My Issue With Rewards

A few years ago, as a new principal, I made a decision to recognize the children for “making a difference” at our school.  The idea was that at our monthly assembly, all staff members would have an opportunity to publicly thank and recognize any student that he/she felt had a made a difference.  Things started out well.  Kids were excited to be recognized.  Students seemed to be doing more around the school and letting us know about it… then after recess one day Ashley (pseudonym) and another student arrived in the office:

Ashley showed up helping another student walk.  The other student was crying and had an obvious scraped, bleeding knee.  Ashley was a primary student who had a number of behaviour concerns and reward/incentive programs were being implemented both at home and at school.  I was so happy that Ashley had decided to use her efforts to help another student…. but then it happened – the ‘Aha’ moment for me.  As soon as she saw me, her attention moved from the injured girl to me, she stopped helping the girl and said to me, “Mr. Wejr, I helped Susan to the office when she was hurt! Can I get one of those “Making A Difference” awards now?” (cue alarms going off in my head).  I stopped right there.  What had I done? Had I just taught this child to help another student not for the reward within the act itself but for the reward of being recognized at an assembly?  My response (not quickly thinking) was, “Yes, you will be recognized but….”  Before I could finish, she was so excited that she skipped off with no concern for what I was saying nor concern for the injured girl.

This recent story illustrates the unintended negative consequences that reward systems can have. I know that majority of teachers and schools make decisions based on what is best for kids and there is no intention of harm but are we, in fact, doing more harm than good by offering incentives for certain behaviours?

We often hear of schools that use merit tickets, gotchas, prizes, etc to encourage students to behave a certain way.  Before I go on further, I need to say that these systems work; they are successful… SHORT TERM.  These systems get students to comply to the rules that we set out but do they actually help to internalize their actions?


We have not used a school-wide reward system for a number of years (other than my error of implementing the “making a difference” idea); the previous principal and a number of staff members were opposed to motivating kids with incentives and “stuff” (by rewards an incentives, I mean tickets, candy, money, prizes, etc).  Instead of rewards, we provide descriptive feedback on how children could improve as well as what they have done well.  We try to praise their efforts rather than the results of their efforts.  We also honour each child for who they are rather than what they do (without awards).

I recently read a blog by a BC administrator, whom I truly respect and admire, called “Beyond Discipline or Beyond Common Sense” but I have concerns and questions on the promotion of the use of merit tickets.  In the story, he discusses how the use of tickets caused the misbehaving boy to change his behaviour and instead focus on getting caught being good.  To grow as an educators, I want people to challenge  my current opinions, so here are my concerns/thoughts/questions with this:

  • Value of tickets – what is the currency? Is picking up garbage worth 1 ticket and if so, then what is the going rate helping a new student make friends or leading a fundraiser for the SPCA – more tickets or the same?
  • Are we standardizing rewards for individualized behaviours? (much like we standardized grades for individualized learning)
  • How old are students when we stop rewarding with tickets?  What happens when the reward is removed?
  • Are the tickets used to remind teachers to praise?  If yes, is there another way that we can help staff to learn to praise and recognize students efforts?
  • Tickets and incentives do not teach and often those students who misbehave are lacking skills.  How were the behaviour skills learned by the students?
  • Was it the use of tickets or the feedback-based conversations with the teacher that resulted in the behaviour change?
  • Is the student proud of his tickets or proud of who he is?
  • If we are trying to “catch kids being good”, many will make sure they are “caught” (Look at me!).  What happens when we are not around? Will the positive behaviours continue?  Do we want to promote a society that behaves well ONLY under surveillance? (cue argument about speeding tickets)
  • What happens to the student who does not need the incentives to do the right thing? Does their motivation change?

Now, I do not intend to make this an intrinsic vs extrinsic, PBIS/non-PBIS (Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support) debate.  Motivation falls on a spectrum and I feel there is value in both (ie. praising effort as extrinsic).   Also, The PBIS system has a number of effective practices; my issue is with the behaviourist view on use of rewards.  I know many who use the rewards system in PBIS cite the research done by Judy Cameron of University of Alberta and I could make this blog even longer and cite the words and/or research written by some educators, economists, and psychologists.  Instead of this, here is a list of people that discuss the problems/concerns of rewards-based programs but I encourage you to research their ideas:

  • Jean Piaget
  • Maria Montessori
  • Nel Noddings
  • Michel Foucault
  • Richard Ryan and Edward Deci – Self Determination Theory
  • Dr. Ross Greene
  • Rick Lavoie
  • Barry Schwartz
  • John Hattie
  • Daniel Pink
  • Carol Dweck
  • Seth Godin
  • Barbara Coloroso

As someone who previously used tickets (Weej Bucks, Bobcat Bucks) as a classroom teacher and also as a principal who has observed the negative impact that a reliance on incentive-based systems can have, I challenge and encourage you to reflect upon the current practices and determine if the rewards like this are actually needed.  What if we just did the following:

  1. Relationships: focus on trusting, caring relationships with kids
  2. Feedback: provide descriptive feedback (positive and negative) to students based on their actions – how did it make them feel? How did it make others feel? Help students to see the reward within the task itself.   Dr. Ross Greene tells us that all kids WANT to do well if they CAN.  Help teach students the skills so they can do well.
  3. Work WITH Students: include student voice in the conversation around behaviour and avoid doing things TO students.
  4. Honour: focus on the strengths, rather than deficits, of the child.  Continue to work with the child on skill development but encourage the use of strengths and passion
  5. Reflect: what is it about the task that is making this difficult?  Include students in this conversation.  Are we playing a role in making it more difficult for the student?

If we did these simple things every day with each student (obviously some would need more support than others), would there be a need for tickets and other prizes?  In my experience, the answer is no.  I have observed classes and schools that have respectful cultures that do not rely on incentives.   Do we have the perfect school in which every one behaves respectfully all the time? No, we have some incidents of disrespect and inappropriate behaviours just like other schools but we approach each incident with a learning/growth mindset and, although it is much more difficult and it takes much longer, we continue to see long-term learning without the need for prizes.

For those who often cite the workforce or the real world to support the argument for  the use of rewards, I will leave you with an example from the “Motivational Guru” Dwight Schrute:

For another video that compares this to the thoughts of Alfie Kohn, please click here.

Thank you to Tom for making me think and reflect on this topic. As this is an often debated issue and this is based on my opinion, I look forward to reading your comments.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Thanks Chris. This is an excellent post and brings to light a number of issues that require great debate at each school (the local context piece is critical in my mind). I would have the same “Aha” moment as you described in your opening story as that would indicate we are seeing the right thing for the wrong reason or getting the right behavior for the wrong reward. From my perspective the most functional places operate on the basis of your latter list. Unfortunately, there are many instances where students come in so negatively impact by previous experiences (not all at school) that gaining a toe hold in their lives to begin with becomes critical to establishing trust. While the economies of scale are different, the same applies to our adult world. Ask any administrator who has gone in to a new situation where the previous regime has ruled with an iron fist and they will tell you that building a relationship began with building trust through positive acknowledgement. As for the Schrute bucks, I love that clip as it exposes the poor fit that can occur if there is no logical outcome/intention. As an aside, you may have seen the comment on my blog that spoke to the child landing in a great place as an adult. That was the end product of moving away from tokens to the more functional pieces you describe. I’m not convinced that it could have happened without some drastic interventions at the outset. Thanks for highlighting the challenges.

    • I want so much to agree with you. I really and truly do. I used a ticket/reward system the last two years, it worked pretty well the first year but last year I started to feel uncomfortable with some aspects of it. I felt the students were getting greedy about the rewards, the students who participated more were lording it over those who didn’t and it stopped motivating my lower students. Plus I was spending way too much money on prizes that ended up getting lost or broken anyway.

      However, this year I swore off incentive/reward systems. I was determined not to use them. The problem being it wasn’t working. I tried for a whole month with nothing but praise, encouragement, modeling respect, getting to know my students as individuals and I was losing my mind with frustration over their lack of respect and motivation. I have great students but the behaviour issues were/are burning me out.

      So I decided on a modified reward system. Nothing tangible and nothing individual. They can work as a group, small or large – to get group rewards like gym time or extra art or baking – things like that. And as much as I want, sincerely, for them to have an internal voice telling them to do what they are supposed to be doing because it’s the right thing to do, they struggle so much with this concept – largely because it’s not what they’re shown anywhere other than school.

      On praise and encouragement and positiveness and modelling alone I had maybe 4 students participate on a regular basis. Since I introduced my system almost all of them are participating. Am I bribing them? Yes. Do I like that? No. I hope to scale back this system as they build some positive habits. Am I deluding myself that they will be able to build these habits? We’ll see. But for now, in the short term, I feel like I can teach without spontaneously combusting with stress.

  2. I ride transit to and from work and everyday I see people doing stuff – smacking seated passengers with backpacks, taking up 3 seats when others are standing – that makes me want to give them a swift kick in the ass.

    But occasionally, I’ll see something good – a guy giving up his seat for a girl, kids popping up out of the front seats when an elderly passenger gets on. And I think, wouldn’t it be great if Translink had undercover agents who rode the buses handing out swag – Canucks tix, coffee cards, Canadians hats – to riders who show some courtesy.

    Sure, that courtesy is supposed to happen anyway, but it doesn’t. So prizes would reward the courteous rider and demonstrate to others on the bus that it pays to care about others.

    Why wouldn’t that change people’s bus-riding behaviour? The recipients would continue to be courteous. The witnesses might follow their lead.

    What’s the difference between that at a kid getting a reward at school?


    • Thanks for adding to the discussion, Peter. You are right – this would work – but in the short term. What happens when the prizes stop? Will people continue to act positively? We can pay people for being nice but is this the route we really want to go?

      I think many of us give up our seat not for the prize but for the feeling it gives us for doing the right thing. I am concerned that the intrinsic motivation might be affected (like Deci and Ryan point out) by offering prizes… just like at school.

      This is a topic of good debate so thank you for adding this perspective.

  3. I think the idea of “tickets” etc. is more about the people who are giving them out rather than for the students. It is a way to focus on our own behaviour, a way to remind us to comment on, look at student behaviour. We notice if we don’t hand any out, if one person is receiving them all etc. What is needed is a way to focus our attention on our own behaviour without negatively impacting our students.

    • That is what I have heard about PBIS – the tickets are more about it being a reminder for commenting on student behaviour. I think the key is to model respectful, caring behaviour and provide meaningful feedback that helps students to reflect upon their actions. I am not sure of something tangible that can be used for this. I like the term that Maxine Greene uses – “wide-awake”. Being wide awake to our actions will help ensure that we are not focusing on only the students who behave well or the students who are misbehaving according to our expectations.

      Thanks for adding to the dialogue!

    • Thanks Noreene. I generally hesitate using “programs” but from a quick glance it seems that I agree with the philosophies presented by the company. Will have to look into this program a bit more. Thanks again!

  4. I am not sure exactly when and where and how I first began to learn about motivational theories, but I am thankful that I did come to understand more and that I had time to consider such before I taught and before I became a parent.

    My approaches with children may simply have a lot to do with my own upbringing. My parents did not use external rewards in any big way to encourage my behaviour at home or beyond. I was their 4th child, but it seemed we were all just expected to be responsible, do our share and conduct ourselves as members of a family and as members of a community. Modelling, of course, was so important.

    I am also glad I studied psychology before education. It gave me further insight into human behaviour and motivation. But then probably a lot of my perspective just has to do with me being me – observing, thinking, and aiming to understand why we do what we do. I am often saddened by how entrenched “reward systems” have become in our schools and society. How can we count on future generations to just do good for themselves, others and our world, if we encourage them so much to look for “What else is in it for me right now (or at the end of the month)?”. But I recognize how hard it can be to establish different strategies and expectations in a class or school if they are different or inconsistent from what a student has become accustomed to elsewhere. I think that is often the biggest challenge to face. So great to read about others committed to staying the course though!

    I think we often resort to reward systems and strategies in teaching and parenting not realizing we are doing so for short-term benefits. Having been a supply teacher in the younger grades I can understand how easy it is to use rewards, tickets, etc., to get through a short-term teaching assignment, especially with students you may not have developed relationships with yet. I still had difficulty with resorting to those kinds of methods though, so instead I focused on making activities meaningful and engaging and I encouraged cooperation from the students as the experts of their learning and as “owners” of their classroom environment.

    I really hope we can focus mostly on helping kids recognize and experience the “reward” that comes with engaging in their own learning, and also with living harmoniously with others in our schools and communities. I think that is the respectful approach and an important goal.

    • Wow… what a comment. I think I will use this a “guest post”. 😉

      Thanks again Sheila!

      • Ha..Realized how long that “comment” was was once I pressed submit 🙂

  5. Chris,

    As an administrator, I agree that there is no incentive system that works on “instant rewards” which won’t eventually become unmanageable. I’m reminded of the podcast from Freakonomics where they discuss how one of the hosts daughters was able to control her bladder as soon as she started receiving candy for going to the bathroom. As a parent of 8 children from ages 2 to 19, I’ve spent a number of years working through different “systems” with my own children, realizing early on that any “incentive system” would ultimately break me. As a principal in both large and small schools in urban and rural settings, I’ve seen all sorts of “incentive systems” in classrooms and school-wide and none have been sustainable. I like your list of people who have something to say about the subject of incentives but I’d add Stephen M.R. Covey – The Speed of Trust as a book all educators, but especially administrators, need to read. Children quickly figure out the “incentive of the day”. As school communities, we need to build relationships which are based on trust. From there, anything is possible. polarisdotca, when you see something good, tell them that they did good. They don’t need a reward or hat, they need confirmation from adutls that what they are doing is the right thing.

    • Thanks Kelly! Your personal experience adds to this important conversation. I cross-posted this blog at Connected Principals and added Covey to the list (and thanked you!). I have also added that book to my wish list. Thanks again!

  6. Glad you mentioned that book, Kelly. My husband had to read it for some leadership training at his workplace and I ended up reading a fair bit of it too. I especially liked the section on integrity. Agree, a great read and relates to this topic here.

  7. Chris, I really need to thank you and many others for helping me see rewards in a different way. Until last year, I used all of these reward systems and more. I read the research, and I knew the other side of things, but I also argued that I teac young students and it’s unrealistic to think that they can be intrinsically motivated to do the right thing. I was wrong! I didn’t believe in my students enough, and I didn’t believe in me enough to know that I didn’t need external rewards to make my classroom work. Last year, I did not hand out one sticker, one checkmark, or one certificate for behaviour, and it was, without a doubt, the best year yet. Students worked hard because they wanted to work hard. They learned because they enjoyed the feeling they got from learning. They behaved because we all worked together at creating a classroom climate where students realized the value in behaving. They wanted to do their best! Thank you, and thanks to my amazing Twitter PLN, for helping me see awards in a different way and becoming a better teacher as a result!


    • Aviva – thank you for modeling what we you are learning! I am always so inspired by what you do in your classroom. You are a true learning leader. Congrats!

    • This is such an important comment. Observing teachers using practices like you have described is something we need to share. If you ever want to describe your year as a guest post on my blog, please let me know!!!
      Also, I have heard of Marshall but never read the book. Have added it to my wish list. Thanks so much for commenting and let me know if you are interested in doing a guest post.
      PS – I have Last Child in the Woods sitting on my desk… thanks for the encouragement to read it!

  8. Love what you are doing for students. I am attempting to use Alfie Kohn’s approach in my own classroom. Last year was the first year I used it and I saw some amazing things from my students. I also had a lot of positive feedback from my students’ parents and my administration. This coming school year will be the true test though to see if last year was just a fluke or not, but I am pretty positive that it will be successful. I am using a mixture of Alfie’s philosophies with Dr. Marvin Marshall’s ideas from his book, Discipline without Stress, Punishments, or Rewards. Another great read is Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv.

  9. Your list of five things (relationships, feedback, working WIH students, honour, and reflection) is right on target! I’ve tried various reward and incentive systems over the years and found them all to be lacking, for a number of reasons. When it comes right down to it, kids don’t care all that much about tickets and dollar store prizes – but they want to feel that they belong, they want to feel like they matter, and they want to find joy in what they do. For anyone who is interested in this approach, I’d highly recommend checking out Responsive Classroom. I’d also recommend reading ChoiceWords: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter Johnston. It’s a slim tome, but very powerful stuff.

  10. I used a lot of rewards last year as a first time teacher. I saw it used continously with my teachers and my host teacher for student teaching. I was positive this was the way to go, rewards. I gave candy, print outs, and no praise. I reflected over the summer. I knew I wanted to make my classroom a better classroom/environment for my students. I took a week long course in Kagan. What a reality check for me! I realize the rewards should be praise. Praise is what the students would respond to or that was my hope. So I started out the year with praising and teaching my own students how to praise. In Kagan we created a great praise word SPAMTASTIC. I love using this word and the kids do too. I can see their self esteem rising. Compared to last yr our entire class has confidence including myself.

    • I, too, used to rely on rewards, Victoria, and until I started to move away from, I did not think it was possible to motivate kids without them. I encourage you to read Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” as her research on praise has also changed the manner in which I use praise as it is more descriptive and focused on effort. I look forward to hearing more about your movement away from rewards.

  11. Excellent Post Chris and I truly love the discussion taking place in the replies. I have also seen the positive and negative sides of rewards programs. I also like that you reference Carol Dweck above. My staff and I did a book read on Mindset (by Dweck) and it helped us focus in on the importance of recognition and feedback to students and how we provide that feedback to so as to develop a growth mindset. This is why we have chosen to implement a PBIS plan that is recognition focused and not reward focused. The staff has had extensive discussions on how do we “celebrate” the positive acts kids display everyday in a way that does not create a fixed mindset for the student or create a extrinsic sense of opportunity instead of an intrinsic sense of accomplishment and growth. It’s a fine line to walk, but our belief was that this feedback is more important than the lack of feedback that positive acts have tended to receive as compared to the abundance of feedback negative acts had received in the past. Now we have gotten to the point where avoid abundant feedback for negative actions and simply note the corresponding consequence for those choices and then quickly move on. I suppose it all is a matter of perspective, and it is often difficult to determine how each individual will respond, but we have found it to be mostly effective and with few (if any yet) negative side effects.

    • Thanks for adding Tom. I think it is great that you are putting in a lot of thought into the feedback portion of PBIS as that is the key. I am not a bug fan of “programs” but there are some key philosophies that are embedded that need to be the focus when using PBIS. Behaviour requires coaching and using the growth mindset is a fantastic place to start… in my opinion. 🙂

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