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Teaching Strategies: Should Educators Offer Extrinsic Classroom Rewards for Good Behavior?

Janelle Cox

Rewarding students for good behavior has been a controversial subject for some time now. Many teachers see using prizes as effective teaching strategies to manage classroom behavior. They think that with an effective reward system, they can win students’ compliance.

Others feel it is a way of controlling and manipulating children’s behavior, and that it does little to change the disruptive behavior. They see these teaching strategies as giving rewards to “bribe” students to behave, or do work that should be intrinsically motivated.

Both advocates for and against extrinsic rewards present strong arguments. The idea that your students want to learn for learning’s sake sounds great, in theory. But, there’s no denying that children respond to rewards, and sometimes you just have to do what works for your classroom. Here we’ll take a closer look at this controversial topic.

Teaching Strategies: Rewarding for Behavior

Implementing a reward system for students who are habitually disruptive in class can be an effective way to win their obedience. However, if rewards are used alone and there are no clear goals set in place, the rewards will not work long term, and the behavior will continue. External rewards may be a good temporary fix, but they do not teach the appropriate behavior that is expected in the classroom. Rewards appeal to students’ extrinsic motivation, not their intrinsic motivation. The goal for most teachers who implement a reward system based on external rewards is that while using this external reward system, their students will develop internal self-control. Intrinsic motivation will help these students self-manage their own behavior.

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Allowing Student Choice

Children know what motivates them, and therefore should be part of the decision-making process. When you give students a choice, and invite them to be part of the process (even though you may be externally manipulating their behavior), they will learn to make good behavioral choices. After all, the main goal of any extrinsic classroom reward system is for students to be able to make better behavioral choices. Students learn to make these choices by having the opportunity to choose, not by receiving rewards. Once students understand, and they are able to self-manage their own behavior, then you can start to move the student away from the external reward system. Research has shown that once students are self-aware, they are able to manage their own behavior, which in itself is rewarding and motivating to students.

Increase the Effectiveness of Your Reward System

If you are planning on implementing an extrinsic reward system in your classroom, then you should follow these guidelines. You can modify them to manage a disruptive student or a disruptive class.

  • Give the student(s) a choice. Find out what is interesting and motivating to them. Ask them their likes and dislikes. Talk about what is reinforcing to the student(s).
  • Set goals as a class or with the student. Set up an action plan where the student can physically see the steps that they need to take. Discuss how they will make this happen and then link these steps with your extrinsic reward system.
  • Teach and model expected behaviors. Do not assume that the student knows what is expected. Explain socially appropriate behaviors and give examples of what it should look like and what it shouldn’t look like.
  • Give clear expectations of how a student needs to earn a reward. State what the student needs to do. For example, “Turning in your homework first thing in the morning will earn you a reward.” Or, “Sitting in your seat for 20 minutes without disruption will earn you a reward.”
  • Reward a student’s effort and improvement. Remember, you are not looking for perfection you are looking for the student to do better each day.

Teachers can measure their success when they find themselves using fewer and fewer rewards in their classroom. Like everything in teaching, you do what works for you and your classroom. While an extrinsic reward system may work well in your classroom, it may not in another classroom. How you use your rewards is a personal decision, do what’s best for you and your students.

What is your view? Do you think teachers should offer extrinsic classroom rewards for good behavior? Please share your thoughts below in the comment section. We would love to hear your view on this controversial topic!

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators.