Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Sticker on Your Paper or A Star on Your Nose?

Hello, Teaching Friends!

How do you feel about rewards for your students? What kinds of behaviors .... academic, social, you choose to reward?

Rewards motivate. And motivated kids work harder, and usually learn more. So for me it's not a question of whether to reward, but how (and how often... but that's another post for another day!).

I've read a lot of research on extrinsic rewards, and you probably have, too. It caused me to feel good about abandoning some things I'd sometimes done but never felt really comfortable with, like the book programs from the amusement park and the pizza chain. I wanted my students to read for the joy of reading, and I never had been convinced that those motivational "contests" would help that happen. Some of the kids would shrug and say, "We already have a season pass" (not a wealthy community, but we have a major amusement park only about half an hour away), others would never take the promo paper out of their folder, and those who were already in love with reading needed no artificial incentive to continue. In fact, the best reward for reading for that last group was often ... more time for free choice reading!

Please don't get me started talking about A.R. I am SOOO glad that it was never mandated for my class. I'm sure there are people who make it work, but it definitely doesn't align with what I believe about either reading or motivation.

The thing that really changed my mind on extrinsic motivation was when I realized that the kids just didn't care about the trinkets. They'd actually say, "no, thanks", even to my very blingy-est scratch-and-sniff or hologram stickers. If they didn't care about amusement park tickets, then they sure didn't care about the trinkets, either, and their lack of enthusiasm about choosing from the weekly treasure chest made the bookkeeping it required totally not worth the work.

Did this mean that I never gave out stickers or prizes? Not at all! If we had a math lesson where everyone was attentive and put forth great effort, I might give everyone a sticker... or a high five... or let them share high fives with the person on each side of them!

Above-and-beyond great behavior during an assembly? Definitely deserving of some extra time in centers today, or maybe an extra readaloud! (Primary grade teachers know best on this one ... if you make it sound like an awesome treat, then 9 times out of 10 that's the way they perceive it!)

Sometimes I'd give out a little treat just because, "Sh! Don't tell anybody, but you are the BEST first grade class ever!" What fun to see their proud little faces and beaming smiles! And how hard they'd work to live up to the praise!

I'm rambling a little here, but I do want to get back to the title of this post - a star on your nose!
It's kind of a "semi-extrinsic" motivation, but also a lot of fun.
Here's what it is and how I used it.

When I saw a particularly great example of good thinking, like...

    *  applying a newly-learned concept

    *  making an unexpected connection

    *  drawing a generalization across subject areas

    *  any example of good thinking for that particular child, because every child has those moments -
        and looking for an occasion to draw a star made me watch more carefully for them in all of my

... then it was time to reach deep into a desk drawer and pull out my golden marker. {dried out! :)}
 {A hush falls over the room ... "she's gettin' the marker!"... "oooh, he's gonna get a star for that one!"}  I'd have the child tell us again what he or she had said and then very lightly swipe the top of his nose, pretending to draw a star with my "marker", and saying "A star on your nose for good thinking!". 

Oh my goodness, they loved this!!!  We had lots of little inside jokes about the stars, like , "Don't worry, it'll wash off by the time you get married!"  I'd hear lots of "Good job!"-type comments being given afterwards. Love when kiddos show that they care about each other.

Every year, there would be at least a few kiddos who would rush to the mirror or cross their eyes in an attempt to see their star  - so cute!!!  It was no less valuable to them when they'd realize there was nothing visible. Ah, the precious power of imagination in first graders!

I realized just how powerful the recognition of getting a make-believe star on the nose was when students would come to me to proudly report, "This is my fourth star!" or "Did you know I got three stars since Halloween?"  They remembered the moment of recognition, the fun, and hopefully the reason for the recognition, too, and it wasn't a long forgotten sticker or a trinket that drifted to the bottom of an overstuffed toy box.

What's your take on rewards? Do you motivate with whole class rewards like popcorn parties, or individual rewards like special privileges, stickers, or points to redeem weekly at a prize box? Or do you have a totally different way of rewarding? I'd love it if you'd share your favorite!

Happy Teaching!


  1. Great post! In my old school, I had a worthless "treasure box" that was pretty much a pain and full of junk. In my current one, we are trained in Responsive Classroom which I love! Really opened my eyes to "reward systems" and how unnecessary they are. (Don't reward for what the kids SHOULD be doing or are expected to do.) I agree with that. However, I see nothing wrong with celebrating with extra free time, read-alouds, etc. We have to make it fun, right? But I do believe those kids who go above and beyond should be recognized. The good thinking you refer to above IS EXACTLY what I'm talking about. So, thanks to Pinterest, I found the biggest motivator of all time: SMART BEADS! Those kids LOVE those beads! They wear them like a badge of honor. Mostly get them for making connections or achieving a goal we set together when they worked hard. I allow them to wear the beads home and they bring them back the next day. I swear they walk three inches higher when one is draped around their neck. (I admit to about half never making it back to class but they are so cheap to replenish.)

    I LOVE your "sticker on the nose idea" and how the kids played along. I think I may steal it! :) Shows what a fun, caring environment you created!

    With all that being said, do you know I HAVE to do the Pizza Hut thing? Not sure why. The kids aren't really into it. Maybe because I'm not?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


    1. Hi, Lisa! It sounds like Smart Beads are a huge success in your class! I've read about them on other blogs but never heard a "real testimonial" :) like yours! I have a friend who's going to be very interested in hearing about them!
      You MUST do Pizza Hut? Boo. That doesn't seem like something that a Responsive Classroom school would be doing. Kind of a philosophical discordance. :/
      Thanks for your great comment!

  2. I am a big fan of responsive classroom and do very little with rewards. I have high expectations am super consistent and I always say what I mean and mean what I say. This goes a long way toward having excellent classroom behavior. Thanks to all the wonderful teachers I have spent time co-teaching with over the past 10 years I have learned so much about classroom management. Similar to your invisible star on the nose, my students think a big reward is being able to use my pencil sharpener to sharpen the classroom pencils.

    The Math Maniac

  3. I struggled with classroom management for years. Not that things were totally out of control, but I never felt that it was going as smoothly as I hoped or that my students were taking on enough responsibility for self-control. I came to realize that I needed to better balance management with academics, because if the underlying structure of management isn't strong enough, then the academic learning is stalled, too. Sure could have saved a lot of energy if I had learned that sooner!
    Thanks for sharing your insights, Tara! I always like to hear how frequently you speak of your appreciation of your colleagues. I'm sure they're also grateful for how much you add to their professional growth!


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