I love this! “Simple rewards are how we know that someone’s paying attention and that our efforts matter. Why wouldn’t our students feel the same way? Is a compliment and an extra five minutes of recess the worst thing in the world?” I routinely use rewards and I can’t wait to read next week’s post.

And I really think it’s terribly tacky and rude for someone to question what I do with my kids. I put a lot of heart into what I do…

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2 Angela Watson February 23, 2016 at 8:14 am

It’s especially rude when they don’t know you or your kids. Just as the “mommy wars” are out of control these days with everyone thinking they know the best way to parent and therefore should offer unsolicited advice to strangers, I feel like too many people judge what’s happening in a classroom based on a single anecdote or interaction. We need to be careful not to rush to judgment about other’s choices, in most cases.

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3 Erika February 22, 2016 at 4:34 pm

Angela,
Just wanted you to know that I am subscribed to your posts, but my computer blocks the emails and your site due to phishing activity. Not sure why or if you are aware of this or why it could be happening.

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4 Angela Watson February 23, 2016 at 8:14 am

Well, that’s not good! Thanks for letting me know. I’ll check into it. :)

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5 Carla February 22, 2016 at 5:00 pm

Hi Angela!

What was your primary motivator to get students and parents to care about homework?

Thank you!

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6 Angela Watson February 23, 2016 at 8:11 am

The vast majority of my students’s homework was self-selected independent reading. I believe it’s very important for kids to establish reading habits and have time to actually read (versus doing activities about reading).

Beyond that, though, I was required by my district to assign HW. Therefore, I needed to hold kids accountable for doing it. I tried punishing those who didn’t do their HW and it never changed anything. So, I switched to rewarding the kids who DID do the work, which was a lot more enjoyable. That gave the kids something to work for rather than something to work to avoid.

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7 Tara February 22, 2016 at 8:45 pm

I’m looking for the end of the story about the snooty science administrator!

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8 Angela Watson February 23, 2016 at 8:10 am

Sorry, forgot to leave it!

I heard through the grapevine that her position with the district was eliminated due to budget cuts, and she was assigned back into the classroom. Her grade level was given five, count ’em, FIVE, test prep workbooks that each student was to complete in full by March of the school year. I was absolutely DYING to learn her plan for motivating students to complete the endless test prep the district required without rewarding her kids for ‘doing what they’re supposed to do’.

Apparently that task was harder than she thought, because she went into early retirement mid-year.

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9 Linda February 22, 2016 at 11:08 pm

Hi Angela,

Thanks for the podcast about giving rewards or not giving rewards to students that do what they are suppose to do. It reminded me of a dilemma our school is in about a reward system. I teach 6th grade and I am the only 6th grade teacher that does not use the “three strikes your out system.” The other 12 teachers that use this system give students strikes for NOT doing what they are suppose to be doing. I feel this reinforces the behavior that is not wanted. If the tables were turned and our principal walked down the hallway and gave strikes to teachers for not doing what they are suppose to be doing how would their moral be about teaching? It is the same for our kids about school. Then the teachers have a once a month incentive for those that didn’t get any strikes and those that did receive strikes are punished with doing work sheets. I am curious about your take on the “three strikes your out system.”

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10 Angela Watson February 23, 2016 at 8:16 am

I’ve done something similar to that before…but it was about 10 years ago. feel there’s been a major shift in education to focusing on what students are doing right rather than catching and tracking every misbehavior.

How is the strike system working for these teachers? What are you doing in your classroom?

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11 Keith Kindred February 23, 2016 at 8:33 pm

There is social science research that suggests rewards may diminish intrinsic motivation. I’m an agnostic on this myself but I don’t think we should demean people who question the efficacy of rewards. It’s very much an open question .

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12 Angela Watson February 24, 2016 at 8:20 am

Did you think this was demeaning toward people who question the efficacy of rewards? I certainly didn’t mean it that way, and I apologize if that’s how it came off. I certainly welcome debate on this issue here. The only person I had a problem with was a total stranger who spent 30 seconds in my classroom and then made a sarcastic/passive-aggressive remark about rewards in front of my students.

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13 Michael Honel February 26, 2016 at 5:08 pm

I cannot bring myself to say, “If you do this I will give you this reward.” Instead, when they’ve been good I will give everyone a reward that they will appreciate. It works for me. I totally agree that you know what works for your group of students.

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14 Emily Young March 6, 2016 at 8:08 pm

You totally inspired me. Half of my team (me and the reading teacher) love positive reinforcement and surprise rewards. Lots of “caught you being good so you get something wonderful” and we tend to just redirect negative behavior. The other half of our team doesn’t “believe in” positive reinforcement. Last week, I switched lunch/recess duty with my partner so she could get to a doctors appointment. We came up with a list of all of the kids that are never in trouble, always do exactly what they are supposed to. I had a mini meeting with these lambs (3rd grade) in the hallway before lunch and let them know that we are always seeing their good choices and want them to know how much we appreciate them doing exactly what they are supposed to. They earned a lunch date with me. And got to eat in my room with me and watch an Odd Squad. They hugged me and told me jokes and let me know about the new book they got at the library. Nearly all of them told me it was their best day. And many asked if we could ever do this again. It was one of my best days too and we will definitely do it again!!!! Thank you!!!

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15 Angela Watson March 7, 2016 at 3:43 pm

Isn’t it awesome how making kids feel good also makes us as teachers feel good? It feels awful to spend the day nagging kids and redirecting them constantly. When you stop to reward them, you’re forced to notice how awesome they really are and feel a moment of gratitude and happiness in an otherwise busy day.

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16 Amber March 16, 2016 at 9:17 pm

This is another conversation i would love to sit with you and eat chick fila mini’s and talk and talk and talk…

Great conversation, and definetely presented in a way that makes ya go…wait a minute…

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17 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 9:01 am

You had me at chicken minis….thank you. Miss you. :)

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18 Michelle March 17, 2016 at 5:40 pm

Loved this post! Class dojo is the BEST at making you look for and point out the positive behaviors in a class, plus keeps the data so that you and parents can reward good behavior, or notice patterns of bad behavior and nip it. I have been teaching 18 years, and this is the best classroom management tool hands down I have ever come across. When I look for and reward positive attitudes, manners, kind words of encouragement, and great effort, I am teachimg my third graders exactly what it means to follow our school wide rules of responsibility, respect, citizenship, etc. The challenging kids I have, that have been a challenge since kindergarten, see exactly what the others are being rewarded for, and they start mimicking the others behaviors. Now they find they don’t have to get attention by only negative behaviors, but by specific positive behaviors. This in turn makes the teacher smile, their parents proud, and classmates invite them to play with them for the first time ever. That is the real reward.
Just as the author states, if it works for hard-working adults, don’t you think rewards would also work for children? I don’t do rewards that cost me money, praise and classroom competition works perfectly with class dojo!

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19 Angela Watson March 20, 2016 at 9:04 am

I agree that any system that is set up to train you to look for the GOOD in kids is a positive thing! I’ve heard mixed reviews about Class Dojo in terms of class culture and the effect on students.

But the teachers who use it only for positive points and not negative points seem to have great results. You’ve done a wonderful job outlining why that is true! Your classroom sounds like a fantastic place for kids.

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20 Candace Roberts March 27, 2016 at 8:23 am

Hi Angela,
I love reading your posts. They challenge or validate my thinking every time!
As I read your post, it occurred to me that what you are doing when you offer a compliment or provide a preferred activity is reinforce the positive behavior. The difference between rewarding and reinforcing is nuanced, but it is there. When we reinforce positive behavior, we send the message that your choices were appropriate so here are more privileges you can have because you are responsible. When we reward, it becomes finale. Goal achieved. Reinforcing leads to continuous improvement, reflection, shifts in thinking and behaving. Rewards are an end point that only yield more greed.
Thanks so much for your always thought-provoking posts!

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21 Angela Watson April 3, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Great thoughts to consider here. Thanks so much for pushing my thinking on this!

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22 Jessica March 31, 2016 at 10:30 pm

I’m a first year teacher and I’m struggling with this concept. I have a hard time rewarding students for doing what they are supposed to do, especially when it’s a student that does it one out of ten times. If I have a student screaming in my classroom or rolling around on the floor, how am I supposed to reward those children when they stop?

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23 Angela Watson April 3, 2016 at 2:32 pm

I see what you’re getting at, and I agree that we can’t reward students for extreme misbehavior. I would recommend an individual behavior plan in which you’re checking in with the child regularly and discussing his or her choices. There should be set criteria the child must meet in order to get the reward specified in the behavior plan. Screaming and rolling on the floor would prevent the child from earning the reward for that time period. For really disruptive behaviors, make the time periods small and check in a few times a day so that the child can experience success. Gradually you can scale back to twice a day, then once a day.

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