GuidesWebinarsCase studiesWhite PapersBlogOther ResourcesFrançais

Why is it important to have a classroom reward system?

Mary DeanJuly 30, 2019

Many new teachers wonder if they need to have a classroom reward system. The short answer is yes, to an extent. Using rewards as a part of classroom management isn’t mandatory, but there are reasons to consider doing so.

For one, motivating young students to participate in their own learning can be difficult. Having them practice good behavior on a daily basis can be even harder.

We’ll start by looking at some advantages of having a classroom reward system. Then, we’ll see how you can design your own system and mention some pitfalls that you’ll want to avoid along the way. Let’s get to it!

Advantages of having a classroom reward system

throwing game with points
Photo credit: Sean Thomas

Why is it important to have a class point system?

Whether we like it or not, humans need motivation. As we mature, most of us become intrinsically motivated. This means that we can motivate ourselves from within based on internal desires to do something — such as reading because you genuinely enjoy it and not just because you’re told to, or because you want to appear smart to your peers.

This is a tough concept for little kids and even some adults. After all, many people would not work if it weren’t for what they receive at the end of the week: a paycheck.

Although it’s good to encourage students to become intrinsically motivated, it’s also worth noting that extrinsic motivators are important, too. It will save your sanity to accept that external rewards such as money, grades, prizes, and praise will drive most of their behavior.

big prizes booth with fireworks
Photo credit: Nhia Moua

When should you consider implementing a classroom reward system?

If you’re struggling with any of the following classroom issues, consider implementing a reward system:

  • Failing grades
  • Incomplete assignments or homework
  • Low student motivation and interest
  • Chronic behavior problems
  • Refusal to do work
  • Poor attention and focus
  • Students not getting along with one another

If you are a first-year teacher, implementing a reward system ahead of time can help you avoid the problems listed above.

The pay-off

Although it’s not a magic potion, a classroom reward system can flip-flop some of the negative elements listed above. Some advantages of a whole-class reward system include:

growing graph on a computer
Photo credit: Serpstat

Academic improvement

There is a link between external rewards and better grades.

As a teacher and mother of four, including a teenage son, I learned this at home before I ever noticed in the classroom.

When my son started high school, he was a decent student, making As and Bs and the occasional C. I knew that he could do better, but none of my “fussing” or punishments made a difference.

A friend suggested that I pay him for earning As. I really disagreed with this idea. After all, earning good grades is something he should strive for even if there’s no payment for it, right? Frustrated, I decided to give it a try, pledging to give him $10 an A, no money for Bs, and a $10 loss for every C.

The results? He is a high school senior who hasn’t made less than an A since. I eventually stopped the payments, but by that point, making As was a habit.

Many of our students are the same. If they know that they will receive rewards (e.g., free computer time or classroom bucks) for putting in extra effort, they will.

two smiling plushies sitting on a bench
Photo credit: Pixabay

Better behavior

Up there in importance with grades, better behavior is one of the results that most teachers desire from a reward system. PBIS and other reward-based motivational systems prove that unwanted behavior can be curbed by putting such a method in place. Study after study has shown that punishment does not effectively curb undesirable behaviors. This makes it especially important for teachers to find alternatives for encouraging positive behavior.

accessible to wheelchair sign
Photo credit: marianne bos 

Helps students with special needs

Another great thing about a classroom reward system is that it can benefit students with special needs. For example, students with autism often benefit from set guidelines that let them know exactly what to expect in the classroom. Children with ADHD who have trouble staying in their seats or completing assignments benefit from being rewarded for things that they do well.

Group of people jumping on a beach
Photo credit: Belle Co

Happier students (and parents)

Kids who are constantly nagged, fussed at, and punished do not enjoy coming to school. Their parents will also begin to dread sending them, as they’ll receive more negative phone calls and notes about bad grades and behavior. Of course, a reward system won’t get rid of all classroom problems, but it can reduce the number of referrals, conferences, and phone calls significantly.

Happier students = happier parents = happier teacher = happier school

It’s a win-win for everyone.

Setting up a classroom reward system

There are many reward systems and strategies. In this article, we’ll cover the best of the best along with some tips and suggestions. But, as with all teaching, trial and error is the best tool.

paint and counter stones samples
Photo credit: Pixabay

Choose your system

You’ll want to start by choosing a reward system foundation that you can personalize for your own classroom later on.

Here are some basic options:

  • Token based-systems: Individual goals are set ahead of time and students earn tangible rewards like stickers, points, or classroom dollars for meeting these goals.
  • Table points: Each table or group earns points collectively while competing against other groups.
  • Class points: The whole class earns points together.

Many teachers use a mixture of the three, offering individual, group, and whole-class rewards so that all students can be successful.

weekly goal review template
Photo credit: Isaac Smith

Set goals

What do you want your students to achieve? What behaviors do you want them to repeat? Make a chart and display it for students. You’ll want to be clear and positive.

For example, instead of saying “No talking in class,” write, “Quiet and focused during lesson time.” Remember that too many rules can confuse and overwhelm students. Stick to the important behaviors and attitudes that you want to reinforce.

teddybear holding gifts
Photo credit: Pixabay

Decide on rewards

This is the part that many teachers overdo. If rewarding students becomes too tiresome or a chore, you’ll be tempted to abandon ship, and that’ll make things even worse. So, keep it simple. Some free (or cheap)  rewards you can use include:

  • A trip to the treasure box (e.g., pencils, stickers, candy, tattoos, or other small prizes).
  • Reward cards (e.g., free computer time, no shoes in class, swap seats with a friend).
  • Class ‘bucks’ that can be saved to buy a prize from a classroom store.

The second option, using reward cards, is my favorite because they’re free. And, as a mom and teacher, I rarely have extra money to restock a classroom store. You can buy premade reward card templates online, but I made my own several years ago using Microsoft Word.

Some of my students’ favorite passes over the years include:

  • No homework
  • 15 minutes of computer time
  • Bring a snack to class
  • No shoe pass (wear socks or slippers)
  • Each lunch with the teacher
  • Help teach the class
  • Show and tell (bring a toy to class)
  • Swap seats with a friend (they can sit at any desk they choose)
  • Take home a class game
  • Sit at the teacher’s desk

Let’s go over an example. Many teachers use a three-part system like the one below: 

Individual, group, and whole class

Like all teachers, I want my students to be successful. By rewarding individuals, small groups, and the whole in similar but different ways, I ensure that everyone wins. Classcraft is a great way to encourage positive behavior and discourage actions that you’d rather not ‘see’ at an individual level.

For example, if you see a child doing something positive (like paying attention, following the rules, etc.), you can award them an experience point using the Classcraft app. Because the system tracks these points and they never go away, students can build their own characters and ‘level up.’ 

The same goes for unwanted behavior. Negative behaviors tracked in Classcraft are connected to health points that act as ‘energy levels’ do in many video games. So, if a student was being rude to a classmate, you could discourage this behavior by taking away some of their HP.

However, because HP can be healed, students are not punished indefinitely like they are in traditional green, yellow, and red card systems. Moreover, when everyone is on task, you can reward on a larger scale.

Rewards and consequences

Wondering about consequences? Losing HP comes with a price. The exact consequence is totally personalized since you can choose what you think will work best for your students.

So are the rewards! For example, you might decide to give reward cards out to any student who has a full HP bar at the end of the week.

If the whole class has a full HP bar for the week, they might receive 15 minutes of free time that Friday afternoon.

I also track groups. In my classroom, the group with the highest average gets to lead the recess and lunch line, but you could use any reward you think would work.

two antelopes fighting
Photo credit: jean wimmerlin

A note on negative behavior

Some teachers might be hesitant to use Classcraft as part of a classroom reward system. This is mainly because it keeps up with negative behavior as well as positive. But I believe it is important to document what needs to be worked on as well as what is working well.

I track negative behavior because I like to have a paper trail for parent conferences. So, when mom wants to know why Johnny does not have an A, I can show that he only turned in his homework ten times using Classcraft’s tracking system.

If a child has received 15 marks for being off task during class, that is something that may need to be discussed. One benefit to this over traditional “move your card to red” systems is that the negative behavior is tracked privately. That way, no students are embarrassed or demeaned in the process.

Final thoughts to consider 

Be clear with students. They need to know exactly how the system works for it to be effective.

Give the rewards liberally. Especially in the beginning, you’ll want to give out lots of rewards at random when you catch their ‘good behavior.’

Give feedback with rewards. I know it’s time consuming, but taking a minute to talk with each student about what they did well and what they can improve on is part of what makes a classroom reward system work well.

Ask for their opinions. What rewards do they like? Which ones do they find pointless? Keep your system fresh by incorporating their ideas.

Reduce gradually. You can raise the percentage needed over time or make earning rewards more difficult if you are wanting to ‘wean’ students off the rewards. Just make sure you communicate these changes.

What works for one teacher may be a total flop for another. The key to any great classroom reward system is that you make it your own. Try things, find what works for you, and share with others. Your students will thank you for it.

Photo credit: Element5 Digital/