Are You Struggling with PBIS Reward Systems?

A teacher recently reached out to me about PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention & Supports) and reward systems. It’s a question I’ve been hearing a lot as I work with teachers across the United States. 

I am in a district that expects me to use school cash tickets to incentivize my students. We use PBIS, and the district has invested a lot of money in this program. Do you have any suggestions about how I can meet the expectations of my district and school administration while not harming students? I have always felt like I am in between a rock and a hard place with this topic. 

This question is tough–and important. You might find yourself in a similar tight spot–between playing within the rules of the school you’re in and your own understanding of motivation and beliefs as a teacher. (For readers unfamiliar with how incentives and rewards do so much long-term damage to student motivation, check out this great article by Richard Curwin.) To forgo the cash tickets altogether is likely to cause more trouble that you’re looking for. To simply play ball in the system is to participate in a practice that you know is damaging students. If there were an easy answer, you’d already have it, so here are a few less-easy ideas to consider….

Could you let students reward themselves?

What if you kept the cash tickets and let kids know that when they did something good, they could come and ask you for one. You could set a limit on how many they got per day to keep some from abusing the system.

Try hosting a class meeting.

Try sharing your reservations about the reward system and let students know that you’re trying to help them be more in charge of their motivation. You might ask students for ideas about how you might still participate in the program without damaging their motivation. In my experience, many students will say they like they rewards but don’t like the system.

Deemphasize cash tickets and emphasize intrinsic motivators. 

Consider belonging, autonomy, mastery, purpose, and fun. These intrinsic motivators can be baked into schoolwork, lessons, activities, units, etc. to make the work worth doing. For example, kids can put on presentations to showcase science or social studies projects. They can create bulletin board displays to share what they’re learning. Playing games is a great way to practice key skills. Students can put on a play, make movies, design their own board games, read real books, write for an authentic audience, use dice and cards to create math problems to solve…. 

Share your concern with a trusted colleague and/or school leader.

Imagine phrasing it like this, “I really want to support the school’s effort to promote motivation in students, but I’ve been doing some professional learning that has me worried about some of the long-term impacts of reward systems.” Then, you could share this article (or others…there are a bunch in the “rethinking incentives” tab of this LiveBinder) and see where the conversation leads. I bet there are others on staff who share your discomfort with the system.

Understand that “recognize positive behavior” doesn’t have to mean “reward positive behavior.”

There are different interpretations of how rewards should and shouldn’t be used in PBIS. While some believe that token economy systems are necessary, others disagree. Check out page 7 of this white paper that highlights how reinforcing language can be enough to “recognize” positive behavior without needing to reward it. This might help your school rethink the need for rewards.

Explore (with colleagues) the question, “Are cash tickets working?”

Inevitably, as you talk about this with others, some will argue that the cash tickets work. I hear this a lot. In my work with schools, this is often what I see actually happening:

  • When introduced, there’s a burst of enthusiasm from many students. They seem motivated by the system. There are usually short-term improvements in compliance.
  • Teachers get a lot of positive feedback in this initial implementation. It feels like it’s working when they offer incentives and many kids do what they want.
  • Soon, the enthusiasm fades. Many children seem to care less about the system. This is especially true for kids who struggle to get any of the rewards. (Some may even actively sabotage the system—seeming to get in trouble on purpose as they resist being controlled.)
  • Once the shine fades, some teachers feel they need to “up the ante” and come up with bigger rewards.
  • Kids from middle class homes are generally more likely to get rewards than children who experience poverty. Reward systems exacerbate inequities in schools.
  • Intrinsic motivation dwindles. Kids are more likely to ask, “What do I get for it?” when asked to do something or, “Is this being graded?” when a new assignment comes along. This happens gradually, so it’s hard for teachers to see the connection between incentives and a decrease in curiosity and joyful learning.
  • In districts where token economies are used at the elementary level, you don’t see a huge number of kids who are passionate and self-motivated learners in middle and high schools. Wouldn’t that be the true measure of whether or not token economies “worked”?

Focus on other components of PBIS.

There are many wonderful aspects of the PBIS approach. Can you focus your efforts on these aspects? Emphasize common rules as you help students understand why values like respect and responsibility are so important. Spend lots of time teaching positive behaviors (something rewards and punishments don’t do—an important part of PBIS that seems to get lost in the shuffle). Continue to explore non-punitive discipline practices. There’s a lot about PBIS to like.


A Few Final Thoughts….

It’s ironic. I’m often asked to work with schools struggling with discipline issues or students’ apparent lack of motivation. These schools are almost all using incentive and reward systems, yet some teachers, counselors, and administrators defend them vigorously. If these systems produced kids who were self-managing and self-motivated, these schools wouldn’t be asking for my help!

Reward and incentive systems are baked into the fabric of many schools. Teachers may feel dependent on these systems even as they see them not working. I used these systems myself as a new teacher and understand the allure and appeal of them. They offered me a façade of control, and it was scary to let go. Once I did though, I never looked back! It was so much more rewarding to help kids develop true self-motivation and self-management skills. I felt like I was in cooperation with my students instead of in competition with them.

Good luck as you work to navigate a challenging situation. I hope some of these ideas will be helpful!


  • Mike Anderson
    Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including What We Say and How We Say It MatterThe Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

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    Mike Anderson
    Leading Great Learning
    Durham, NH
    Phone: +1 413.658.7907

    Leading Great Learning

    Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.