Effective Classroom Management: Drop the Tokens, Stickers, Stars, and Prizes
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
With the year winding down, your thoughts may already be moving forward to changes you'd like to make next year. What worked? What didn't? If you struggled with classroom management, you might be considering a new management system that involves extrinsic rewards — to start the year off on the right foot, you hope. If that is the case, I urge you to reflect on the role of extrinsic rewards in your classroom. In this post, I am including portions of two previous posts on extrinsic rewards, which I hope will help you decide what will work in YOUR classroom.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards
I really struggled with writing about this topic because a) I don't have a formula, and b) I don't think "my way" is the only way. Also, what's the harm in some rewards now and then? Isn't that how the business world works? Yet I am asked by teacher visitors over and over again, "How do you get them to . . . " or "How does everyone know how to . . . " These also happen to be the few questions I struggle to answer, so bear with me. What I do may not work in your room, but I do not promote extrinsic rewards in my classroom — and I think we are better because of it.
Reflection Point #1: Parenting Style vs. Teaching Style
I am an Alfie Kohn fan. If you have read Punished by Rewards, then you know where I am going with this. I just can't bring myself to work under a reward/punishment system. When I found out I was pregnant with Eli, for example, my husband and I discussed this topic deeply. I did not want to "manage" my child through bribes, stickers, and food. I feel the same way about the students in my classroom. Alfie Kohn argues against it, eloquently fighting back against the system our culture works on.
So, for example, when Eli's room gets messy, we discuss why we need him to clean up. We don't tell him and we don't bribe him. We don't yell. We just explain that we really need some help, as we have a full load of responsibilities already (e.g., laundry, dishes, trash). I try to give the same respect to my class when addressing issues, and I refrain from tying success to a trinket. Sometimes it's not easy. Honestly, some students do well with incentives. However, I always want to keep that as a last ditch option.
Reflection Point #2: It Takes Time to Model and Learn Behaviors
At the beginning of the school year, I always have one or two students that worry me. I think to myself, a whole year with them?!? I don't think I'm going to make it two weeks! Yet every single year, about two weeks into the school year, the same conversation plays out between my husband and myself:
Me: This group just doesn't get it. They are off-task, they have trouble following directions, and they even ask, "Do we have to do this?" Can you believe that? I really miss last year's class. They were so good.
My husband (rolling his eyes): Angela, you said the same thing about your group last year—
Me (interrupting): No I didn't! That was the best class! Everyone was really good.
My husband: Okay, let me refresh your memory . . .
At this point, my husband impresses me with his recollection of who was not doing what and how things were not as rosy in the beginning as I am imagining them to be. He always ends with, "I told you I listen," and I always wonder about my horrible, selective memory.
So with that in mind, I resist the urge to call parents about those precious kiddos during the first two or three weeks. Most likely, the parent(s) has/have heard the same speech since kindergarten, and it sets a rocky tone for the year. It is with a "If it is to be, it is up to me" approach that I work my magic and authentically try to connect with that student. You just find that one thing that makes them really special and go for it. For one student this year, it was his capability to write really (really) funny stories. For another, his talent for math. And it sure doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor (just be careful with sarcasm). "Problem" students seem to be under my spell once I establish that connection. And two months into the school year, I feel silly about having considered that phone call. The key is that it has to be authentic. When someone feels valued, they work harder.
Reflection #3: Understanding the Big Picture
I am really good about seeing the "big picture" when it comes to my students. I see their future. I see what they can become. I also see what's important and pick my battles. When I see something that bothers me, I know that my concern is merited, but I don't give marks or take away recess. I am truly bothered and want to help that student out. So instead, I try a simple, “Hey, I am worried that you’re not reading as deeply during workshop time.” I also try to incorporate a “how can I help you?” approach whenever possible. Giving a mark doesn't solve the problem . . . and if it does, the outcome is simply based on fear. That's just not my cup of tea.
I understand the outside-the-box potential in my class. It's the kids in my room that aren't quite on the "normal" range that will make the greatest impact in our society. The quiet, straight A student may be well equipped for a desirable job, but what does a future entrepreneur look like in 4th grade? I don't want to squish that future potential. Each person is a unique individual. My comedian that cracks up the class will probably work well in a job that depends on interpersonal skills. My talker might be the next radio host. You get the point. If it isn't taking away from academics or others, I can overlook a few things once in a while.
Management Tips You Can Take Back to Your Room
Put Yourself Into the Mix
The photo above is a good example of how I "manage" things. I put myself into the mix. If, for example, I want students to focus and read deeply during workshop time, I ask what they expect of me. In the above case, they said they didn't want me checking my email (I have a three-minute clause for emergencies), they don't want me to talk to other teachers, and they expect me to speak at a whisper level at all times. You can bet, with my accountability high, I can have the same level of expectations for my students.
Maybe it's just me, but my students LOVE to tell me about their concerns during transition times when I only have a second. So a student comes up to me as we are lining up to go to related arts and says, "Mrs. Bunyi, Blake is bothering me." Who's to know if this is a serious case of bullying or if Blake is simply tapping his pencil on his desk? My biggest concern is that the child will go home and say I did nothing to help the situation. For this reason the incident report was born. I have my students record any concerns they have on this form and keep it in a notebook for the year. It includes the date, witnesses, where the incident occurred, what they did, and how they believe the situation should be handled. I then use recess to give the situation the time it deserves. Having all events recorded helps me see patterns, allows me to stop the tattletales, and aids me when I do have to take the situation to the office (e.g., Blake has had five different reports from different students with the same issue).
Recess can be vital in building your classroom community and avoiding discipline concerns. I utilize recess to subtly address any concerns I may have, from the minuscule to the serious. I just find the student as we walk to the playground and strike up a conversation. I keep the tone casual, starting with, “How’s it going?” or “Did you say you were starting karate classes?” Then I say something like, “I’ve noticed you haven’t been getting along with Will recently. Do you know why, and is there any way I can help you out?”
This approach leads right to the issue at hand, and allows the student to see me as someone who will help, not punish. I have found a much higher degree of success and respect through talking casually with a student one on one on a playground bench than by giving marks and taking recess away. Giving marks and taking recess time is like a band-aid. It’s not really addressing how the cut got there in the first place.
Replace the Treasure Box: Personal Notes and Words of Kindness
I don't have any trinkets or treasure boxes in my room. I find that a simple thank you card serves me and my students better than any stickers, trinkets, or certificates. It might take a second longer to write a note, but the effects last the year and beyond. The authentic smile of a child opening up a card from you is priceless, and parents are really impressed when they see you have taken that extra step to care for their child. So, as long as the feeling is genuine, you will effortlessly find ways to intrinsically let your students shine and give their best.
I love good surprises. Just for the heck of it. Like last year when it was really cold, I placed a nice hot cup of cocoa on each child's desk before school started. And yes, I threw in some candy stirrers and marshmallows, too. Or PJ day. I'll just say, "Hey, we need a PJ day." It seems more fun to me that way, and when I provide the reward up front, the kids stay happy. I don't dangle the carrot. I just hand the carrot over and know they will appreciate me more and go further for this reason.
Mixed Messages: Do Extrinsic Rewards Get in the Way?
I worry about sending mixed messages to our students. The right thing to do should simply be the right thing to do. Period. Yet I know our society has mixed that message up. We want recognition. We want things. Often, we want food. Part of me believes that we have tied food in so heavily as an extrinsic reward, we now have an obesity epidemic. As I said in another post, what message are we sending to our students when we take a desirable behavior, such as reading, and tie it to stickers and pizza? It worries me greatly.
Speaking of reading, I am recommending a post about extrinsic reward programs and reading: "Creating Readers: Making the School Way and the Real Way Match Up." The comment section for that post is closed, but you are free to post any questions or comments you might have here. Supporters of AR are welcome to post their thoughts as well.
Newly Added Tips From Readers 5/18/11
Read Jen's comment below (#1) to see how you can introduce Bob in your classroom next year! She kindly sent me a JPG version to share with you.
Teaching Children to Care by Ruth Charney
Drive by Daniel Pink