Thursday, February 11, 2010


For years I have been a disciple of Alfie Kohn who, along with many other professionals in the field of child-development, holds that rewarding (and punishing) children, whether for academic performance or behavior, is harmful to their development.

There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators— including A's, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward. (from Educational Leadership, Volume 53 No 1, Sept. 1995)

While each year I develop and implement behavior plans for individual students, designed to monitor their work habits and/or conduct, in general I try to avoid the practice of rewarding my students. My standard line, which I have held to for nine years of teaching, is that I want students to be intrinsically motivated to learn and to do the right thing, not externally motivated by rewards and punishments. Instead of doing their schoolwork in exchange for an extra recess period, a pizza party, or free choice time, I prefer that my students focus on learning because it brings them a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and joy in learning.

Of course, this sounds lovely on paper, and is much harder to implement in practice. Some children are hard to motivate to learn. Others may be quite intrinsically motivated to achieve in, say, math, but have no interest in working hard in writing. Intrinsic rewards are, of course, nebulous and abstract things, not particularly friendly to the developing minds of beings whose top priority is their evening video game or an extra cookie after lunch. And, let’s face it: behavior plans are hard to implement and manage, often ending up increasing the bureaucracy of my classroom and giving me one more thing to think about.

Still, I have in general done a good job of adhering to my principles. Students reflect often on their work and how they have improved over time; I tell them what I notice about their work habits, behavior, and citizenship in the classroom; and we regularly communicate progress to families. Rather than ply them with generic praise such as “Good work!” or “You’re a good reader!” I try to comment on specific skills or attributes of their work and effort. To encourage an air of quiet focus in the room, I comment out loud on who looks particularly studious, which has the effect of encouraging others to similarly bend over their work. (And yes, I know that the fine line between praise and reward is paved with good intentions. And that this last example perhaps increases competition, or encourages compliance based on a desire to please me, rather than an honest engagement with the work. But I’m no miracle-worker.)

This class, though, has me stymied. One reason I have been a less-frequent blogger this year is that I am so often discouraged and dispirited after work. My class is not very intellectually engaged, has a hard time with self-control, and is often mean-spirited. My classroom is often a hard place to be, for all of us.

Finally, after a particularly grueling day, I decided last week that the whole class needed a behavior plan. This is not a problem of a few individual students pushing the others over the brink; this is truly a class-wide problem. It could not be nipped in the bud through my tried-and-true methods, no matter how I adjusted them. And so, on Thursday, I told the class they could earn a point for each quiet transition, each studious period, each time they worked and behaved like scholars. These points are irrevocable, except in the case of unkindness. When someone is unkind, the whole class loses a point.
We began by brainstorming rewards. What would they like at the end of the day if they met their goal of earning 7 points? A pizza party. An extra recess. Marshmallows and candy. No homework.

I quickly realized that their ability to come up with realistic rewards for one day of good behavior was limited, so we put the rewards they came up with into categories: rewards for one good day, one good week, one good month. Several times, I said, “Students at this school do not work or behave in exchange for junk food.” After all, I have principles.

We finally settled on playing a game together at the end of the day if they earned 7 points. By lunchtime, though, the situation wasn’t looking too good. In 2 hours they had earned 2 points, then lost both of them because of unkindness. We decided to revise our initial goal, and lowered our standards: we could play a game if they earned 4 points in the afternoon. I knew it was important that they be successful this first day.

The afternoon was better, and they did earn 4 points. We ended the day with a fun group game that provoked laughter and cooperation. Friday, a half day, was even better. They set a goal of earning 4 points, and earned 5. The line they made at lunch was quieter, safer, and more orderly than any line I have seen in all our six months together. They walked through the halls almost silently and stayed in something approximating a straight line. We heaped praise upon their heads. (Sorry, Alfie. Nothing is black and white, after all.)

At the end of the morning, they had met their goal, so I put on the “Cha Cha Slide,” a dance song my classes have loved for the past few years. With a raucous hip hop beat and scripted dance moves, it provides a structured way for all of us to get down. Last year, my class danced to it all the time. This year, I have never dared to put it on.

We danced, and it was marvelous. All three teachers boogied like crazy with the kids. Adults walking by stopped and popped their heads in, wide-eyed, to see where the pumping base was coming from. (All year, in our new, cavernous building, we have had so few visitors to our classroom that I think in those 5 minutes we had more visitors than we had in the previous 6 months.)

After dancing, we settled into a circle and said our “wish,” a little recitation with which we end each day. Dynasia requested that we pass a squeeze around the circle to recognize their good work. Then they laid down on the rug (without anyone getting hurt, crying, or yelling), and I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory out loud. When buses were called, two students came to hug me good-bye. That has never happened before.

The day left me wondering why I hadn’t implemented a reward system before. As a group, these twenty children do not seem to be able to stay focused, respectful, and encouraging of each other without a lot of help (and a sizable portion of their teacher's sanity). But with the promise of a reward, they did more than they had before.

The real beauty of the thing, though, was that it was one of the few times all year that we really enjoyed each other. Of course, there are moments every day of laughter, of a wink passed between myself and a smiling kid. But the whole class, doing something fun and just relishing each other’s company, has rarely happened. We are so often so angry at each other. I am angry because they try my patience about two hundred times a day, and make it hard for me to spend my time teaching, which is, after all, why I am there. I feel ineffective. They are angry at me because I make them do things they don’t want to do, and because I am angry and disappointed in them. It is not such a nice place to be, many days.

If the reward for focused, scholarly behavior can be enjoying each other, then this behavior plan is not only acceptable, it is necessary. We can’t make it through this year without a little more joy, even if it’s only in pockets. I may not be able to make it through many more years of teaching without more joy. I still hold to the idea that children should want to work, and learn, and be kind because it feels good, not because they are being bribed. But in some cases, bribery will get you what you need.

Each morning now, we set a goal of how many points to earn as a class, every day increasing it a tiny bit. They have met their goal 3 out of the past 4 days. We also choose a game or song we would like to do together if they meet their goal. (Or, I should say, if we meet our goal. I’m as much a part of this behavior plan as they are. Also, I should mention that we do sing and play games at other times during the day. It's not as if this is the only fun I have ever offered. This is extra fun.) During the day, after each transition or work time, I ask them what they think. Did they earn a point? What did they do well? What could be better next time? They are, to a person, honest and reflective each time. They know just as well as I do if they have earned a point.

It is still hard for them to line up quietly, talk nicely to each other, and listen. Very hard. The next four months are not going to be much easier than the first six were. (And oh, what joy to realize we are past the mid-point!) But if we continue to have more moments of enjoying each other’s company, we will be making a tiny yet essential bit of progress.


  1. First time reading you blog... just one question. Are you a parent? Bribery used judiciously is the cornerstone of parenting! Welcome to the club

  2. Eek, this makes me feel guilty. I learned all about intrinsic motivation in grad school, and believed it firmly (and still do, in theory), but in practice it hasn't quite played out that way in my classrooms. Perhaps someday...

    But really, not even any praise?? Lighten up, Alfie.