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Reward systems: do they really work?

Written by Rachel Turner


Posted on March 24 2019

I’ve been reading about behaviour management recently and there seems to be a common theme: most 'traditional' reward systems have very limited impact. This also aligns with my 10 years as a classroom teacher. What I've experienced and much of the theory states that extrinsic rewards don’t make for well behaved children in the long term, it makes for either children who don’t care about the rewards or children who will only do something for a reward. This resonates with my experience, but only if the reward system is empty... if there’s no heart behind it...

Years before TPTC, I had always made my own Praise Cards and stickers as ‘recognition’. What was critical here is not the reward though, it is the reason behind the reward. Perhaps I’m recognising the amazing effort a child has put in; the fantastic contribution they have made to our class; or the consistent work ethic and attitude from those children who often get overlooked. I valued and rewarded behaviours over any outcomes. 

We want children to focus on the behaviour: the reason why they got the reward. Developing a mindset in children that they shouldn’t just work hard for a reward is absolutely key, but let’s not forget that we all want our hard work to be recognised. One of the biggest implications on teacher wellbeing is slogging your socks off for it never to be recognised but just expected or even worse, for it to never be enough. Let’s not do the same to those little humans who deserve as much recognition as we can muster.

Praise Cards are by far the best way I have found to recognise the achievements of children in my class. They have brought a lot of sunshine and most importantly have the recipient reflecting and thinking about their behaviour choices and the impact on others as well as themselves. It is only very recently indeed that I have created Praise Cards for my fellow teachers to enjoy, as I believe they can be used so effectively with others. It would be selfish of me to not share something that works so well.  

This year, as a school leader, I don’t have a classroom of my own to display my cards. Instead, I carry my little holder of cards around any classes I cover. They are introduced to each class as something extremely special: something to be awed over. I make sure children understand that they are to recognise the truly amazing effort I might see in their class. It has never failed to get a few ‘ohhhhs’ and ‘wowwws’ out of children!

The praise card means little however until those few children are picked (I would hardly ever give out more than two in a day) and the message on the back is written with heart. If one of those beautiful awe-inspiring cards was given to a child with just a ‘well done’ on the back, it would lose all meaning. That’s when it would become an empty reward system. So, whatever you do, don’t rush to write one, sit down at break time, take a minute to think of a message that will make that child beam, run home with it and stick it on their bedroom wall or even their fridge. Yes! That's it! Make your Praise Cards fridgeworthy: put as much heart into them as you can!