Remember when you were just a wee, young lad wearing diapers around the house? Ahh, those were the good ol’ days with not a care in the world. Life was so easy back then. All you had to do was run around. The diapers took care of bathroom breaks and your parents fed you. It was awesome. However, of course, life changes and we have to grow up. We have to learn to do things on our own. UGGGHHH! Apparently, six years old is too old to be wearing a diaper around the house. So, our parents worked to potty train us so that we would no longer be the freak in first grade who still wears a diaper. What’s wrong with that? Anyway, my parents used a sticker chart to motivate me to want to “tinkle” and “do poop poop” in the toilet. I loved those charts. When I earned five stickers, I got a prize. Awesome sauce! One time I got this super sweet plastic finger puppet that had a movable mouth. It was so much fun to play with. I loved getting rewarded for doing something as simple as going to the bathroom. It made me feel good and motivated me to want to keep on doing it. I haven’t had to wear a diaper since first grade, much like many of you I assume.
As a teacher I see the power in this motivational strategy. Celebrating big victories and little ones are crucial in helping students learn how to be great and effective students, thinkers, problem solvers, writers, and readers. Using rewards to celebrate the accomplishments of students helps to foster a sense of community and compassion within the classroom. I utilize a Marble Jar as a class-wide positive motivation technique. Each time the students, as a class, amaze me with something like completing a task incredibly well, being extremely kind to each other, or helping others, they earn a handful of marbles. Once the In jar is filled, the class earns a special celebratory party. They love the Marble Jar and work hard to earn marbles. This tool helps me foster a sense of camaraderie and unity amongst the students. It’s quite amazing. I also offer high fives, stickers, tasty treats, and other little rewards for when students successfully complete a task or exceed my expectations. This system of celebration allows me to create a culture of excitement and hard work within the classroom. The students all strive for greatness so that they can earn rewards. While I’ve read a few studies and professional articles on the drawbacks to extrinsic motivation, I’ve had nothing but success with it in my classroom.
I have a student in my class who has struggled to stay focused and engaged all year. He fidgets, distracts his peers, and has great difficulty paying attention. Despite working with him, his family, and his advisor to offer suggestions and strategies on how he can help himself, I have seen little change in his behavior since the start of the year. Until yesterday, that is. Even after reflecting on it, I’m not sure exactly what it was that caused this change in class yesterday, but he was like a different student. He paid attention, sat up straight, asked questions appropriately, was engaged in class, and didn’t fidget with things on his table. What is going on, I thought.
During the break in between our double-block of Humanities class, this student noticed that I had some donuts on my desk. So, he came and asked to have one. He’s blunt like that. My response, “You can try to earn one.” He asked, “How?” “I can’t tell you that,” I responded. Then he started running around the room tucking in chairs, picking things up, and neatening up the room. He asked, “Does that earn a donut?” “No,” I said. He then went about his routine, preparing for class. It was at that moment that I had a thought. If this student continues with the amazing effort that he showed during third period, I will reward him with the donut he wants. I didn’t reveal this information to him as I wanted to see what he was capable of on his own.
This student continued with great effort, focus, and attitude during fourth period. It was amazing. He was totally engaged in class, unlike anything I’ve seen before. He earned a 5, the highest possible grade, for his daily effort. It was awesome. Then I started wondering, “Was this just a fluke? Can he maintain this great effort into tomorrow?”
This morning, prior to the start of first period, I asked this student if he had seen his daily effort grade from yesterday. “Yes,” he said. “You did awesome yesterday. I was so proud of your focus. Amazing. Keep it up. Oh, and see me at Morning Break today so that I can reward you with that donut you earned for yesterday’s great effort.” His face lit up brighter than my sister’s Lite-Brite machine when he realized that he had earned the donut he wanted from yesterday. Despite knowing that he had already earned the donut, he had a great first period in study skills class and continued to kick butt in Humanities class during third period. His effort was amazing, again. When he saw me for the donut during the break, I praised him for yesterday’s great effort and told him to keep it up. And that he did. He finished Humanities with great effort once again, without any donut on the line. He did it because he wanted to, because he felt good about himself. The donut wasn’t simply a reward, it was the pat on the back he needed to stay motivated and work hard in the classroom.
While not every reward and motivational trick will work with every student, trying out ones that might with certain students can make a huge difference. In my experience, extrinsic motivation eventually leads to intrinsic motivation. This student has caught the focus bug and is running with it, hopefully for a while. As teachers, we should celebrate every victory or accomplishment, no matter the size. For this student, his staying engaged in class was a big deal, and so I rewarded him with a little prize. At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters, is if we can show our students that they are cared for and respected. Everything else will fall into place once the students know we care for them. Providing students with positive motivation and rewards is one easy way we can celebrate all the other wonderful things our students do along their journey to adulthood.