Thursday, January 18, 2007


In the parlance of behavior management systems, rewards or incentives are code for bribes. "If a student gets an A she is rewarded with a sticker. In order to have control of your class, you should have an incentive system in place." These systems are quite common place and they generally fades out quickly after elementary school as most teachers and administrators favor moving toward intrinsic rewards for academic achievement. (Or at least that's what they claim. An 'A' on a report card isn't exactly intrinsic.) However, the use of incentives is widely accepted and encouraged in behavior programs of all ages and grade levels including the initial design for the program I currently teach in.

I see most of my students twice a day- the first period we work on self-management skills and the second period, which is the last period of the day, we work on some basic study skills and we do homework. Originally, the last period was conceived of as 'reward time' for those students who earned it. A student would earn this reward time by meeting a goal of attaining a certain number of points that are given out by their teachers throughout their day and recorded on a behavior communication form. I was supposed to have games and computers available for the students and I could allow them to break school rules regarding use of portable music and video game players. But we haven't really ever gone there because of this guy whose writing hipped me to the fact that rewards don't really work the way we want them to. So initially, I was running the program with zero rewards. Things have changed a bit since then.

My students have to travel throughout the day with the behavior communication form so that there is a record of quantitative data of their progress towards the goals on their IEPs- which are reflected by the goals on these behavior sheets. A problem I had run into though is because I wasn't rewarding them like they were used to there was no motivation to actually complete the form. So I made the decision to institute a reward system for turning in a completed behavior communication form with a parent signature. Students earn points toward rewards that they have selected. For most students these rewards are small toys, candy. magazines or soda which they can get right before lunch or at the end of the day.

This worked pretty well so I began to rewarding points for other similar activities: writing down their homework in their planners and preparing their own behavior sheets with their individual goals ahead of time. I reasoned (rationalized?) that these are all behaviors that don't really translate to any thing meaningful outside of school so there shouldn't be much intrinsically rewarding about them. Thus, extrinsic rewards should be OK. I drew the line at rewarding students for their actual classroom behavior.

But two students continued to be completely unmotivated by academic success and continuously got themselves into trouble. Their teachers and parents were getting tired of it. One parent even started to talk about requesting a publicly-funded private school setting for her child. At this point, with...encouragement from the guidance counselor and school psych I began tallying up all the points the students earned throughout the day on their behavior sheets. What had simply been data for use in tracking progress toward goals now became part of a token economy. So quite clearly, these two students are being bribed to behave.

Discussing the merits of incentive systems is not of interest to me at this time. Suffice it to say that I believe they should be avoided. Yet, here I am, running a reward system in my own classroom.

It's my hope that I can phase these rewards out and that the the young age of most of my students gives me enough time to expose them to academic and positive social success so that these become the incentives and not Skittles. Until then, the bribery will continue.

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