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Classroom incentives that workLet’s go ahead and get real right here and now. You probably have a handful of kids in your classroom who are intrinsically motivated. We can lament all day long about yesterday’s kids and how we used to just do our homework because the teacher said so and complain about the fact that kids these days just don’t value time the way we used to. None of that helps us. You’ve probably also realized that the mounting zeros in the grade-book, the lunch detentions, and the administrative referrals mean literally nothing to a child who probably has nothing to begin with. Some kids will work only  for things that carry extrinsic value (food, toys, music, supplies, etc.).

However, they should definitely work for these things.  So, set up your reward system and give clear expectations, but never fail to follow through with either the rewards or the consequences. In my classroom, I’ve found that money talks, so I’ll share the classroom incentives that work in my room and how they’re coordinated with the school’s Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS).

Two of the biggest issues I started with, aside from students needing to raise their hands and respect each other, were completion of homework assignments and coming to class on time. We always say that students should know the natural consequences of these choices. Lack of homework completion leads to zeros, which leads to lowering of grades and lack of practice, which ultimately leads to failing grades. Tardiness leads to missing class, which leads to missing instruction, which leads to (need I go on?). Natural consequences for students who lack motivation or who feel hopeless probably won’t mean a whole lot. Attempting consequences beyond natural consequences will get some students in gear for a short period of time, but not for long. When I tried candy, some kids just didn’t care for candy, and you’ve got to know what motivates a kid if you’re going to make them work.

That’s when I talked to some other teachers and the light bulb went off. They used dollars in other classes. At first I borrowed their dollar format, but it just didn’t fit. I needed to print my own money. The money meant a lot to them because our school has a reward day at the end of the week as a part of our PBIS system and they get to purchase items at the Student Store with that money. If they don’t want to purchase items, they can buy things like a homework pass, the change to sit in the teacher’s chair, choosing school appropriate music for class, sitting next to a friend in class, and other non-tangible items. If I put my face on the money I could easily track to see if they valued the money enough to use it and even recycle the money to use it again. I used Fake Money Generator to make my money, downloaded the png file, then copied a smaller version of the photo several times in a word document so that I could “go to the printing press” and make my money.

So, how does it work? I give the students 5 Bucks every time they do their homework to 100% completion, but it’s all or nothing and they must show work on the math problems. If they come to class on time, they get 1 Buck. I randomly give out Bucks for acts of kindness, participation in class, and things like that. I give out big bonuses for events we do in class and I plan to start giving out bucks for good grades on quizzes and tests.

There are instances where they owe money. They owe 1 Buck for every minute they come late to class without a note. If they disrespect me, they owe me 1 Buck. If they disrespect a classmate, they owe that classmate 1 Buck. Interruptions in class will result in 1 Buck owed. I do not make the punitive amounts much because I want them to feel that good behavior means a lot in the classroom.

The results of the program? More students complete homework than before. I went from having 5-6 students tardy to almost 100% on time now. In fact, they hustle to get to class on time now. We are  still working on respect , but I need to up my game on the consistency with implementing the money exchange on that. The kids really do respond to an incentive program more than they do anything else. They want to earn and they want that acknowledgement they hear when they get the money. I handed 5 Bucks to one of my 6th graders on Friday…the one that I got told I should not expect to either be on time or complete homework…and I heard him hiss to himself, “Yessss!” He both completes homework and comes to class on time now. He’s a walking testament to setting expectations and rewarding positive behaviors–a huge part of classroom incentives that work!

Have you used classroom incentives as a part of behavior management before? What reward systems do you find work best in your classroom? 


Teresa Cooper is a 30-something divorced mom and teacher from North Carolina. She has a Masters of...

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