Use Meaningful Rewards by Gini Cunningham

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Oct 1st, 2013
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Carrot on stick.How to say it, when to award it, how to encourage continued learning… These are just three of the considerations for giving rewards and awards. With most students being used to extrinsic trinkets for performance and achievement, how do you honor them extrinsically while encouraging intrinsic motivation and internal drive for success?
(And you thought handing out happy stickers might solve the reward dilemma.)
  1. Be sure that your rewards honor learning and academic progress. Rewards bestowed haphazardly for “just good enough” encourage more “just good enough” work.
  2. Applaud effort and determination. Individual progress is a key consideration when giving rewards.
  3. Be stingy. An award for every movement is exhausting, expensive, and becomes meaningless.
  4. Link rewards to classroom instruction: a field trip to the museum, extra research time in the library, a visit to the elementary school to read with younger students.
  5. Study each student to discover the perfect reward: John loves solving problems – a Sudoku book; June adores drawing – a sketchpad; Mary Ann and Trent are avid readers – new books from your book order. Since you are being frugal in your rewards, you can justify the extra expense as all will balance out in the end.
  6. Giving whole class rewards/awards can be counterproductive. If Jim and Ann rarely come to class, never complete assignments, and are unpleasant to boot, is it right or fair to include them on the field trip? Oh, this is tough – you want to encourage them with the trip but they haven’t done the work… Sometimes you can make a deal in advance with all students and their parents so that your expectations are clear: We are going to the newspaper office Tuesday. To be eligible to attend ______ needs to (then delineate the responsibilities) prior to our trip. Students who do not complete this work will work in the library with Mrs. Smith to finish these assignments. You have set the rules and everyone knows the expectations.
  7. Be kind, be specific, be encouraging. Reading the face of each student will help you discover just the right words and “gifts” to promote learning.
  8. Carefully design your praise to make it a verbal reward: Saying, “Susanne, the artistic display on your science lab report really demonstrated your total understanding of the process. I look forward to seeing more work of this superb caliber,” is powerful, indeed.
  9. Be ready for reward/award backlash. While it seems that for a student the honor of being honored would encourage more study and learning, sometimes the honor tells the student “I am the greatest; no more work is necessary.” Sad, silly, and often true.
  10. When colleagues help you with ideas, when they offer support in bleak moments, when they accomplish great feats, thank them both verbally and with a written note. We each need to feel valued.

© Gini Cunningham (adapted from her book, The New Teacher’s Companion: Practical Wisdom for Succeeding in the Classroom (ASCD). In addition to her writing, Gini is an author, workshop leader, and consultant who provides education for educators.

And if you want to get your current semester organized or prepare for the next, I highly recommend If You Do Nothing Else This Semester. With the strategies I present you will get the strategies you need to not only have a successful semester, but a successful year.

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