Student Rewards: Beyond The Skittles

As I wrap up one year and start looking forward to the next, I use it as a time to reflect on what did (and didn't!) work. Reassessing classroom management strategies is always part of that thought process and student rewards play a big part.

If I'm being completely honest, I have always had a small jar of Skittles sitting on my desk. I would plop a few on a random desk as a small reward. However, times are changing! Some schools have banned candy and food items now (I recently worked at a school that had a very specific snack list, and no candy was ever allowed), COVID precautions have eliminated this as an option, etc. Never fear! There are lot of other fun and creative ways to tap into our students reward system that don’t involve candy.

student rewards upper elementary

While there are a lot of intrinsic and immaterial options to reward students (and those should be the cornerstone of your classroom management incentive plan), tangible student rewards can be a fun and effective part of your classroom management system too. I've rounded up some of my favorite ideas here!

Why Do Rewards Work?

There's often the misconception that rewards are a form of bribery, but our brains are naturally hard-wired to like rewards and dislike negative consequences. When we encounter something that brings us pleasure, our brain releases a hormone and neurotransmitter called dopamine. Once this release happens, it creates a brain connection between that item, the release of dopamine, and resulting positive feelings. It is this connection that motivates us to seek out the pleasurable event or item again and again. It’s this brain science and biology that make rewards effective.

Since we know that our students are created to respond to rewards, then finding ways to use them in the classroom is an excellent way to increase student motivation, engagement, participation, and growth. We can do this in the classroom through both individual and group rewards to promote teamwork.

Individual Rewards

Individual rewards are very effective because each student has the power and ability to reach his or or her own goal. Students can set short-term or long-term goals and they alone have the ability to earn the reward.

It is important that we do not base individual rewards on actions that are outside of our students' control. For example, it is not fair for a student to lose a reward opportunity because their parent did not sign their daily folder. While most students could take their folder to a parent, pen in hand, and get a signature, there are some students that cannot. Parents who work nights, are ill, or struggling with problems of their own might not get to signing the folder. This is not the fault of the student and there shouldn’t be a negative consequence (i.e. the loss of reward) for those situations.

Group Rewards

Group rewards can also be an effective tool in the classroom. When there is a goal that requires group effort, then a group reward is perfect. These are a great way to teach teamwork, to reinforce that actions affect others, and to build a sense of belonging.

However, there are times that group rewards can actually be a detriment to a student. When the goal singles out one or a few students who are not capable of meeting the goal, then a group reward can actually do more harm than good. Think, for example, about pressure a student may feel when the entire class earns a reward only if everyone makes an ‘A’ on the spelling test or if ever student turns in their homework for a specified period of time. For those students that have never made an A on a spelling test before it can impose severe stress and anxiety.

Instead of focusing on a specific result, think in terms that are achievable by the group as a whole. Some examples might include the class walking quietly in the hallway, excelling as a whole in their specials classes, meeting a STEM challenge, or the class exhibiting kindness towards others.

Setting Up Rewards

Unfortunately, we aren’t all Oprah, and setting up a class reward system is not as easy as just announcing that everyone gets a car. 😉 Setting up rewards in your classroom takes thought and intentionality.

Here are some tips for setting up rewards in the classroom:

  1. Keep the goal or expectation clear and specific.
  2. Communicate the opportunity to earn a reward from the beginning.
  3. Give students a way to track their progress toward meeting the goal.
  4. Make the goal attainable – you don’t want them giving up before they ever start.

Managing Rewards

As you think about setting up the reward system in your classroom, take time to think about how it will be managed on a day to day basis. You don’t want to be spending precious teaching time overseeing, calculating, storing, or organizing classroom rewards. If it’s too cumbersome you are not going to be consistent with it. If it’s too difficult for students to use, then the motivation factor is gone.

I suggest choosing a system that allows students to keep track of their progress through points, tickets, tokens, or some other means. While you as the teacher still control when these items are given out, the student bears the responsibility to keep track of them, tally them, and choose when to redeem them. You can help students with this by giving them an easy way to keep track of everything.

This can be as simple as letting an app like Class Dojo track points for you, giving students a zip-lock bag with their name on it to store tickets, or taping a stamp card on the corner of each desk so that you can easily add points. I do tend to keep this tracking private. On the other end, it can also be as involved as a full classroom economy system in which your students collect a classroom currency, keep a running balance of credits and debits, and shop at the classroom store. There’s so many options in between too! Whatever you choose, just make sure it works for you!

Individual Student Reward Ideas

Now for the fun stuff… reward ideas! These can be used individually or as part of a bigger reward system. Remember that the goal is to find something that brings pleasure to your students, so offering a variety or choice of multiple rewards helps to reach more students. Choose what works best for you and your students. (Some links may be Amazon Affiliate links. I earn a small commission for each purchase you make.)

  • Late homework pass
  • Desk Pets (These are ALL the rage!)
  • Bring the Picture of the Day picture from home
  • Write in pen for the day (If you want to get really crazy, let them use your Flair Pens!)
  • Shoes off day
  • Choose a vinyl sticker (my kids LOVE earning these)
  • Wear your slippers/socks in class
  • Sit at the teacher’s desk (or consider implementing a VIP desk)
  • Sit in the teacher’s chair at your desk
  • Bring a special object to school
  • Be class photographer for a day
  • 5 minutes extra recess/centers/technology
  • 15 minutes of free choice at the end of the day
  • Switch seats for the day with another student
  • Lunch in the classroom with a friend
  • Lunch with the teacher
  • Help change bulletin boards (my students love using staple removers!)
  • Good phone call home
  • Positive note home
  • Choose your class job
  • Get first choice at recess
  • Wear a hat
  • Sit with a friend
  • Visit the treasure chest
  • Sweet treat
  • Help the principal/nurse/cafeteria/PE/front office
  • Principal for a day (This is a BIG reward!)
  • Read to or tutor younger students
  • Extra library visit
  • Take care of the class pet
  • Extra reading time, Book Tasting, or a read-a-thon
  • Choose the read aloud book
  • Receive a brag tag
  • Class store “money”
  • Choose a pencil
  • Be first in line for lunch
  • Be first in line for dismissal
  • Lead a class activity of their choice
  • Donuts with the teacher before class starts

Class or Group Reward Ideas

  • Extra recess
  • 15 Minutes of free choice time
  • Special escape room activity, STEM challenge, or other favorite class activity
  • Popcorn and movie (or short brain break videos)
  • Karaoke time (class sing-along using videos online or discs)
  • Popsicles
  • Have class outside
  • Lunch in the Classroom
  • Class picnic outside
  • No homework night
  • Special art project or directed drawing (We love Art Hub for Kids!)
  • Decorate the class door or a bulletin board
  • Reading in the dark time (read with flashlights or finger lights)
  • Extra read-aloud time
  • Open mic time (let students share a joke, a poem, or just thoughts about life)
  • Bring a game from home
  • Wear a hat day
  • Extra technology time
  • Class kickball game (or challenge another class)
  • Teacher 20 questions (ask the teacher anything)
  • Dress the teacher day (students get to vote on your outfit from choices you provide)
  • Listen to a Podcast

It doesn’t take a lot to tap into that internal student reward system. I hope these tips and ideas give you inspiration for student rewards in your classroom. Have fun with it and I’m sure your students will find something that they are excited to work for.

What Students Rewards Would You Add?

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