Why I Don’t Offer Kids Prizes For Good Behavior and Two Things I Do Instead

Rewards and praise tend to be hot-button topics within the education and parent communities. I personally have always held the belief that kids need to be intrinsically motivated and should not be rewarded for behaving appropriately.

In my classroom, you never saw me handing out prizes, I did not have a treasure chest for kids and I never taunted my class with an ice cream party for good behavior. My goal as a teacher, and now as a parent, is to foster kind, respectful, and well-behaved children who are intrinsically motivated throughout their lives.

You might be wondering how I consistently had well-behaved and respectful classes. Instead of offering up prizes and rewards, I did these two things instead…

Reinforcing Language

Reinforcing language was always the cornerstone of my classroom management strategy. Reinforcing language is where you reinforce a positive behavior by providing specific and objective feedback. Let’s look at how reinforcing language differs from rewards…

Reward

Sally was focused and completed all of her word work today.

Teacher: “Great job today, Sally! Come pick out a fun eraser!”

Reinforcing Language

Sally was focused and completed all of her word work today. 

Teacher: “Sally, I noticed you were very focused today and you completed every part of your word work. How do you feel?”

The difference here is that over time Sally is going to learn that she is working hard for herself, not for items. When Sally is older, she is not going to get a prize for being a well-behaved adult. It is much more beneficial to highlight specific and detailed behaviors that are leading Sally to success. Sally will begin to internalize this, will be very proud of herself and will strive to replicate this feeling with even more positive behaviors.

Kids love a good prize, but kids also love positive attention. In fact, I’d argue they love positive attention more than a prize. Naming specific choices and behaviors provides such a sense of pride within the students and truly helps their brains understand positive versus negative choices.

Reinforcing language, in addition to reminding and redirecting language, are the basis of the Responsive Classroom approach that I have used with kids since college. I also use it with my 1 year old son. It definitely deserves a second-look.

Privileges

Very rarely do I need to move beyond reinforcing language. It is typically enough to motivate my kids. However, sometimes you have kids who are struggling with behavior, or you want to show your appreciation for an above-and-beyond gesture or behavior. In those situations, I work with privileges. As I said earlier, you will never catch me handing out a trinket. If at any point I need to provide a reward, it will always be a privilege.

In the classroom, and sometimes at home, some kids use behavior charts or work completion charts if they are having a hard time in those areas. The goal is to track and encourage positive behaviors with the ultimate goal of them doing so without the chart or rewards in the near future. In the beginning though, there do need to be rewards. I am perfectly okay with this, but I am also adamant that those rewards are privileges. An example would be if Johnny gets 4/5 smiley faces (1 smiley face for each day he completes his morning work) then he earns the privilege to play math games on the computer during dismissal time. It all depends on what interests them. I had a student with a behavior chart and he chose to pass the homework folders out every day before dismissal. He absolutely loved holding the folders and calling everyone’s names.

I would do this as a whole class sometimes if I was particularly impressed. For example, if my class was extremely well-behaved, polite, and respectful on a field trip, I might sit them down when we returned and express what I was specifically impressed with and tell them we will have 10 extra minutes of recess to get the wiggles out since they controlled them so well on the field trip. Handing them a cool pencil is not going to be as meaningful. Neither is taunting them with extra recess before we leave for the field trip. In that case, the kids are simply behaving well just to get something. These surprise privileges truly instill a sense of pride and happiness in the kids and motivates their future behaviors.

Let's break this down...

  • Provide specific and objective feedback for positive behaviors instead of prizes
  • If you want to reward an exceptional behavior, bestow a meaningful privilege after the behavior has occurred
  • Rewards and incentives are important for students who are working on improving behavior, but stick to privileges to encourage intrinsic motivation
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An education blog created by Kim. A former elementary school teacher turned stay-at-home mom. Useful tips and tricks from a teacher to parents.

2 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Offer Kids Prizes For Good Behavior and Two Things I Do Instead

  1. I think way too many people reward children for doing what they are expected to do. praise and recognition even needs to be given when a child is going beyond the expected behavior for that child. a child who is capable of focusing on a task does not need to be praised for focusing. while a child who struggles with focusing needs that positive reinforcement of the focusing behavior. When we reward children for doing things they are expected then the rewards mean less and less. This is the issue with participation awards, paying for grades, and behavior charts in classrooms that provide rewards. Children need to learn that their choices have consequences and they need to learn that often times these consequences (both positive and negative) need to be enforced and motivated from within.

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