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Blog » It is not the quality of your carrot that counts but the skill with which you dangle it!
It is not the quality of your carrot that counts but the skill with which you dangle it!
As a newly qualified teacher I would spend part of most weekends spending my ‘hard earned' on rubbers, pencils, creme eggs (ah...remember when sweets were an acceptable currency) and assorted material rewards. I wanted to show my appreciation for pupils who were making a real effort and assumed that what mattered to them was what I could afford to buy. Working in a mobile classroom in Newham, East London in an area of socio economic deprivation, I was surprised to learn that what my pupils really valued was my time, my attention, a positive relationship and the chance to work in an atmosphere that was relentlessly nurturing. Instead of spending my money I spent my energy. Instead of trying to reward them from my own pocket, I made use of the resources I had around me; colleagues, other children and most importantly perhaps, the people at home.
For me the catalyst to understanding rewards was the positive note and phone call home. Positive notes home connect home and school and have impact on a number of different levels. Parents see that appropriate behaviour ought to be rewarded, that their child's teacher is taking action to encourage good choices and for some that their child is capable of controlling their behaviour. The wording is important. With a positive note you can shift the responsibility for material rewards where it should be, to the home:
‘Trevor has made a great effort to behave well today. I am so pleased with his positive attitude to work and school. If you would like to follow up with a reward at home it would be well deserved.'
Once earned, Trevor is able to use the reward in different ways; firstly as a bargaining chip ‘Please can I go to the cinema/buy a book/play on the computer/kick my little brother, look this note from my teacher says I am doing really well in class', secondly as a counter balance to the less welcome letters that begin ‘Dear Mrs Trevor, I am sorry to have to tell you that Trevor has been involved in vandalism/bullying/racketeering/small arms dealing etc', and finally as something just to keep under the pillow, look at and smile.
Parents would often berate me at parents evening ‘You are the bloke who has covered my fridge in purple notes; it's costing me a fortune in Spiderman accessories!" Then they would smile and tell me how much they appreciated knowing when things were going well. How they enjoyed receiving positive phone calls on a Friday evening (a great start to the weekend) and how they had noticed an improved attitude in their child towards me, the work and the school. The parents also recognised how their child was becoming a skilled negotiator and how the positive contact had a currency in the home.
The rewards that have a lasting impact are those which, like positive contact, mark moments, those that make the day stand out from the others, those that cannot be ignored
by the child: Positive referral (‘Please go and show this work to Mr Glover, he will be so impressed at the detail and creativity of your story'), private and sincere verbal praise acknowledgement, pointed positive reinforcement, certificates and merit assemblies and yes, if you choose to use it, appropriate reaffirming touch.
Wanted: Stop and praise on sight
In your staff briefing on a Monday morning try nominating one or two pupils who have made a determined effort to make good choices in their behaviour over the past week. Display their photographs so that everyone can recognise them, then ask every member of staff, teaching and non teaching to stop them and congratulate them when they see them around the site that day. Such a high level of personal, sincere, verbal praise can make a lasting impact, make the day stand out and sweep away negative preconceptions or damaging self imposed labels. It also allows staff to openly admit that they discuss the behaviour of pupils in the staff room!
Many schools choose to hold up larger prizes to try and motivate pupils. The idea is that the larger the prize the greater the motivation to stay on the right path; cue headlines, ‘Bikes and iPods for naughty children' in the Daily Mail. There can be many ways to earn a raffle ticket for such a lottery. Sometimes this is connected to behaviour, attendance, achievement or all three. Yet the raffle is an exclusive lottery which serves to reward only one child, albeit very heavily! Children who have come to school every day, rain or shine, cold or cough and achieved 100% attendance are rewarded with a 1 in 300 chance of ‘The Golden Bicycle'. Those whose parents sleep in or who keep them at home are excluded. Those who are struggling to control their behaviour are left watching at the sidelines, those who get frustrated by learning wonder why they cannot join in. In a raffle, every child does not matter.
In schools where reward systems are successful they are consistently applied, finely tailored, beautifully served and universally valued by teachers and pupils. It is less important what reward system you use; marbles in the jar, stickers on the chart, tallies, names on the board, merit points, credits, stars, house points. The system is not the determinate but how the reward is applied; quiet moments of acknowledgement for some, public praise for others, or the gentle smile of the appreciative adult accompanied with praise that is nurturing, affirming and meaningful. ‘Kaylea you must feel fantastic about your design, you worked so hard on the accuracy of your lines, beautiful, can I use it for the display?' rather than ‘Well done, here's your raffle ticket'.
When rewards are given for appropriate behaviour and then taken away for poor choices, you can encourage too much negotiation. ‘Oh please Miss, I know that I set fire to Constantine but if I am good for the rest of the lesson can I still go out to play?'. Efficient reward systems do not mix rewards and sanctions; they co exist in the classroom just as
they do in life. Imagine driving to work, get caught speeding and then in the next moment stopping to let a school group cross the road. Two choices result in different consequences, the sanction of the fine and the smile of the accompanying parents. One does not cancel out or reduce the other.
Can pupils get sick of carrots?
With so much debate focused on rewards many teachers wonder if it is possible to reward too much, if overuse of praise and reward can have a negative effect. We can certainly appear insincere and unfair if our rewards are disproportionate, ‘Trevor the way that you have managed not to stab Chloe that much in the last few minutes is remarkable. Have an all expenses paid trip to Flordia for your trouble', or if we reward children for skills that they have already mastered,' Luqman, you have written you name so neatly on your book, your letters are lovely, and you have spelled it correctly,' ‘Thanks Miss but I am in the top literacy group....and in Year 6'. However I believe that we should only worry about overusing sincere and meaningful praise when we hear the children complain about positive teaching styles the way that they complain about those who are more hostile ‘I am fed up with Mrs Jackson, she is always praising me and giving me rewards. Yesterday she got right in my face and told me how lovely I am!'
The skill in delivering rewards is through your differentiation. Younger children need rewards that are more immediate, older children can keep sight of rewards that are delayed until the end of the day, week or half term. For children who have learned negative or disruptive behaviour patterns smaller rewards may need to be given more often while a new pattern of behaviour is being established. This should be a temporary adjustment and instead of rewarding them with a whole merit you might want to split the merit into 5 tallies or cut a post it note into 5 sections so that your differentiation for one does not become unfair on the rest. Children with low self image and low self esteem can find it difficult to accept praise in public or in private. The drip, drip of your consistent reinforcement will gradually (over a week, month, year for some children) dissuade the child of their limiting self belief. At the point at which the child asks you why you keep telling them that they are intelligent/able/skilled the door eases open to the possibility that your judgement may be right. A new behaviour cycle is learned and the old one nudged into obscurity, a new expectation is established and a better relationship promoted.
Whatever ‘carrot' you choose it is not a true reward but a token that represents something far more important. Material rewards offer brief pleasure but not lasting satisfaction. For the rewards that pupils value above others are relational, the good opinion of their peers, teachers and parents, gentle smiles of appreciation, a quiet word for some, public praise for others. These rewards are the foundation for an inspirational relationship with a teacher that offers satisfaction today, tomorrow and for a lifetime
7 Relational Rewards
- Positive reinforcement
- Private, sincere verbal praise
- Positive referral (internal)
- Positive note home
- Positive phone call
- Merit assembly
10 Favourite Ideas for Rewards
- Wanted posters in the staff room: ‘If you see this child, stop and praise'.
- Coded merits for different types of appropriate behaviour
- Peer feedback that requires 3 positive observations before giving a critical opinion
- Showcase work of small groups of children on school website
- Random rewards given by SLT on ‘walkabout'
- Photographs of students on the display next to their work
- Allowing a student to be the teacher for a lesson
- Having lunch/playing a game/reading with my teacher
- Pupil CV's where their best work is filed
- Specialist advisor status - pupil is released to give help to others during the lesson