Do Student Reward Systems Help and What Are the Risks?

A teacher giving a high-five to her student across a small desk while other students look on.

Teachers do the best they can to keep students engaged and excited to learn. They want their students to be interested in the material during class time and well-behaved during downtime like lunch and recess. In order to keep kids focused, many teachers turn to student reward systems. These include handing out jelly beans to students who read out loud or allocating more free time when students are quiet in the hallway.  

However, some educators have voiced their concerns about reward-based classroom management. Are student reward systems effective for keeping kids engaged – or do they actually lead to worse behavior? Learn about the risks and rewards of these systems to decide whether they are right for your classroom. 


Understanding Internal vs. External Motivators

If you want to get into the psychology of why some teachers avoid reward systems, look into different types of motivators. As humans, we are driven to do things by external forces and internal forces:

  • A student is internally motivated when they pick up a book because they want to find out whether the main character survives a harrowing battle.
  • A student is externally motivated when they pick up a book because the teacher set a designated reading time and disruptions lead to disciplinary action.

External forces can be positive and negative. A negative external force is when a teacher withholds recess time for students who don’t complete their assignments. A positive external force is when a teacher gives extra free time to students who complete their work.

Adults are also subject to internal and external motivators. You might avoid printing pages to save paper because you want enough resources for the whole school. Or you might avoid printing pages because the principal restricted the number of copies each teacher can make. 

The problem with external reward systems is that students are motivated by the rules teachers set out – it requires a “because I said so,” approach to learning. One parent shared their experiences with a child receiving sticker rewards based on performance each day. When the parent asked if getting stickers is important to them, the child replied, “It’s important to the teachers.” This highlights how the kids aren’t learning and behaving because they want to, but because the teachers are telling them to. 


Some Reward Systems Cause Students to Give Up

Teachers often develop student reward systems to keep kids on task and promote good behavior in the classroom. However, when structured incorrectly, these incentives can actually cause worse behavior in some students. 

One teacher shared her experience developing a “token economy,” where students received points if they showed good behavior or helped around the classroom. Students could use points or tokens to enjoy rewards like extra recess time or the ability to sit in a comfy chair during class for a day. However, this token economy had its drawbacks. 

“Students were upset when a point was taken away, but rather than learning to make a different choice or reflecting on the impact of that choice on themselves and others, students simply saw it as a lost point,” says Taylor Meredith, a teacher and instructional coach. “This resulted in many students giving up any improvement for the day—and sometimes for the week. The system actually made discrepant behaviors more significant.”

If a student has already lost their incentive for good behavior, why not lean into other bad behaviors? Think about a manager getting ejected from a baseball game. They might disagree with an umpire until the ejection and then will start screaming and pushing the umpire around for several minutes longer. This is because there aren’t any more consequences for bad behavior, they might as well get all their feelings out. 

Token economies can also build long-term resentments in students that lose points against students that have them. The students that gain points can even start to look down on their less-successful peers. Once students fall behind in points, they can feel like it’s too late to catch up, causing them to give up on improving behaviors entirely. 


You Can Still Build Effective Student Reward Systems

It’s unrealistic for teachers to explain the value of internal motivation to students and move through the school year with a team of well-behaved, self-motivated learners. You can absolutely do your best to instill a love of learning and passion for different subjects in students, but there are times when you will need external motivators to drive students forward. There are a few ways to build a classroom reward system effectively. 

  1. Teach students how to set their own goals. If students need to read 50 pages in a week, what are the benefits of reading 10 pages a day versus reading 13 pages per day in order to enjoy free time on Friday? What are the drawbacks of procrastinating and trying to read all 50 pages on Friday?
  2. Provide feedback outside of rewards. When you do give out rewards, provide verbal praise to the student to explain why they earned it. Also, compliment students without offering rewards or points, this shows that the behavior is expected. 
  3. Reward progress, not just performance. Reward systems unjustly favor advanced students. Faster readers earn more rewards when they are given out on a per-book or per-page basis. If your system rewards hard work and improvement, your students can learn the value of perseverance.
  4. Show off great work. Consider dedicating a wall to the top work of your students. Make sure each student has featured work and the highlighted assignments come from a  variety of subjects. Students can take pride in a job well done and can see how each person has different strengths. 
  5. Create class-based rewards. Encourage your students to work together and support each other to earn rewards. Instead of giving a few students extra recess time, let the class work together to earn it as a group.      

Your students are going to experience external motivators in work and life. However, these steps can tap into internal motivators that align with external rewards. 


Slowly Remove Reward Systems and Grow Internal Motivation

If you want to reduce your dependence on student reward systems, take steps to grow internal motivation within your classroom. Consider introducing more projects where students work to find solutions and overcome obstacles. Develop assignments where students help the community or improve the lives of others. 

These steps are easier in some subjects than others. You might develop a water conservation campaign in science class or use math to allocate resources at a make-believe food bank. However, it’s harder to tap into internal motivators when learning about dangling participles during a grammar lesson. 

One teacher reduces the dependence on rewards throughout the year by making them harder to achieve. Students have to become less dependent on hitting rewards goals and instead rely on their own motivation to do work. She eventually phases out rewards altogether. If you started the year with a reward system, it’s not too late to make adjustments to better motivate your students.   


Rethink Your Student Reward Systems

It’s not uncommon for educators to rely on token economies and external rewards to motivate students, but these don’t have to be essential for running your classroom. Consider developing healthy reward systems that use internal and external motivation tools. This can allow your students to grow within themselves while still giving you tools for effective classroom management. 

Ready to see student-centered learning in action?