Classroom Management Strategies: Rewards for Students

To reward or not to reward students for good behavior? A quick Google search will convince you that this is a hotly debated topic amongst parents, psychologists, and teachers. The primary argument for the anti-reward group basically states that children who are rewarded for good behavior will revert to bad or worse behavior in the inevitable event that the reward is no longer offered. On the other hand, the pro-reward team argues that providing rewards is a harmless way to facilitate the acquisition of positive skills.

You can decide for yourself which side you’re on. That being said, every teacher and parent I know does reward their class/child for behaving in line with expectations. If you don’t want to use rewards feel free to skip this post.

Reward vs. Bribe

There’s definitely a difference between a “good” reward and a “bad reward for students. In my opinion, rewards feel a bit icky when they start to edge toward bribery. So what’s the difference?

What is a bribe?

A bribe is usually offered when the current behavior is bad. It’s a deal between you and the child that says something along the lines of “If you quit doing that I’ll give you something.” Bribes are, in a sense, a reward for bad behavior. It will not be lost on the students that the bribe would not have come about if it weren’t for the misbehavior.

Bribes also make you look powerless. It seems like you can’t figure out any other way to change the child’s behavior than to spend your own money or time to give something they wouldn’t have gotten if they hadn’t been bad in the first place. Bribes give the power and control to the child.

Finally, bribes will likely not lead to long term good behavior. Students will start demanding their “reward” every time they exhibit good behavior. Let’s avoid this pitfall, and do everything we can to avoid bribing our students.

What is a reward?

Rewards, on the other hand, are rooted in good behavior. Absolutely nothing needs to be said about bad behavior when giving a reward. You can narrate which expectation was followed, and how you’re going to honor that for that student or group. The rest of the class will perk up at the positive attention, and they may even decide to try to earn some for themselves as well.

Rewards can be clearly defined ahead of time, which helps you keep the ball in your court. Preplanning rewards can help you steer clear from bargaining with a child. Just like you shouldn’t argue with students about consequences, you don’t need to argue with them about rewards either. Your expectations are clear, and what the child gets for following them is clear too.

Rewards are also natural. Just like paycheck is your reward for coming to work every day and doing your job correctly, a child can earn some positive feedback when they do a good job too. A little extra motivation never hurt anybody!

Some tips for giving good rewards to students:

  • Be fair.
    Students have a 6th sense which allows them to detect even the faintest hint of inequality and injustice. Be clear with your expectations and what you’re willing to do if they’re followed.
  • Follow through.
    Just like with negative consequences, you’ll have to be diligent as you follow through on rewards. Don’t make promises you don’t plan to keep.
  • Be timely.
    Try to be quick with your rewards to the best of your ability. We really want to build a strong mental connection in kids’ brains that their good choices lead to good results and that can’t happen if they’ve forgotten why they’re being rewarded.
  • Teach and encourage.
    Guide your students in reflecting on the consequences of their actions. Help them to see that rewards are a consequence just like punishments, but that this time they made a different choice. Remind them that they have the power to choose. Encourage them to continue making choice that lead to favorable outcomes.

Intrinsic Rewards for Students

The best rewards are not material. You want most of your rewards to be based on the joy of positive interaction between the students and the teacher. Kids like to be accepted and encouraged.

When you’re clear with your expectations, what you’re really doing is teaching your students a clear path to earning your favor. When they follow those expectations, don’t be selfish with your praise. Let everyone know that you approve of the student. These intrinsic rewards are more meaningful than any free time, candy, or trinket.

In my classroom, if I’m having a difficult time with a particular group of students I like to begin the day with a list of everyone’s names on the board. When I catch students behaving appropriately, I put a check beside their name. I will not remove checks as a form of punishment (though I do sometimes erase one if kids ask for more checks, simply to send a strong message that I won’t reward beggars).

At the end of the period I try to snap a quick photo of the board for later reference. Then, when I get the chance, I call or email the parents of the students who earned a lot of marks. Parents do not get enough positive feedback from school about their children, and I consider this a little random act of kindness that affects the student, their family, and (in the long run) myself.

I usually get really happy responses from parents, but the best part is the face of the kid when they come to class the next day. One student told me (sounding frustrated) that his parents “wouldn’t stop kissing me all over.” Other students become jealous and ask me how they can get an email home of their own, to which I reply with my expectations and how they can earn their own reward.

Even if parent contact isn’t the reward you’d like to use with your students, try to find something special you can do for kids who come to class and work diligently for you. It doesn’t have to be tangible, but an acknowledgement that they’re seen and appreciated will do wonders for your classroom management.

I am compiling all the blog posts in this series in an E-Book. If you feel that PDF format will be easier to read, or you’d like to donate to my efforts in supporting new and struggling teachers, please:

Download the Ultimate Guide to Classroom Management in Middle School E-Book


Read more blog posts on classroom management.

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Laney Lee
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Published by Laney Lee

I'm an American expat in Abu Dhabi seeking new ways to support teachers. I currently teach grade 7 science, run a Teacher Pay Teachers store, and am writing a book on classroom management.

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