Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Recognition not reward

This article was first published by Teach Primary Magazine in 2010.

You can’t buy students off with material rewards and expect them to sustain good behaviour. Young people like money, toys, stationery and stuff; but they like pride, self-esteem and a sense of belonging much, much more. The people who are best placed to reward your students are their parents. Let parents know that things are going well and encourage them to connect rewards at home with effort in class. End your message on a positive postcard or note with, ‘If you would like to follow up with a reward at home it would be well deserved’. Make it clear what you expect from the parents, what their role is and precisely how they can reinforce what you are doing. Give them an excuse to make the weekend special. Encourage them to echo the success to the family. Allow them to reward in the way they feel is appropriate. After all. We know how to reward our own children perfectly. It often doesn’t even cost us money. But we are just guessing with other people’s children. As a teacher, your responsibility is to send a clear message and let the parents do their part.

In classrooms students’ poor behaviour is recognised all the time. It is easy to reward poor behaviour with instant attention, fuelling it with emotion and encouraging it with low expectations. The thrill of an angry adult, with a ‘naughty’ badge and no responsibility can be an attractive package to some students. The benefits include admiration from friends and a reputation in the staff room: recognition, essentially. The forgotten majority who behave beautifully, work diligently and never demand attention deserve more. It is time to radically change our focus. Obviously notice those pupils who keep themselves under the radar and go unrecognised. They deserve our attention, our encouragement and our energy. Spend all of your time chasing the sheep who are trying to escape over the fence and it is easy to lose sight of the flock. Parents, children and teachers have been complaining for years that the children engaged in challenging behaviour get all the rewards. They are right. Perhaps it is time to redress the balance. Time to take away the rewards from poor behaviour.

Do a quick audit. How many students in your class come in every day, keep within the rules and work hard? 80%, 90%? How many positive notes have you given in the last three weeks? How many positive phone calls? What about those students who have had contact with parents because of their poor behaviour. Do you contact home when things are going well? Do you make sure that parents are constantly in the loop or is contact with home just an emergency measure. If I am not informed as a parent I find it difficult to truly connect reward at home with effort at school. If my child comes home with a prize I don’t feel that I need to reinforce any further.

The best recognition is when reinforcement is written down. Recognition that can be held, re-read, shown to others and displayed at home. A note, certificate, postcard or your written comments at the end of a piece of work. For many the pride of having their work on display has a similar effect. Remember, the moment is marked, the routine confirmed and self-esteem lifted. The student is consistently reminded of the behaviour that best represents them. Reminded of the behaviour that they can be most proud of. Money, stuff and material rewards are not the responsibility of the teacher. They are better delivered at home. In the classroom they can be divisive and perceived as unfair ‘Altaf, I am extremely impressed that you managed to stop throwing missiles at Colette, have some golden time, gift tokens and an all expenses paid trip for your trouble’. The line between reward and bribery is blurred in some teaching spaces. Teachers have no need to encourage material desires in young people. We have a duty to develop an understanding of what truly motivates for the long term. Pride, ambition and a sense of belonging pervade the best classrooms and laboratories. You can see it on the walls, on the faces of the students and in the relationships that develop.

Young people thrive on recognition from more than one source. The student’s recognition of the efforts of their peers can be a powerful driver of self-esteem and positive self-image. Young people who cannot recognise their own positive attributes, learn by identifying the good in others. In fact all human beings value recognition. Your colleagues respond well to the same strategies. At the end of a training session I ran, a teacher thanked me for the day and put a sticker on my jumper. A doggy sticker with ’terrific’ written underneath. I smiled. I brimmed with pleasure and pride. I kept the sticker, took it home and stuck in on the wall next to my desk. I tell people about it. I am telling you now! I am 44 years old and still a small sticker boosts my confidence and tweaks my pride. Now, either I am a uniquely sad individual for whom a doggy sticker means more than anything. Or it is not what you give but the way that you give it. This applies to your colleagues as much as your class. A note, a kind word, a positive reference are irresistible.

In the end it is not what you give but the way that you give it. Prizes gleam and then fade in moments. Positive recognition lasts for a lifetime. It’s the reward that keeps giving.

Ladder of recognition

Positive behaviour can be recognised and celebrated in numerous ways. Try following these simple steps…

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Sincere, private verbal praise
  • Addition comments on written work
  • Peer congratulations
  • Work on display in the classroom
  • Work on display in public areas/website
  • Positive referral to another teacher
  • Positive text home
  • Positive note home
  • Positive phone call home
  • ‘Mentioned in dispatches’ in assembly and in staff meetings
  • Extra class responsibility
  • Class award certificate
  • Year award certificate
  • Extra school responsibility
  • School Honours

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Managing Behaviour for Learning

National STEM Learning Centre

Contact FutureLearn for Support