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Thursday, 27 June 2019

Why I don’t use a Rewards System for my Middle Schoolers (and What I Do Instead)

Classroom management is probably the most difficult part of teaching middle schoolers. Having 28-35 pre-teens in one room, all at different academic levels with hormones coursing through their veins leads to a lot of behavioural challenges.  I’ve tried many different incentive programs to help my kids to focus and follow expectations, including awarding points, good behaviour tickets, and offering prizes for good behaviour. What I found was that each new management technique worked for a short time, but them fizzled out.

After reflecting on my classroom management rewards strategies, these are some realizations I came to:

  • The kids who really needed the motivation weren’t being recognized.

I’ve never liked the idea of pointing out undesirable behaviours (by putting student names on the board, for example). To me, it equates to a public shaming, and I’ve never seen it actually help anyone to change course in their behaviour. It seems, more than anything, to reinforce a belief in students that they are “bad” and have no chance to do better.
That’s why incentive programs seemed to me to be a better solution. I thought I’d reward students for showing desirable behaviour, rather than punishing for undesirable behaviour. Surely seeing their classmates being recognized for doing the right thing would encourage others to try the right thing, too, right? Well, what I found was that the students who are recognized for good behaviour weren’t the ones who need the incentive programs, and the motivation for the other classmates just wasn’t there.

Kids don’t think the same way as adults do. Most won’t reason, on their own, that they can get those rewards, too, if they just do what their classmates are doing. Instead, they start to see the gap between them as the “bad” kids and their classmates, the “good” kids getting wider and wider. Those students who are often in trouble for poor behaviour begin to think that there is nothing they can do to reach the same level of their classmates, so why try at all?

  • Stop rewarding kids for doing what they are expected to do! 

This is the biggest realization that I had. For one year in a Grade 7 class, I used a ticket system to help with class management. If students had their agendas signed, they got a ticket. If their home reading was completed, they got a ticket. If their classroom job was completed, they got a ticket. If they were reading silently during literacy block, they got a ticket. You get the idea! At the end of the week, the kids could put all their tickets into a bin and we’d draw for a prize. After a while, some students stopped doing their jobs or reading during literacy, etc. because they didn’t like the prizes, so they had no motivation to get the tickets. Then I was left with a worse situation, as the students started to believe that the only reason to follow basic classroom expectations was to get the ticket, and not because it was simply what was expected. Then I had a harder time teaching them about personal responsibility and that being a part of any community, including a classroom, came with certain expectations and responsibilities.

In the real world, people are not praised or rewarded for doing what’s expected of them. I don’t get a ticket or a prize for returning my shopping cart to the store instead of leaving it in the parking lot when I buy groceries, for example, but I do it because it’s what’s expected. I don’t want to teach my students to expect something every time they meet basic expectations, so I stopped giving out tickets.

  • External rewards only go so far.

I used a class points system with a particularly difficult Grade 5 class I worked with. I started it mid-way through the year to see if it would help them to be kinder to each other and more respectful to me, and especially, to substitute teachers who came into the room. I challenged my class to let me “catch them being good.” When I saw someone being respectful, or helping out someone else, etc. I put a point on the board. When they got to a certain number of points, we had a class prize (watch a movie, have popsicles, etc.).

We did this for about a month and the kids were putting more effort into being kinder to each other. I saw it was working, so I slowed down on catching the good behaviour. After all, the points were meant to help them get into the habit of helping each other. Unfortunately, once the points slowed down and the kids realized they weren’t being recognized for kindness anymore, they stopped being kind. The points hadn’t instilled any sort of intrinsic motivation in them, and because the kids were only doing good deeds for recognition, they stopped when the recognition stopped.

Instead of rewards...

  • Remember that all behaviour comes from somewhere.
A lot of the time, kids aren't trying to be "bad" when they break expectations. Talk with the student and try to understand where the behaviour is coming from. What is lacking that the child is trying to get? Are they looking for power, love, acceptance, attention, etc.? By trying to understand where the behaviour comes from, I've found I can distance the behaviour from the child and I'm not left in a place of frustration and disappointment, but rather empathy. This allows me to work with the student to help them find what they are needing, and the undesirable behaviours stop.
  • Build relationships.
I've found that students will be more motivated to work harder for teachers they like and respect. If I start off by liking and respecting them first, asking about their interests, and sharing some of mine, the kids are much more open to redirection when behaviour starts to slip.
  • Set routines from day one.
Include students in the creation of classroom expectations. I have my own expectations in mind, but still ask the students on day one what kind of class they'd like to learn in. Their suggestions will fit into my plans for classroom expectations, anyway, but by asking for their input, they are invested in making it work. In having consistent routines, the students know what to expect and anxiety is reduced.
  • Have consistent consequences in mind for breaking expectations...
...but remember that consequences don't have to include punishment, and consistency doesn't mean that every child must be treated the same. They all come into the class with different backgrounds, and a punishment isn't going to help every child to change their behaviour. 

  • Provide frequent movement breaks outside the classroom.
I'm lucky to teach at a school surrounded by nature. We have two big fields and forests on two sides of the school. We have a pond across the street and a stream in the back forest. I like to spend as much time outside the classroom as I can. For my more active students, I send them outside to run a lap or two of the school between every block, or more frequently if needed. I can tell when they are about to lose focus and I send them out, not because they are in trouble, but because I don't want them to make choices that will get them into trouble.

  • Hold a weekly class meeting.
Throughout the week, the students can anonymously submit topics to our class meeting box. They can write about problems they're having, issues in the class, or anything else they'd like to share. On Fridays, I push all the desks aside and we sit in a circle in the classroom. We start our class meeting with "shout outs" to others. They can be to anyone in their life, but they must be for a positive reason. Students are allowed to pass if they don't feel comfortable sharing. After the positive shout outs, I go to our class meeting box, and read out the topics. Students are able to discuss the topics that were put into the box and decide on possible solutions for the author. It helps to bring us together as a team.
  • Use the term "our classroom" instead of "my classroom."
This subtle change reminds students that they are a partner in the classroom and they have expectations to keep it working properly. I remind them that we are all here together as a team, and we can help each other to succeed or help each other to fail. I hope they choose succeed!