About Aimee Cribbs

Dr. Aimee Cribbs has twenty years of elementary classroom experience in Georgia's Title I schools. She's taught in a diverse, urban setting and a small rural system. She currently serves as an Education adjunct for Piedmont College and the Morningside College Applied Research Center. She is also a teacher candidate supervisor for Dalton State College. Her research focuses include teaching creativity, educators as the instruments of reform, and graduate writing self-efficacy. She is an advocate for teachers, who she believes have the single most important job in the world.

Almost 26,000 schools across the U.S. are implementing Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS).  A central characteristic of this Department of Education-funded initiative is customization.  There is no one “right way” to implement PBIS and implementation is likely to differ across systems, schools and even individual classrooms.  Intervention tiers are built around the principles of operant conditioning and the notion that desirable behavior, like academics, can and should be taught.

As a 20-year veteran elementary educator, I’d say that classroom management is much like anything related to teaching…the more tricks you have up your sleeve, the better.  The process of redirecting and shaping off-task, disruptive or inappropriate behavior can be tiresome but is rewarded in the long haul.  Stay your course, be patient and maintain expectations.  It takes time to change behavior and habits formed over years.  Don’t be afraid to change things up or introduce something new if an approach is not successful.  Consider having multiple supports going on simultaneously.  Here are a few things I’ve found to work across age and ability groups:

Token Economies

The Ugly Fish Bowl.   Many schools and/or classrooms implement some form of token economy to reward desired behavior.  Students might earn tickets or stickers that can be cashed in for a reward.   A lottery system is one way to expand the reach of a token economy.  For on task-behavior, I gave out blank tickets instead of the usual token/money.  Students wrote their name and class code and entered the ticket in a drawing.  Each Friday, I drew 5 names for a prize, dumped the Ugly Fish Bowl of tickets and started over.

A key to any positive reinforcement is to clearly articulate why students are receiving the reward, in order to shape others’ behavior.  This lottery system allowed me to keep a constant stream of tickets going, without having to spend a fortune on prizes.

Experiential Rewards

Trash It.  One year, I had an outrageously talkative 3rd-grade reading group. The seating chart didn’t make a difference.  I sacrificed the last couple of minutes of each day’s class to gain instructional time across the board.  We played Trash It as students were leaving each day.  I fashioned a cardboard basket to go above our door and made a ball of newspaper and tape. At the end of class, students who met the day’s behavior/work objective got to throw the ball on the way out the door.  If they made a basket, they got a ticket to put in the Ugly Fish Bowl. 

Frog Flicking.  In another incarnation of this approach, I had to adapt as a traveling interventionist who often taught in the hallway.  I found a set of plastic frogs at the dollar store.  At the end of class, students were rewarded with a chance to flick a frog into a basket for a ticket.  Yes, it’s tough to leave out those who didn’t have a good day, but it’s all a part of real life.  You can address this through your class culture and emphasize how everyone (even adults) learns from mistakes and gets a new chance each day.

Group Contingencies

 This is when the reward is based on group performance, rather than individual.  I’d never had this as my only form of reward since students don’t usually pick their own groups.  Individual rewards should supplement these systems.

BROWNIES.  It doesn’t have to be brownies.  You might want to spell out FUN FRIDAY or ELECTRONICS.  Pick a prize and have students earn a letter toward the prize when the group is meeting the target behavior. Write the growing word on the board.

The 7 Continents.  My favorite low-tech system involved laminated signs and clothespins.  Each group in the class had a sign hanging above it. Throughout the week, I’d add put clothes pins on the sign as a reward for on-task behavior.  The group with the most clips at the end of the week got a reward.

I always tried to gear my group names to something I wanted the students to hear often.  For my years as a classroom teacher, the tables were named after continents (usually my desk was Antarctica and center areas had names too).  When I was an Art Specialist, groups were had color names I could refer to as primary/secondary and warm/cool. I could even get crazy and say “Line up if you’re in one of the two groups we need to make purple…”

Marble Jars.  This is a great long-term system that is also very visual.  Start out with two jars.  Fill one with marbles.  When the class is doing a good job or gets a compliment, move one marble to the empty one.  When all marbles have been moved, the class gets a reward.  My personal belief is that something earned shouldn’t be taken away.  Some folks move marbles back for off-task behavior.  Your call.

Footprints. Who knew that leading an elementary class through the hall could be such a chore?  When a class had particularly rotten hallway behavior, they worked to earn footprints to earn a reward.  There was a start and end marked on the wall and a footprint was placed on the continuum each time the class acted like humans in the hallway.  They earned a prize when the footprints stretched to the designated end spot.

Notes about Rewards

 You don’t have to spend your entire salary on rewards.  You also don’t want to be the dentist’s best friend.  Think beyond food to experiences: eating lunch in the classroom or outside, free time or having the opportunity to bring electronics for a period.   Stay focused on time and attention.  That’s what our students really want and need.

Also stay focused on behavior.  Our first instinct is often to reward correct answers.  Reward students for raising their hand or participating in class. For many students, they need to learn to take chances and feel comfortable trying.  Recognize students who are slow and careful, not those who get finished first.

Finally, remind yourself and your students that we don’t get prizes for doing what we’re supposed to in real life.  Teachers don’t get a prize for showing up to work on time or grading papers. That means that you won’t always get a prize for doing the right thing in class.  Eventually, the knowledge that you’re doing your personal best is the reward.

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