3 Characteristics of a Good Incentive Program

  1. a thing that motivates or encourages one to do something.

Incentive programs.  When students aren’t meeting expectations, we use incentive programs to convince them to meet expectations and to make them want to comply with directives.  The following is a series of recommendations to consider when you’re developing your next incentive program!

1. Make the rewards absolutely free of conditions (aka unconditional)

This might be the most important guideline for creating an incentive program.  Once you’ve figured out the sort of things that kids like (smiles, Phys Ed, Genius Hour, people to listen to their stories, recess, potluck food celebrations, positive quality time with a caring adult, inquiry projects, time outside, logic games, co-operative learning opportunities, guest speakers, etc), plan to give these to students regularly and without the threat of withholding them.  This tactic may result in an increase in mental well-being, additional meaningful connections and attachments, an enhanced sense of community and belonging, and a general uptick in positive school climate.

2. Give the rewards to all students (even the ones who misbehave)

When it comes to deciding who belongs in the incentive program, it is important to include every student.  Does that mean that every student should get a toy dinosaur at the end of every week if they display good behaviour?  No!  Remember, guideline #1 is that all students get access to rewards regardless of behaviour.  And a toy dinosaur?  Check out guideline #3.

3. Don’t monetize rewards in the form of tokens or trinkets

We are more than cold calculating beings solely intent on personal financial gain – even global financial analysts tell us we’re more than that!  Traditional incentive programs operate under the basis that the strongest motivator will be financial gain (through the accumulation of lego pieces, toy army men and silly putty), but fortunately for the human race, motivation is not that simple.  Human beings make decisions for many complex reasons, and when it comes to violations of code of conduct, chances are we’re looking at a temporary lapse or enduring lag in the domains of executive functioning, self-regulation, problem solving or social communication.  If this is the case (and Dr. Ross Greene, Dr. Stuart Shanker, Dr. Jean Clinton seem to think so), let’s address the problem for what it is, instead of trying to monetize an artificial token system where it would be impossible/impractical to increase the salient nature of the tokens. Who has the money or the time to hand out all those toy dinosaurs anyway?


4 thoughts on “3 Characteristics of a Good Incentive Program

  1. Andrew, I love this way looking at incentive programs. So often my response with people using them is frustration. But here, you have accepted they exist and turned the idea on its head. Very powerful. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for your comment Sue!

      The conditional nature of reward systems just doesn’t match with the idea of educators as co-learners, facilitators, and trusted adults.

      If something is going to benefit a student’s development, or their learning, or their well-being, we should give it without conditions.

  2. This year I tossed my prize box away.
    It started with my ponderings about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.
    But, I finally came to the simple realization that the students who really needed to “up their game” (=behave in the manner I wanted) were not being motivated by the prize-box carrots I dangled; indeed, it was clear, upon reflection of my well oiled incentive program, that those who I most desperately wanted to reach were often truly unable to demonstrate the prize-winning compliance I sought. The stickers, toys and crayons usually went to the students who already were highly motivated, fully self -regulating children who exhibited a full compliment of sucessful learning and social skills. For those “others”, however, I was probably doing damage.
    I don’t miss the expense, or wasted time–but most of all, I don’t miss the inequity in my classroom. Now we have dance parties, tech time, math games, yoga….and we all have fun together. They don’t earn it– I build feel-good joyful things into our day because it’s a positive thing for all of my students.

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