When I began teaching seventh grade science as a Teach for America Corps Member, one thing that set my class apart from others was my use of a reward system in a middle school setting. Prior to joining Teach for America, I had earned two degrees in education plus I already had two years of teaching behind me. By the time I joined TFA, I had my own ideas about classroom management and had begun to implement those ideas. However, one of the main reasons I joined TFA was to learn about different styles of teaching so I could become a better educator for my students. I kept my mind open to new ideas. One thing TFA exposed me to during our five-week summer institute was the use of a reward system at a secondary level. At first I thought it seemed silly and impractical. Middle and high school students excited about earning little toys? Spending tons of my own limited income providing those goodies for hundreds of students? Huh? After dismissing the idea, I found myself thinking about it and considering how I could make it more practical for my own classroom. When I began teaching seventh grade science students a month and a half later, I had a reward system in place as a way to decrease misbehavior, increase student engagement and achievement, and create a fun and positive classroom environment. And what do you know? It worked.
What did I want in a reward system?
I wanted my system related to academic achievement. I wanted students to be individually rewarded to increase their investment. More importantly from a behavior standpoint, I wanted them to work together for class rewards because peers can often influence behavior in ways a teacher cannot. I did NOT want to spend oodles of money making it work. My reward system developed when all of these ideas rolled together.
What does the reward system look like as a whole?
Here is a quick synopsis of my reward system. First of all, it has two parts—an individual reward and a group reward—and both parts involve earning class points. Students earn tickets individually that they enter in daily prize drawings. The number of drawings a class gets depends on how many points a class earns for good behavior. In addition to daily drawings that reward individual students, class points add up for whole group rewards.
Earning Class Points for the Individual and Group Rewards
How do students earn class points?
Students work together as a class to earn points. They do this by following directions, doing things quickly, participating, being on task, doing exceptionally well on lab days or during lively activities, having a class average of over 80% on a test or quiz (five points each time), and getting good reports from substitutes (fifteen points per day). When the class earns a point, I let them know right away. Letting them know when and why they earn a point is important because it rewards them instantly for their good behavior and encourages them to keep it up.
Do you ever take away points?
No. The students earned the points they received. Many times, most of the misbehavior comes from only a few students. Taking away points punishes the whole class making well-behaved students less invested in earning points because they feel those points can just be taken away by the poor choices of others. The only time I’ve ever taken away points was when a sub wrote a very poor report about a class and the majority of the students didn’t get the assigned sub work done. (The students who did get their work done were rewarded for their actions.)
How do you keep track of class points?
I have a mason jar with a lid labeled for every class. Each point is represented by a fuzzy thing (actually called pom-poms, but “little fuzzy things” was the name we adopted for them). During class, I put the little fuzzy thing the students earn into the lid. (I want to keep them separate for the individual reward that day.) At the end of class, I count how many points we got for the day to determine how many prize drawings we need to do for the individual reward. Then I add the little fuzzy things collected in the lid that day to the jar to accumulate over time (for the group reward).
Individual Reward Information
How do students get tickets for the individual reward?
Students earn tickets for getting 80% or above on assessments. An assessment includes tests, quizzes, and exit tickets. I always have at least one assessment each week so students have plenty of chances to earn tickets. Whenever a student performs well on an assessment, I attach one ticket onto their paper. When students get their papers back they detach the ticket, write their name on it, and enter it into the drawing where they have a chance win a prize of their choice. Check out a set of reward tickets here.
Every five class points triggers one drawing. For example, if a class earns a total of ten points they will get two drawings. If a class gets nine points, they will only get one drawing.
How many drawings are typically in one day?
That depends on a few different factors, the biggest one being overall class behavior. In a 90-minute block schedule, I usually do between two to four drawings. In a shorter 45-minute class, the students earn one or two drawings. I’ve had some disastrous classes (haven’t we all?) where students didn’t earn even one drawing. I’ve also had spectacular days (yea!) where a class earned six.
How and when do students submit tickets for the drawing?
If I have any worksheets or assessments to return to students, I pass them out while students complete their Do Now at the beginning of class. Any student who receives a ticket at that time can add it to the class’s bag. I usually send around a student who finished his or her Do Now early to collect the tickets in the bag.
Where do you keep the submitted tickets for the drawing?
I have a gallon-size Ziploc bag labeled for each of my seven classes. When it comes time to do a drawing I empty the class tickets into a bucket so students can select a winning ticket without seeing the name written on it.
When do you do the drawing? Who does the drawing?
I like to do the drawing at the end of every class period. It only takes about two minutes, so I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing class time (especially since we accomplish so much in class when the students are motivated to be well behaved by the reward system). If time is running short, we carry over the drawings and do them at the beginning of the next class. In the past, I’ve tried doing the drawings only once a week on the last day before the weekend, but I’ve found the students aren’t quite as motivated if they have to wait that long.
Students love being involved in this system, so unless we are running really short on time a student will do the drawing. I choose a student at random and invite that student to the front of the room where I am holding the bucket of tickets. Without looking, the student chooses a ticket and reads the name of the winner to the class.
What prizes do students earn in the drawing?
I try to have something to appeal to every student. I have bathroom passes and homework passes. Before school starts, I stock up on the amazing deals that can be found at Office Depot and Staples. There I find folders, pencils, pens, notebooks, and erasers for as little as a penny each. During the summer I go to garage sales for inexpensive books or fun little items I think my students will like. My mom loves to make jewelry, so she provides earrings and bracelets. Many parents love to donate for the reward system, so I always request the most popular items of all: food, drinks, and gum. They go to Sam’s Club to get good deals in bulk. I ask them to keep each item’s cost less than 50 cents.
Where do you keep the prizes for the individual reward?
I keep the prizes in a glass display case with a lock. One of the walls in my science classroom is made entirely of these lockable glass cases and it makes for the perfect way to both show the prizes and keep them secure.
What do you do with the huge number of tickets that are collected but not drawn?
I dump the tickets into the recycle bin each quarter. I do this because some students earn a lot of tickets during that time and others only receive a few. I want every student to have a chance to win and when certain students have a stockpile of tickets it makes that difficult. I also dump the tickets each quarter because some students made poor choices and deserve to start over with a clean slate. The rationale I give to my students is the bag can’t hold that many tickets and students should have a chance to start over and make good decisions.
Whole Group Reward Information
How many class points does it take to get a whole class reward?
One hundred and fifty points seems to work best. On average it gives a whole class reward about once a month. One hundred comes around too often and two hundred drags on causing the students to become apathetic.
What whole class rewards do you use?
I provide a list and let the students vote. No matter how many choices I give the students, only two have ever been chosen. Classes always vote for either free time with electronics (I give between ten and fifteen minutes) or permission to bring and eat snacks during class.
When do you count the class points for the whole group
I don’t keep a running tally of the number of points. Instead I have a student in study hall count each class’s points at the end of the week. I announce the total on Monday when we go through the weekly schedule. If at that time a class has reached the 150 points needed to trigger a whole class reward, we vote for what the reward will be and when it will happen.
In summary, this reward system has two parts. The first part is an individual reward. The class earns points to trigger drawings at the end of each class period. The drawing prizes go to individual students who earned a ticket from getting 80% or above on an assessment. The second part of the reward system also involves getting class points, but the whole group works together to earn 150 points and trigger a whole class reward.
This system has helped me build and maintain a positive classroom environment in my seventh grade science classes. Students are excited to come to class and learn. They are motivated to do well on their assessments and be good students in class. Plus, it’s a lot of fun for me.