Classroom Management

Why Kids Need More Than Reward Systems (Ep. 159)

Reward systems can work for some instances of classroom management. But more often than not, there is a better way. On today’s episode, Tim talks to Rachel Albert about how they can move beyond reward systems to more effective strategies for managing their classrooms. Listen as they discuss the benefits of intrinsic motivation, options beyond simple reward systems, and why you should strive for a welcoming community in your classroom.  Full episode transcript below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I want to talk today about classroom management, about building an environment where kids can be independent because I think it’s important for our teachers to provide an environment for kids where expectations and procedures are incredibly clear. And there are a lot of different ways to do that and a lot of different ways to not do that as well. And so, we’ll talk about some of those things and I think the way we want to steer this conversation is, you know, how we can get past reward systems. And we’ll dive into that a little bit later, but just as kind of a jumping off point, you know, I want to talk about Michael Linsin.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Michael Linsin, he’s somebody that you need to know. He’s presented at a couple different Art Ed Now conferences, but he’s just a guru when it comes to classroom management, especially when it comes to specials teachers. And I know people hate the word specials, but you can just … going to have to get past it for right now.

Now, I was reading some of Michael’s stuff just a week or so ago and it was all about how reward systems are a waste of time basically. And I mean, he’s not that dramatic about his phrasing, but you know, that’s the takeaway from what he’s trying to say. And so, I started to think about reward systems, why they don’t work for me, and you know, why I try to do other things. And here’s what it comes down to for me, if I can just put it into a couple sentences. I think that if you do this, then you get this. Those types of reward systems can improve behavior in the short-term. Individual kids, classrooms as a whole. It can help. But, if you want real lasting behavior improvement, your focus instead needs to be on creating a classroom that nurtures intrinsic motivation.

And that’s what I’m going to talk about with my guest today, Rachel Albert. Rachel was on the podcast back in January and she’s here today to talk more, this time about classroom management, reward systems, and everything else that goes along with it. So, let me welcome her on now.

Back on the show is Rachel Albert. Rachel, thanks for joining me. How are you today?

Rachel: I’m doing really well, thank you. And you?

Tim: I am doing very well. I’m really excited to talk to you again. Feel like we had a great conversation last time you were on, so-

Rachel: We did.

Tim: I’m glad we can chat some more. And today, we’re going to talk all about reward systems and I guess I want to start with this because I talked about it a little bit in the intro. We both love Michael Linsin, his classroom management strategies, everything that kind of goes along with that. And like I said, I talked a little bit about him in the intro, but for you, what have you read of his that has been an influence on you and what you do in your classroom?

Rachel: Oh, I really, really do love Michael Linsin so much. I kind of want to be his best friend, spend more time with him to keep picking his brain, but his book Dream Class was what changed my professional practice the most and I pretty sure that I originally heard about it for the first time from an AOEU article many years ago. So as usual, I have you guys to thank, but I would really encourage every teacher to read it, not just art teachers. Although the one that I’m talking about is specific to specialty teachers, but it truly applies to all age groups, plus it’s a really easy read. It’s very practical. There’s not a lot of jargon. It’s just straight forward strategies A, B, and C. Here’s how you do it.

But, I also subscribed to his weekly newsletter and I love getting those emails pop into my inbox and sometimes they come at the most apropos relatable time for me when I need it the most. And the most recent one I actually received before recording this podcast episode happened to be the one about making warnings most effective and I won’t give too much away because it really is worth the read, but he basically talks about how a warning isn’t actually a consequence. It’s a courtesy. It’s something the students should value and appreciate because it’s giving them a chance to turn things around before a real consequence comes along. You know? Similar to how a cop is going to pull us over once in a while, give us a warning before giving us the ticket and it’s appreciative and we then change our behavior. And warnings are a part of my classroom management system, which we will get to later.

Tim: Yeah. Oh good, you’re doing my segues for me. That’s perfect. You know, I do. I want to talk about classroom management systems. It’s something that I’m excited about. Well I don’t know. That’s really nerdy, isn’t it? To get excited about classroom management.

Rachel: I mean whatever floats your boat, Tim.

Tim: Yeah. But, no I think you and I are on the same page with a lot of these things. So, let’s talk about that. Reward systems I guess, why do you dislike rewards so much when it comes to classroom management?

Rachel: Yeah. I would say even dislike is a kind word for how I feel about reward systems. I mean, we could go on and on and on for several podcasts about what I hate about them, but let’s first stipulate something specific is that I’m talking about whole class behavior reward systems or even group behavior reward systems. And there are inevitably going to be scenarios where a reward system can work for an individual student. And sometimes a reward system could even be necessary, like perhaps for a student with some sort of exceptionalities or where the teacher has to instill some values that perhaps they’re not being taught at home.

And I’m not saying that rewards don’t work, so everybody put down your striking poster. I think they do work. I just don’t think that they’re the most conducive way to manage behavior in a classroom, especially in a middle school classroom. Now, I also don’t think they’re the best way to manage behavior in an elementary classroom. However, I could see some different reasons why you could sort of justify maybe doing it once in a while, but I still strongly believe that it’s not the best way to manage your classroom.

So again, there are so many reasons why I dislike them, but I’m going to give you my top two reasons. So my first biggest concern is that students should not be rewarded for behaving the way that is expected of them and if you’ve read Michael Linsin, you’ll see that that’s really one of his strongest points. Rewarding them trains them to expect a prize for doing just what is expected. And rewards are sending the message that expected behavior, you know, the behavior that is minimally required for success in school or pretty much in life, is worthy of that special recognition. Which turns what should inherently be rewarding into work that students then deserve to be paid for. And that’s not the way that life works outside of school.

I mean, yes, as adults in professions, we do get paid for our jobs and I’m sure for many people, that reward being a salary is enough motivation to do the job, although with a teacher salary, I’m not sure how it could ever be enough motivation, but-

Tim: Right. Right.

Rachel: But for most people, especially if you’re in a job where creativity is involved, meaning you’re not just working on an assembly line where the routine is very prescribed, for most people who work in jobs where there’s some element of cognitive task required, I think most of us approach the task for the sheer pleasure and satisfaction of that task itself rather than for some sort of reward. And that’s, of course, not for all tasks. I mean nobody likes scooping their dog’s poop, but it’s something that has to be done.

But I know that as an art teacher, I mean I’m listening to AOEU podcasts, I’m reading articles in school arts magazines, I’m following hundreds of teacher on Instagram, I’m participating in Art Ed Now conferences, and I’m doing all this professional development outside of my teaching and I don’t do it for the paycheck. I do it because of that sheer pleasure and enjoyment and satisfaction and the challenge of the task itself. And of course, also because I know that it will eventually hopefully enrich the lives of my students.

Tim: Yeah. Well and also it’s going to enrich your own life as well. I mean you talk about it’s enjoyable to do all of those really cool profession development things, but it also makes you better on a day to day basis. Right? And so, there may or may not be a specific reward in there per se, but in the long run, you see the benefits and you see the payoff of that.

Rachel: Yes. And then those things eventually help my students, which then in turn, helps me because if they’re engaged, then I’m not having to deal with them stabbing each other with scissors or whatever it is that they choose to do on the very day. But even if we take to a smaller example. Police officers are not stopping cars who are driving at the speed limit and saying, “Good job, sir. Here’s a treat.” No. And my principal is not rewarding me for attending a staff meeting. It’s in my contract. I must attend them, so why should I be rewarded? It’s an expectation and I think that we really have to be super careful that we’re not training kids to think that they’re going to receive a reward for anything that is just expected of them.

It becomes like a drug and you need more every time to feel that fix and that same satisfaction that you felt that first time you got a reward. So that’s the biggest reason. And then the secondary reason why I dislike reward systems, and we talked about this in my last podcast episode, where I’m passionate about things that make my life easier and I believe that these make your life, as a teacher, harder. They end up being more work for the teacher. They’re long-term pain for short-term gain, which is the opposite of what we want.

And I know that there’s probably a lot of teachers listening right now shaking their heads and you know, shaking their finger at me and you know, “It works for me.” And that’s okay. I know a lot of teachers out there use reward systems and you can hate me for saying this. To each their own, but in my opinion, I don’t believe that it’s valuable to be spending precious teaching or prep time counting how many stars or points we gave to a particular class or a particular table group when we could be using that time to experiment or teach or talk to our students. It takes times to keep track with these systems.

And even more importantly, and this is something that Michael Linsin talks about a lot, is any classroom management plan requires consistency. And as teachers with a bazillion things thrown at us on a minute by minute basis, sometimes it’s difficult to be consistent. And so, if you’re not going to be consistent with tracking and honoring the rewards, then the results then become inconsistent. So you put in all this work for nothing and I don’t like putting in effort for nothing.  That’s not fun.

Tim: So, let me ask you about this because as you were talking, and I was just thinking about reward systems and I feel like there’s a divide between secondary and elementary. You know, you and I teach secondary and it’s very much about building relationships and motivating kids, but we have the benefit of seeing them way more often than elementary teachers do. If they’re on a seven or an eight day schedule and just see the kids once a week or once every other week, it makes it really difficult to build those relationships. And for them, those are probably the teachers that are yelling at you right now. Like, “This is what works for me.”

But for us that teach secondary, it is about, like you said, wanting kids to work for it being their own reward. So, can you talk I guess a little bit about the idea of intrinsic motivation? If you’re were getting away from these reward system and kids are finding their own motivation, why can that be effective? And why do you think that’s something that we should strive for?

Rachel: Yeah. Absolutely. So, intrinsic motivation basically, as I mentioned earlier, it’s completing a task or behaving in a particular way, simply for the satisfaction of doing so. I mean, can you imagine if all of our students were intrinsically motivated where you’re like, “Okay guys, it’s time to tidy up.” And they all say, “Okay, yay. I’m going to feel really good about having helped with the clean up. Let me do extra.”

Tim: Yes.

Rachel: It would be a dream.

Tim: I was going to say, that would be Michael Linsin’s dream class.  That’s what it would be.

Rachel: And I’m still working towards that. There are, of course, students in my class who would say, “Okay, yay. Let me help with extra clean up and can I stay at lunch to do even more?” But most of them would groan and drag their feet, “I don’t want to do it.” And you know, I really … I’ve done a lot of research to prepare for this podcast simply because I kept asking myself, “Why are some of my students intrinsically motivated and what is it that allows them to be so? And how do we cultivate intrinsic motivation in the kids who just don’t seem to have it?”

And I wish that through my research I came up with a straight and simple answer for this question, but I tried. And there are a bunch of TED Talks on the issue that are basically screaming about the fact that intrinsic, sorry, extrinsic motivators like rewards, they actually inhibit success and specifically in the workplace. I mean, they crush your ability to be motivated intrinsically. But none of them actually answered the question of how do we help a student become intrinsically motivated if they just aren’t? And if I’m honest, I do have students who just don’t give a rat’s you know what about behaving or being successful in my class.

And let’s also keep in mind that my class is not an elective. All the students are required to take my class, no matter what their interest is. There are no other options for them. So perhaps if it’s a course where it is an elective, then maybe they have more of a drive to be here, but I do have a few students that, despite my greatest efforts of making the course accessible to them, that I’ll have a couple that just don’t buy in. And they are my biggest struggle in teaching. And as much as I would like to, I can’t transplant intrinsic motivation into the kids who don’t have it, but I do think that we can continue working on it.

And my goal lately is to say, “Can I get 1% better at it?” And that seems to be a goal that I can manage each day. I mean I’m never going to get it perfect, but if I can apply myself to making it 1% better than it was the day before, I mean that’s a great thing. And one of the articles that I read while preparing for this podcast, it talked about the marshmallow experiment from 1970 at Stanford University.

Tim: Yes. I love the marshmallow experiment, yes.

Rachel: I mean I love marshmallows, so anything with marshmallows sounds good to me. But around in 1970, this guy Walter Mischel. For those of you listening who haven’t heard about this, he launched an experiment. He left a bunch four year olds in a room with one marshmallow each. And he told them that he would be leaving the room for 15 minutes and if they didn’t eat the marshmallow while he was gone, then they would get two marshmallows when he came back. And that is a lot of self-control required for a four year old faced with the marshmallows.

I mean that’s a lot of self-control required for me faced with a marshmallow.

Tim: I was going to say, 30 years later or 35 years later, still have trouble with that.

Rachel: Still a struggle. And the results were they found that two out of the three kids ate the marshmallow. And then they followed up on the study years later when these kids were now adults and they found that 100% of the children who didn’t eat the marshmallow, so the one out of three kids, they were more successful in their adult lives. They had higher SAT scores, they got into better colleges, and they had, on average, better adult outcomes.

Rachel: But what they demonstrated, even as little four year olds, was that they had self-discipline or self-control. And they even retested this experiment in other countries with varying socioeconomic backgrounds and found the same results.

So the bottom line here is that one out of three kids can exercise self-discipline and can use intrinsic motivation to be successful. One out of three, but there are two out of three kids that may not have the ability to do that off the bat. So how do we teach it? So the most basic way that I can think of is really to work on developing relationships with the kid. And as you mentioned, that is difficult when you’re only seeing the kids once a week for six weeks at a time or something like that. But once we know about them, what they like, who they spend time with, how they spend their free time, what they like to eat, we can not only develop lessons that allow the students to complete work that is relevant to them and their interests, but we can help them make connections between what we’re doing in the classroom and the activities and the people in their lives that bring them joy.

And this is not a magical snap your fingers approach and it may not even always work, but it’s definitely a start. I’m not an expert on the issue by any means, but I’m really hoping to hear what other listeners have to say about how they think intrinsic motivation can be developed or even if it can be. So I hope people will open up a discussion with us on Facebook or on the website as well so that we can continue the discussion because there isn’t an easy answer, but I think the other piece of it is really just to make sure that your class is as enjoyable as possible.

I mean, I’m constantly smiling to the point where sometimes my students ask me, “Why do you smile so much?” And I’m silly with them and I try to be funny and say ridiculous things and sometimes that motivation of … or that relationship that I’m able to build with them just by sort of being myself and trying to be extra fun helps them be motivated to actually do well and they want to enjoy the class, so they want to be successful.

Tim: Yeah. And I think you’re very correct in saying that there isn’t a silver bullet. There isn’t one thing that’s going to develop it, but there are little steps that we can take and those are the things that we should talk about, those are the things we should discuss about you know, “This works for me. It may work for you, too.” And just sharing those ideas can go a long ways toward kind of, I don’t want to say solving the problem, but making it better in your classroom.

Rachel: Yeah. Making headway, yeah. We got to start somewhere.

Tim: Exactly. So, if I can circle back around to reward systems, one of my biggest issues with them is that your good kids, the kids who want to be there, the ones who are intrinsically motivated, they can kind of suffer because of others’ misbehavior and there really isn’t a lot that they can do about it. So, are you on that same page? Do you see that as a problem too and do you have a solution, a way to make things more individualized?

Rachel: Totally. So that would be the third reason why I dislike class reward systems. There is absolutely no reason why one table shouldn’t get their daily sticker or whatever it is because of one or two kids or even worse, an entire class doesn’t get their pizza party or something because a few kids didn’t follow the rules. So I totally agree with you on that and it’s also why I don’t do whole class or whole group consequences. I mean, you can’t keep an entire group of students in at recess or something because of the misbehavior of a few kids. That’s just not fair.

So yes, it’s definitely a problem. And like I said earlier, yes rewards can be individualized for a particular student who might need it, but there’s a very fine line I think that needs to be sort of danced over or tiptoed around because once the behavior is mastered using a reward system, the rewards eventually have to stop, but the behavior is supposed to continue. So, you know, think about when you’re potty training a child. A parent might choose to give a candy for a successful bathroom event, but eventually the parent has to stop giving the candy. It’s not like, as a grownup, I go to the bathroom and then call my dad and say, “Make sure that you have a candy ready for me because I went to the bathroom.”

I mean, it would be fantastic, but it would not be effective. So, I think even with individual kids, with those individualized plans, we do have to really be careful with what we’re training them to expect from the future.

Tim: Yeah. Absolutely. And also, just on a side note, can I say I appreciate how tactful you are with, I think it was rat’s behind earlier and now bathroom event. You’re very good at this, so-

Rachel: You know, I never know if you’re going to be bleeping things later and I just, you know, want to sound appropriate.

Tim: Okay. That’s fair. It’s going very well. Okay, so we’ve been talking for a while here. So I want to make this kind of our last question here. But, we’ve talked about how reward system aren’t working. The kind of issues with those. So, I guess the question to kind of tie that together is, what should we do instead? We’ve talked a little bit about relationships, engagement, but for you, what are the basics for classroom management if or when you’re moving away from reward systems?

Rachel: Right. So that’s the million dollar question and again, Michael Linsin, his books, his website, because that’s where I’ve always gone to for help and I still need help with my classroom management. It is certainly not perfect. And despite all of my efforts, as I mentioned, I still have two or three kids, let’s say out of 250-ish, that I just can’t figure out how to reach, but I think that simplest answer is clear expectations. So, ensuring that the students know what is expected of them in your class from the very first week of school. And that’s going to take time away from the learning and that sucks, but it has to be done because it gives back time later in the year when you’re yelling at them or doing whatever it is that you have to do to get them under control.

Tim: Well and that’s something I’ve talked about a ton, too, where it’s a pain in the butt to teach and reteach and continue to reteach until kids get it right, but as annoying as that is for two weeks or three weeks, then you’re on track for the rest of the semester.

Rachel: Absolutely.

Tim: And so it really does pay off and so, anyway, I just wanted to throw that in there.

Rachel: Yeah and imagine, I teach four of every grade six class, so I’m not just doing that at the beginning of the year with one class. I’m doing that with all of my classes. It’s beyond boring. I can’t stand it, but I just try and stick with it because I know that in the long run, like you said, it’s really going to pay off. And then, so I do, if needed, I’ll take some time out of a period later on in the year to remind them of what the expectations are if they are sort of looking like they’re in need of a little reminder. And then when expectations are not being met, there has to be a clear procedure that is in place that is followed for consequences.

Like I said, you have to be consistent. And the students need to know that these consequences aren’t because they’re in trouble or they let you down. They simply didn’t abide by the classroom expectations and they need to be reminded and corrected. It’s not an us versus them thing. It’s just simply the rule. So, I have a three strike system for my classroom management plan. The first strike is a warning. And I don’t make a big deal out of it. Often times, I don’t even say to the kid, “Well, strike one. That’s a warning.” I usually will just give them teacher eyeballs. You know the teacher eyeballs. I think everybody knows the teacher look.

Tim: Yep.

Rachel: And sometimes I’ll just hold up one finger and usually, you know, you see the kid kind of nod and then readjust in their seat and it rarely takes more than that. Just one strike, a simple warning. And if the behavior then continues, and it rarely happens, but if it does, and this is usually only the case at the beginning of the school year when they’re sort of testing the waters and seeing what kind of teacher I am, then I immediately move onto strike two which is a break and a reflection.

So there was a research study that was done by Dr. Roy Baumeister. I’m probably bombing that name, but anyway, they found that the mental energy involved in making decisions and exerting self-control can be a limited resource that needs to be replenished as it gets depleted, like a recharge. That makes total sense to me. I mean, think about how exhausted we are on a Friday afternoon, never-mind a Friday afternoon, on a Monday. Whatever. Every day when we get home from work. We are making so many decisions every minute of every day and we’re exerting self-control all the time and when we have to desperately try not to sigh and roll our eyes when the sixth kid has asked us the exact same question.

Or you know, they ask us what time it is and the clock is literally above where you’re standing. And we’re adults and that’s frustrating for us. So imagine how hard it must be for a kid to have that self-control. Other researchers have used these discoveries to explore ways to help people increase their self-control by practicing self-affirmation exercises.

So, for strike two, I have my students leave the room to complete a reflection using a prompt, which helps them to focus on something positive. So, let’s just be clear about something, they don’t write a reflection about, how did I behave and why is that a bad thing? Instead, they really are sort of being asked to shift focus. So I might have a prompt on there that says something like, “List three examples of what makes you happy and then take one of those examples and explain why it makes you happy.” Or, “Tell me about your ultimate dream meal and tell me where you would like to eat it and why.”

And just completing this reflection helps them to refocus and readjust their behavior. They’re recharging their self-control by changing their focus using something positive. And then when they re-enter the class, it’s usually with a different attitude. So that’s what I do for strike two. And then for strike three and this has only happened in two or three times in my entire seven short years of teaching is strike three is a lunchtime detention and I have the ability to do that because we are a rotary school and that’s the way middle school works, but the student and I will sit down together. We will write an email from their school email account, the student’s account to their parent or guardian about their choices in today’s class and how it affected both them and their classmates.

And then we CC both myself and the principal and we ask for an acknowledgment that the email has been read by the parents. And that’s basically, in a nutshell, what I do for my classroom management plan. And usually then once the parents are on-board, the behavior can then change, but again, this is not how I started my first year of teaching with that plan in place. It took me time, years to develop it and it’s still not perfect. Despite my best efforts, I still have those two or three kids who make me want to pull my hair out, even though, you know, I can give them a warning and I can give them a reflection and then it’ll happen again the next time. And then it ends up with a detention.

But, it has mostly worked for me. So, if any of the listeners want to give it a try, I’d love to hear how it works for them.

Tim: Yeah. That’s awesome. And you know, I think … well, there’s about 14 things you said there that I want to talk about more, so we’ll have to have you on again to chat more about this, but I think the biggest takeaway is just that you can’t expect any plan to be perfect just because you’re dealing with so many variables and so many different kids, but you know, if you have something that’s effective and that works for you, then yeah. More power to you. I think that’s awesome.

Rachel: Absolutely. And it’s not set in stone. It’s a working document.

Tim: Yes, for sure. For sure, so cool. All right. Well Rachel, we’ve gone way over time, so we’re going to have to wrap it up, but thank you. It has been awesome to talk to you and, like I said, we will have to have you back on again.

Rachel: Thanks so much, Tim. I’d love that.

Tim: A lot to unpack there and like I said, hopefully we can continue the discussion on a future podcast, but I know this is a long episode. We’re way over time, so to close, I will just say this. You know, if we can get our kids motivated intrinsically, engaged, and part of our classroom, that good behavior that we’re looking for is going to happen and honestly, it can serve as its own reward because kids will respect themselves. They will have confidence and they will have the feeling and this goes a long way. And they’ll have that feeling of belonging to a classroom that wants them and appreciates them and needs them.

And you really want to get your students to want to behave. They want to behave for themselves and for the betterment of your classroom. And if you want that to happen, you need to quit with the rewards for good behavior. Instead, help them to be motivated themselves. You know, give them a classroom they want to come to and provide for them an art class that they want to be a part of because those are better things than any other reward that you can give them.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening as always. Next week, we will try and get Abby Schukei on. She has a really fun article coming out that I think will make for a good discussion.

Then, just a couple housekeeping things before we let you go. If you’re going to the NAEA conference in Boston later this week, stop by the AOEU booth and say hello. Saturday morning, we’ll be having a podcast meetup, 10:00 a.m. at the booth. Both Cassie Stephens and me. She’ll be the one with a million adoring fans around her and I’ll be the lonely guy off to the side with nobody to talk to. So, come say hi. No, I would love to chat with anybody who wants to come.

Also, before we go, I need to ask another favor of you. Part of the Art Ed Now Conference, we had a awesome memorable presentation from Maggie Maggio and Leslie Barnum on color theory. And they are asking you to fill out a short survey on color theory and how you teach it. So there’s a link to the survey in the show notes for this episode and it’s also on the after pass page if you’re back there to see any of the conference videos again or check out any of the resources from Art Ed Now. So, if you have just a few minutes to fill out that survey for them, it would be very much appreciated.

All right. I think that is it. Thank you, we will talk to you next week.


Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.