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Inequities Hidden in Plain Sight: Incentive Systems

Are incentive systems used in your school? Do kids get handed tickets or fake money (to be spent at the school store) for walking quietly in hallways? Are gem and marble jars used to motivate kids to raise their hands before asking a question or to encourage them to say kind things to classmates? Do behavior charts publicly track students’ positive and negative behaviors? Can students earn (or lose) stars or stickers for coming to class prepared or bringing in their homework? Do kids earn pizza for reading over the summer or ice cream parties for doing academic work or behaving well?

These kinds of systems are so commonplace in schools that they are rarely questioned. They may be considered time-honored traditions passed down from year to year. Some management programs (which schools pay a lot of money to implement and some states mandate districts to use) actively encourage the use of incentives. Many teacher preparation programs encourage new teachers to use these systems to control students. We see these kinds of systems used in preschools, elementary, middle, and high schools in urban, rural, and suburban settings.

If incentive systems are so common, what’s the big deal? How might they contribute to inequity?

First off, let’s be clear—incentive systems are problematic for all students. They tend to focus on low-level goals such as compliance, and they teach kids to do the right things (come to class prepared, be kind, work hard, etc.) for the wrong reasons (to get treats or avoid punishments). They usually seem to work at first, but effects quickly fade. Once the initial shine wears off, stickers, pizza, or pajama parties aren’t sufficiently motivational for many kids. Incentives make behaviors transactional (“If you do this then you’ll get that.”) and that makes them feel optional. If I do my homework, I’ll get an an ice cream sandwich on Friday. I don’t care that much about an ice cream sandwich, so I guess I won’t do my homework, some students may reason.

For kids who are motivated by incentives, there’s damage done as well. If incentives become an expectation that children have of teachers, what happens when teachers don’t use them? The sad irony of incentives is that once kids are hooked on rewards, they may appear unmotivated, because they’ve learned to do things only when bribed. This then justifies teachers use of incentives. (The kids don’t care, so we have to incentivize them!)

The research on all of this is crystal clear. Incentives do more harm than good–both in school and in the workplace. For a compelling synopsis of this topic, we recommend Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn and/or this animated video of a talk by Dan Pink.

While rewards and incentives do damage for all students, the negative effects of these systems may be especially troubling for students who come from poverty or other challenging backgrounds. Take a moment to honestly reflect on the answer to those questions:

  • Are the kids who typically get prizes and goodies in these systems in your school typically middle class or wealthy?
  • Are the kids who rarely get prizes or who are routinely losing privileges and getting punished typically students who come from rough backgrounds?
  • After a few weeks, do you know which kids will probably win and which will lose? Is it pretty much the same students week after week who are getting the gold stars and the same ones who are losing their recess?

When we ask these questions of teachers, the answers are predictable and disheartening. Students who are already not doing well (either with academic work or behavior)—the very kids we probably put these systems in place to help—are the very ones who inevitably and perpetually lose out in these systems.

Why? There are several reasons.

First off, kids who aren’t doing well have reasons they aren’t doing well. Although these reasons might make them appear unmotivated, this isn’t the real problem. They may be experiencing trauma or toxic stress and their powers of self-control and rational thinking are being hijacked. Or, it might be that they didn’t get a healthy breakfast, and their low blood sugar level is impeding their ability to self-regulate.

Perhaps they stayed at an aunt’s or a friend’s house last night due to a traumatic situation in their home, and this prevented them from doing their homework or made it so the calculator they were supposed to bring to math class wasn’t available. They might have had to take care of a younger sibling or a sick grandparent, or perhaps they didn’t have someone to take away their device and put them to bed at a reasonable hour. These kinds of events can get in any kid’s way on any given day, but they are more common in the lives of our most vulnerable students.

Stickers, pizza certificates, or threats of missing field trips or recess won’t help.

In fact, they hurt.

When kids facing these kinds of obstacles are threatened with punishment (and withholding a potential prize is the same thing as a punishment in the eyes of a child), they often lose hope. When kids lose hope, why would they continue to try? They realize they’re never going to win at the incentive game, so they become upset, disconnected, angry, and cynical. When kids see others getting prizes, they become resentful, and get the message—loud and clear (once again)—that school success is not within their grasp. They act out. They may try to see how quickly they can get in trouble or lose their stars—intentionally sabotaging these systems. At least that way they have some control and don’t feel manipulated. Now, the power is theirs.

What can we do instead?

The following ideas will help all students be more successful with positive behavior and will not further punish kids who are most vulnerable. 

  • Teach positive behaviors and skills. One of the greatest flaws of incentive systems is that they don’t teach skills or behaviors. Teachers say that they use these systems to “teach responsibility” or “teach kindness” but they only reward (or punish) these behaviors, they don’t actually teach them. Instead, model routines and skills. Elicit ideas from students about how to be successful in a given situation so kids can learn from each other.
  • Remove obstacles getting in kids’ way. Are kids not bringing pencils to class? Have a jar of pencils on hand for kids to use. Are kids tired because they’re hungry? Have healthy snacks available. Take care of small things like this so kids can focus on learning.
  • Change problematic structures and routines. If you see that your class can only hold it together for 7 minutes of instruction before they start to lose focus and get disruptive, keep mini-lessons to 6 minutes. (Try two sets of 6-minute lessons, each followed by a 15-minute work period if more direct instruction is needed.) If kids jostle and shove as they all head for the door at the same time, dismiss one small group at a time to avoid congestion. Look for the problematic situations and adjust them so kids can be successful.
  • Connect positive behaviors with intrinsic motivators instead of extrinsic ones. Build in qualities like belonging, purpose, mastery, autonomy, and fun into lessons and activities, and talk about learning in ways that foster intrinsic motivation. Give feedback that helps students realize the good feelings connect to positive behaviors. 
  • Assume best intentions. When a student struggles with behavior or work, let’s assume that they do care and that they want to learn. Then we can work with them (instead of getting locked in power struggles) to come up with possible solutions.

These are just a few ideas. Add some of your own to the comments section at the end of this post!

To recap, not only do incentive systems not work, they do way more harm than good in almost all circumstances. However, they are especially problematic for our most vulnerable students. While they’re often implemented to help these students, they are yet another way that schools may be accidentally disadvantaging the already disadvantaged.

Read about more inequities common in many schools in our other posts in this series!

Inequities Hidden in Plain Sight (Common School Practices that Disadvantage the Already Disadvantaged)

Introduction

School Supplies

Incentives and Rewards

Homework

Traditional Grading (coming soon)

  • 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: www.leadinggreatlearning.com. Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

  • Earl Hunter II is a teacher, an independent education consultant, and a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher. An expert in social and emotional learning, he believes in the transformative power of positive connection and works to foster this through all of his work. He can be contacted at earlhunterconsulting@gmail.com.

  • 2 Comments
    1. And when teachers post this stuff, it’s a violation of student privacy!

      • It can be. I’ve often wondered what would happen if behavior charts or data walls (with teacher information) were used with adults in staff meetings!

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    Leading Great Learning
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    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.