Effective Classroom Management: Drop the Tokens, Stickers, Stars, and Prizes

By Angela Bunyi on May 13, 2011
  • 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?

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

Aug_expectations

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. 

Incident Reports

Incident_report
 

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.

Randomly Reward!

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. 

As always, you are welcome to visit our room at anytime. 

Newly Added Tips From Readers 5/18/11

Tools

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.

Bob
 

Book Suggestions

Teaching Children to Care by Ruth Charney

Drive by Daniel Pink

 

Comments

Angela,
I have been reading your blog posts and have been trying to read your post about extrinsic rewards: "http://blogs.scholastic.com/top_teaching/2010/03/creating-readers-making-the-school-way-and-the-real-way-match-up-1.html".
However the link isn't working and I think the article has been removed. I'm very curious because my school uses the AR program but I have had major problems with it this past year. I am trying to figure out the best way to get my students to love reading without all the points and prizes. I don't want to assign points and goals, I just want them to read.
If there is a way for me to read your article or if you can please respond with your ideas, I would appreciate it! Thank you!I

I am glad to catch idea from your article. This looks absolutely perfect. All these tiny details are made with lot of background information. Keep up the great writing!
Custom School Stickers

Hi Angela,

I have been following you for about 3 year now and each time I reading a post or watch a video I am inspired. You mentioned "Class Visitors." I was wondering if one could visit your class during the school year? Thanks again!!

Stephanie

Melissa,

Rules are rules, so if it is a school-wide policy just follow it and move forward. You still have the teacher autonomy to not make it any bigger than that.

Regarding behavior communication: If an incident report is filled out, I try to let the parent know about the situation, if possible. Our online grading also sends behavior notifications too. It let's you know when the message has been received, which is nice. Besides that, I've never struggled with discipline concerns so I don't need to do much.

In my prior school, we had to use the agendas for marking discipline codes (talking, off-task behavior, etc.). I managed and was still able to share and model my philosophy on awards/incentives.

Angela

Angela,

I teach 3rd grade, and we basically have an unofficial school-wide policy to mark the daily agenda with a smiley, straight, or sad face based on the number of cards pulled in a day. Every parent expects this daily peek into their child's behavior.

My question: How do you use your system to communicate a student's daily behavior to parents?

Thanks again!

Mandy,

Thanks for the kind words. I come here to be encouraged as well. The TT crew is pretty good. :)

Glad to hear you have some summer reading planned and can use another reader's idea!

Angela

AWESOMEness! I love the "Bob" idea! Since I will be teaching grade 2/3 next year and many are EAL, I think talking to "Bob" will be much easier/faster than writing for my kids. Of course, I can give them an option b/c I am sure some might prefer writing. What a fab idea!

On the book Drive by Daniel Pink...plan to read it this summer. My principal gave a short min-talk on some of the key ideas and they are brilliant. I have tried one or two, but I think I may integrate more next year--such as 30 minutes of "choice" time to work on whatever they want and however they want to do it.

The other book, Teaching Children to Care, sounds awesome too. I will add it to my reading list for the summer. The list keeps growing and I hope I can keep up with them all. Thanks goodness I have a nook and a week long cruise planned. :)

You all are great! Thanks for sharing! It's places like this where I encouraged!

:) mandy

Super cute Jen! I've added it to the post and hope others can use it in their room next year. :)

No problem, happy to share!

Thanks!

In addition, I'll go ahead and add it to the post shortly (with permission). I am sure others would be interested in using it as well. :)

Angela

I teach 2nd grade...if you send me your email I'd be happy to send you the how-to tell Bob reminder that I tape to my desk.

jen_lium@jsd.k12.ak.us

Kristin,

I should have touched on that. I agree that their should be clear and consistent consequences- just like real life. I rarely take away recess and mainly depend on my classroom economy for consequences. I make sure that it is so slight, visitors would not even be aware that it is in place. You can read about the charges in one of my posts from last month:

http://blogs.scholastic.com/top_teaching/2011/04/our-classroom-economy-its-as-easy-as-123-and-totally-free-.html

Hope that helps!

Angela

Angela, Thanks for the advice and I loved your tips for Madisen. Just one more question. What about rules and consequences? I really do believe that children need to learn to have structure and sometimes, they only learn it at school. How do you set up rules and consequences in your classroom?

Madisen,

You can do it. It won't be easy, but you can do it. I really have been in your shoes, and it simply requires you to be a little more deliberate and vocal with your students. I really take the time to explain why I don't endorse rewards in the classroom, and that first off begins with academics. Reading, for example, I share how it would totally and utterly baffle me if someone tried to give me a trinket or treat for finishing The Hunger Game series. Really, what kind of message would that be sending to me? The reward in doing well in school gives you a higher salary in life (Kelley Gallegher has an incredibly cool chart that shows how much the students are "earning" per day to attend school- it matches up with their life earnings with advanced degrees).

Regarding food, it helps that I am an active teacher that runs marathons and endorses "real" food in my household. My students are shocked when they see me eat something unhealthy and know that I think associating food with success is dangerous. Again, I am very vocal about this.

And class rewards- We still like to have fun, but it has to be earned through trust and hard-work. I always tell my class that we can have option A or option B. Option A is typically hands-on, involves group-work, etc. Option B is worksheet based. Of course, like I wrote, I am a total fan of random rewards when the kids have been working hard.

Overall, I feel like I have so much more to say about this, but speaking from your heart will take you farthest. Let your students get to know you, and you will win them over. When my students ask if I am going to reward them with some donuts, I say something like, "Do you know me?" That's where you want to be. :)

Best,

Angela

Hi Angela,

I absolutely loved your post! I was considering doing the thank you notes next year in addition to a random acts of kindness display, where each week one student is selected to write a random act of kindness that they saw another student do and then it is put on display in the classroom. I got this idea from another teacher and she had A LOT of positive feedback!

I really agree with your post, and would love to implement it in my classroom but I am running into a major road block. A lot of my students had a teacher the previous year that has all extrinsic rewards. She has a candy jar that kids get ALL THE TIME (which is another issue in general)she does the marble system, takes away recess, gives extra recess to some and not others, etc. Basically it puts me in a very difficult position because the kids are use to being rewarded for doing the right thing so when they come to my classroom and they are expected to do it without any rewards (except personal satisfaction) it does not go over well and makes for a very rough start to the beginning of the year!

Do you have any suggestions about how to influence my students away from the rewards systems?

Ritz,

Thank you for another great book suggestion. The more awareness, the better!

Angela

Kristen,

I actually have experience working in a school that had strict behavior plans with loads of extrinsic rewards built in (galore). Food, trinkets, you name it. Behavior logs were serious things and were turned in after each grading period for rewards.

So, start small. Quietly do what works in your room and don't make it a point to tell others that their methods are wrong. It's more beneficial to have others see how great your kids are year in and year out. Slow and steady wins the race. :)

Angela

Angela, I also enjoyed this post... I just finished reading Drive by Daniel Pink... which is another great book about extrinsic rewards and motivation. I'm looking forward to making some changes with my classroom management next year. Thanks to you and your posts I'll have some additional resources to check out this summer! RItz :D

This is a great post! I am excited to use some of these techniques in 3rd grade next year. My question is, what do you do if a whole team of teachers uses a particular management method(card pulls, marks, and punishment, rewards) and you are stuck in the middle? I teach at a very small school with some older teachers who are stuck in their ways and would never go for this. I have to be in compliance with their methods as well as put my own twist on things. How can I implement this without it interfereing with the way the others expect management to be handled?? Tough question, but I would love some advice! Kristin

Marlene,

Thanks and I 200% agree with you! Now it's settled. I have to purchase the book. Luckily I have two gift cards to Barnes and Noble that I haven't used yet. :)

Angela

Great post! This was my first year in which I didn't have a management system that involved awards or punishments. I had also read Teaching Children to Care last summer and it made me look at management in a whole new way. It has been the BEST year I have had in my 8 year career. This will be the first time I will be sad to see my class leave. You had some great ideas and I will be checking out that book this summer. I think if more teachers transitioned into this kind of management, schools would be transformed into more productive environments.

Betsy,

I'm interested in what strategies are taught in that book- sounds like a great book study and I may need to check it out.

Best,

Angela

Angela,

Thank you for another wonderful post today! I teach 5th grade to a wide array of students (both academically and behaviorally). I have the same beliefs you do about classroom management and rewards. Our staff has been reading and discussing the book, Teaching Children to Care by: Ruth Charney this year. I am excited to share your post with them. I think it will be beneficial to those who believe the ideas, but are uncertain how to make it look/work in their classroom. I am certain to start using the “incident report.” Not only does it solve the problems you mentioned, but it is great documentation. I also love Jen’s idea of the digital recorder. I see it being included in my room in two different ways (at least). First, it could be a resource for those students who struggle with writing to record the necessary information for an incident report. I could scribe it onto the form as I listen to the recorder later. Second, it could be used as a backup to the incident report during those transition times where students might not have the time to fill out a report (such as the very end of the day). I could write it down or leave it for them to write down as soon as time allows.

Thanks again, Betsy

Jen,

"Bob"- brilliant. If you make it back to the site, do you mind telling me what grade you teach? I am seriously thinking of trying this next year. I think using both an incident report and a "Bob" like device for an option would work very well.

So, THANK YOU for sharing. Great idea. :)

Angela

Hey Angela, Great post, as usual! I will be using an incident report next year, but wanted to share something that worked really well with stuff I didn't have time to hear that students really wanted to tell me. I bought one of those little digital recorders and taught the whole class how to use it. I named him "Bob" and told them that Bob often has ears that are willing to listen to things they want me to know that I may not have time to hear if we are busy (this worked great for common tattling) and that Bob would tell me later. They each practiced telling Bob something so they could get the hang of the technology, then I showed them that Bob lived on my desk with a helpful reminder next to him (name, date, problem) of what to say. We discussed good times vs. bad times to "Tell Bob" and it worked out. Anyway, I'm going to try the incident report next year and maybe find a way to tie it in with Bob! Thanks again for another good post and helpful document!

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