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Behaviour Management parenting

Top Quality Reward Systems

Reward systems are commonly used in schools. But are they used properly? Here are four keys to lock in, five steps to implement one and four reasons why it may not be working as it should.

Top quality reward systems can be a great way to start the year and establish the standard of behaviour you want in your classroom. They can be fantastic for intervening if a class is particularly challenging to work with. They can be a wonderful way to motivate children or an individual child to apply themselves to a task. 

By committing to a reward system, you are taking a primarily positive approach that will objectively show you if the desired behaviour is increasing and if you are rewarding it regularly. 

This article explains what the key elements are, what the steps involve and common reasons that they may not work.

Four Keys to an Effective Reward System

Lock in these four keys before creating your system. All successful reward system have these four elements in common.

  1. The students must find the reward desirable. If they don’t, the system will be doomed to fail. Provide choice and pick suitable rewards that you both can agree on. Beware of “reinforcer satiation”. This is where a once desirable reward has lost its novelty. Keep it fresh and change it up.
  2. Ensure the behaviour is defined, explained and practised. Choosing between one and four behaviours for a whole class will keep it extremely clear what is expected. Instead of rewarding “being good”, reward “listening when another is speaking”. Reward the specific behaviour you want to increase. Spend time practising what it looks like as you introduce the system. Ensure the behaviour is within their ability.
  3. Decide how often the children will need to be rewarded. When you set up the system first, reward frequently and overtly. This makes it crystal clear what you are rewarding. Pair your rewards with very specific positive language. “Excellent Caleb, I noticed you were looking at Ellen when she was talking, I have to reward that”. Watch as that behaviour spreads through the room. As the days pass, gradually reduce the frequency at which you reward the behaviours but still intermittently reward and praise them. Wait until break time to reward them. Delay it until the end of the day when they are ready. Finally, the end of the week. If the standard of behaviour drops, increase the frequency you reward again. Find the sweet spot and gradually reduce.
  4. If the behaviour is not forthcoming, do not give them the rewards but equally, do not complain. The attention and rewards are solely for the students who are performing the behaviour. This provides consistency in your approach and will harness children who love any attention to your advantage. If they want your attention, they must play by the rules the teacher and students have agreed.

Five Steps to Implementing a Reward System

Whatever you do, spend time working through steps one to three. Think of it like building a house. Build solid foundations and your house will stand the test of time and stormy weather. If you skip the foundations and start by creating a lovely display, you are building on sand and it is sure to decrease the chances of success.

  1. Write and explain clear definitions of the behaviour you want to increase. Actions that can be seen and heard and cannot be argued.
  2. Establish how often the defined behaviour occurs before implementing the system. This helps you decide how often you need to reward it. Raise the standard and increase the time between behaviour and reward as they improve.
  3. List a menu of rewards that they can choose from. Let them have a say in this step to increase compliance.
  4. Create an attractive display. This will maximise buy-in from the kids.
  5. Explain the system clearly.  Taking the time to do this reduces ambiguity and creates excitement as the children can see clearly what they have to do to be rewarded.

Four Reasons It’s Not Working

There is no magic strategy that will solve all problems. Maybe a reward system is not suited to your context. However, there are four common reasons why reward systems fail. Consider these issues and how you might fix them if this ever applies to you.

  1. The students may not clearly understand the expectations or the behaviour may not be within their ability. Put more time into explaining and practising the behaviour you want to increase.
  2. You moved too fast from continuously rewarding the behaviour to infrequently rewarding it. Return to immediately rewarding the specific behaviour you want to increase.
  3. Reinforcer satiation has occurred. The once amazing reward that was on offer has lost its shine. Change the system and rewards to freshen things up.
  4. There are inconsistencies. The child knows that the reward will be given to them anyway. Maybe, they are getting negative attention which they find rewarding. Once the system is set, finetuned and explained, it needs to be executed consistently by all adults in the room to maximise its impact.

Giving children rewards for positive actions and behaviour creates a rapport between teacher and student. If the four keys are secure and the five steps have been taken in the correct order, you will slowly be able to reduce the reliance on your reward systems as the children habitually perform the behaviour. Reward systems are a valuable part of a teacher’s toolkit. Ensure that you use them correctly.

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