Kindergarten Teacher


Reward Free Year


11 years ago when I first started teaching Kindergarten one of the first things I bought for my class was a cute little wooden box to use as a treasure chest. During my student teaching I was convinced that dollar store goodies and stickers galore were the way to properly “manage” the behavior in my class. Slowly, I started to question this concept as I began to realize that the children that needed the most support did not conform to the standard management system. I always found myself developing plans that best matched their needs in addition to the standard behavior plan.

At the same time I really started to question the purpose of these rewards I began seeing many of people I follow on twitter speak out against rewards. Thanks especially to @ChrisWejr and his great blog for really pushing my thinking on this topic. The main concern I had was most of the conversation on the removal of rewards focused on high school aged kids. I kept asking myself if this could work in Kindergarten?

I struggled a lot with the concept because so many kids respond to the treasures, stickers and other various rewards I had used in the past. What finally convinced me to remove all rewards from my class was the potential harm they can have on those that need the most help. I feel strongly that rewards tend to only support and encourage those kids that really don’t need the support. The kids that respond best to rewards are not the ones we are really trying to reach. In fact there is a good case to be made that the kids that need the most support are being hurt by these rewards. The relationship that is crucial to teaching is easily harmed by rewards.

This past year I had an empty treasure chest in my room. I showed it to my class the first week of school and explained that I don’t give out “treasure”. I told my kids that when I was proud of them they would know it and when they made mistakes we would work together to fix it. I didn’t have a behavior or management system. I just expected my class to be great citizens and when they fell short we worked together to fix it. I focused more on developing relationships with each child and less on how/when to give out stickers.

My first year without rewards was a big success and the treasure chest is officially retired.

*update- Turns out I do have treasure in my room, read about it HERE


36 Responses to Reward Free Year

  1. Jon says:

    Nice post Matt. I haven’t used rewards in a few years, but I do have an arsenal of stickers that I hand out as a random act of cheer for the kids. There is something about them that is magical, I think. It can make a child smile, and it’s less harmful than candy. There are also a handful of teachers that undermine efforts by handing out treats, or earn prizes by collecting stickers. No matter what they do, there will always be those that just flat-out don’t respond to them. Daniel Willinghams book “Why Don’t Students Like School” helped shape my thinking about praising effort – that hard work really does pay off, also that “failure means you’re about to learn something”. I appreciate the you model “working together to fix it”. Keep up the great work friend!

  2. Matthew Gomez says:

    @Jon I appreciate the comments. I think the key is not giving out things to reward behavior. Every reward is a punishment for those that don’t get anything. That is what I am trying to avoid. Expectations, responsibility, fixing mistakes and consequences are a part of our daily vocabulary.

  3. Matt I’ve never been one for rewards but I’ve always had a box of stickers that my students could take from if they read to the class, shared their writing or something like that. It wasn’t so much about putting a sticker on their work for a job well done, it was more about acknowledging them for stepping out of their comfort zone. But even that hasn’t sat well with me.

    This year I still l have that box of stickers but instead of me giving stickers out the children are free to take stickers whenever they feel they need or want one. During the very first week of school my students were taking stickers like crazy, with absolutely no objection from me. But how quickly that novelty wore off. I’m pretty sure the lid on that box hasn’t been opened since week two of grade one. Internal motivation is so powerful and it something I try my very best to instil in my students through direct feedback and celebrations of learning. My students don’t need external rewards from my because they know how to recognize the internal ones their body is already giving them. There is no better reward than the pride in knowing that you’ve given it your best and your proud of what you’ve accomplished. I am so proud of my students this year as many of them are struggling with a lot but all of them give their work the full attention it needs. It will be hard to say goodbye to them later this week.

    Thanks for sharing your thinking Matt. I am really looking forward to meeting you and the others at #edcampkinder . Karen

  4. Cathy Mere says:

    Wise post! Children seem to begin to realize the intrinsic reasons for making choices. In our school teachers often use a reward and punish (moving clips) system. I haven’t used rewards for some time, but got rid of clips for much the same reason. It really has made me refocus my feedback to children to help them to understand the significance of their decisions for themselves and the learning community. It has also made me think more about changes I need to make.

    On another note, my friend has one of these great treasure boxes. She uses her for the books they have read in the week. Beginning Monday she places each “new treasure” carefully inside to be easily located.

    Congrats on your “new home,”

  5. Matt Gomez says:

    @Karen, Thanks for the comment. I agree that we need to acknowledge the kids work but stickers tend to be the empty reward of “good job”. Taking away those awards allowed me to focus on authentic praise. Sounds like you are doing much the same!

  6. Matt Gomez says:

    @Cathy, I appreciate the kind words and great idea for the treasure chest! We used the color system at first and that is when I really started to notice the harmful effects. I was concerned about having zero rewards at first but so glad I made the change. It was a wonderful year.

  7. Sarah says:

    I enjoyed your post and your philosophy, and while I follow it in my Middle School classroom, my 6 year old daughter is now most definitely inspired by external rewards. She wants constant external validation – and praising effort doesn’t do it for her anymore. Additionally, I bought a workbook for a long car trip, and was blown away by how excited she was by the built in sticker reward system. I read Punished by Rewards long ago as well as Carol Dweck’s research on motivation, so she wasn’t raised that way. Thoughts on how to address the issue?

  8. Matt says:

    Great post and interesting idea. Over the past few years I’ve wrestled with the topic of rewards in the classroom and in the school. Your words in this post speak volumes, especially with your experience at the kindergarten level. Intrinsic motivation is vital and will benefit students in the long term. Goal setting and student ownership often result from intrinsic motivation. Facilitating a classroom discussion about this concept is important and I appreciate your example in this post. I’m glad to see that the treasure chest is now officially retired.

  9. Matt Gomez says:

    @Sarah Stickers are fun and there is nothing wrong with the excitement kids feel about them, I just avoid using them as rewards. I probably doesn’t help much but I just suggest to continue to focus on acknowledging the work and authentic praise. We tell kids “good job” too much instead of taking the time to say why we are proud. I feel strongly kids prefer attention and authentic praise over rewards! I appreciate the comment.

  10. Matt Gomez says:

    @Matt Exactly! extrinsic is easy and they way it has often been done, but intrinsic is powerful! Thanks for the comment

  11. Crystal Young says:

    I just found your blog and love your stuff on Symbaloo (a teacher friend shared the info). I am currently in a Classroom Management Boot Camp with FairyDustTeaching and we are talking about rewards and punishments and how to move away from using them, so I found your blog post very timely. I too like the idea of using the treasure box for putting the books that will be read that week. Thanks for the encouragement to move away from the “box”!

  12. Matt Gomez says:

    @Crystal FairyDustTeaching is awesome. I am a big fan! The best classroom management I have found is focusing on relationships. Thanks for the comment! Hope you have a great time at boot camp

  13. Adam says:

    Great read. Thanks for sharing your thinking. I teach a Reception (5 year olds) here in Australia. I, too, started out with a reward system and a star chart, but I honestly can’t remember the last time we gave out a star. I talk a lot to the kids about being proud of what they’ve achieved. I’ll often photocopy something great they’ve done and send it home in their diary so they can share it with their family, too. From the comments I get back, I know the parents appreciate this, too.

    My problem is that we have school assemblies where we are expected to give awards to students who’ve displayed our school values. We are required to give out one award for each value. I really don’t like the idea of giving awards to quota, but haven’t found a way around it yet…

    I think Alfie Kohn would enjoy your post.

    ps – going to try Lego painting tomorrow, too. :-)

  14. Matt Gomez says:

    @Adam I have a similar issue at my school with awards for citizenship. Starting the conversation with the leadership about why rewards can be harmful is my main suggestion. I haven’t made much headway in that area but I’m not giving up. I do have control of my class so at least that part has changed. Have fun with the legos!

  15. rachael says:

    I think it is fantastic when teachers (or any profession really) can be open about reflecting on their practices and whether they are valid or relevant. I (and many teachers I am sure) struggle with rethinking our practices-out loud. So Kuddos to you.

    Only in my very first year of teaching did I pass out stickers for “Super Cleaners”. I figured out that the majority of 4 year olds love having the autonomy and responsibly for their own classroom, they are proud to have control. Before I left the states I was one of the few preschool teachers I knew, who did not use behavior charts for those more challenging children. They never made sense to me, yes we have to approach and apply different levels of expectable behaviors towards children, individually and we need to help children succeed (where ever they are at). However I found approaching most behaviors as a class issue and including the children give their input during discusion on “How to be a good friend” or keeping safe was more affective for those children. I think a part of that was because they were included in the problem solving and their goal was the same as their friends; they were not singled out as much for their behaviors and the children were encouraged to “Police” each other (to a certain existent). It often seems that when children call each other out on their behaviors it holds more weight.

  16. Melissa says:

    Does anyone know of research to show the effects of the reward model? I’ve had concerns about the schoolwide reward system based on the Positive Behavior Support (PBS) model that is currently used at my school. It feels like we educators are expected to dangle the proverbial carrot on a stick to get them to behave. I worry, as others have expressed, the effect of this model on those who are not motivated by cheap trinkets and especially on those who try their best, but have the “can’t help its”. You know the kid who is always talking and doesn’t realize he is causing a disruption, etc. I would rather focus on a behavior modification for him than make him feel like a failure each day because he can’t earn the stickers for the levels of our schoolwide model.

  17. Kristin says:

    Hey Matt,
    I thought this was super interesting…and agree with you. I especially liked how you explained to the kids that you don’t do rewards. I have a difficult time buying into the red, yellow, green system so many rooms use…I’ve been tempted to try it because of pressure from our pschyologist but the part I always wrestle with is I don’t like feeling like the kid is going to have that weight on his or her shoulders all day. Do all kids care? No…but for those kids who are often impulsive or are high energy I don’t like the fact that they could have “messed up” early in the day and they are already half way to red. This bothers me especially if you know that some times the home life isn’t the greatest and they need time to transition from whatever icky thing happened at home to school.

    • Matt Gomez says:

      Kristin, I was the kid that always had orange or red. I always felt like the teachers were against me. I don’t ever want my students to feel that way. The facts are that punishment does not fix behavior, only teaching does. We need to teach more and punish less. Thank for the comment

  18. Rebecca says:

    I already have a reward-free class, but I love the way you explained it to your class. That really gives them ownership of their own behavior and helps them develop responsibility for their actions. I plan to do that this year.

  19. Allan Katz says:

    Instead of rewards we can try to give reading an association with fun and enjoyment. The problem with rewards is they do work in the short term and easy to do

  20. kindergeek says:

    You are an inspiration to me, Matt. LOVE this post and the ideas in the comments, too, especially using the former treasure box to feature the treasured books we are reading.

    The most difficult piece for me is the absolutely ridiculous PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention System) that my school uses. We are required to give our kids tickets when they are “caught being good.” I find the whole process ludicrous and detrimental to the development of intrinsic motivation. This goofy system is “governed” by some inspectors who come to our school once a year to question students and staff about our rules and procedures. We are graded on how well we follow their directives. The entire county is required to follow this system.

    I try to keep it out of my classroom as much as possible and I have told other teachers about alternative approaches, but this top-down push for a particular system is difficult to fight. Not that the difficulty will stop me :)

    • Matt Gomez says:

      Thank you so much Kindergeek!It is very hard when you are required to participate in systems like PBIS. We also use PBIS but it is not mandated. Keep fighting the good fight and work to build relationships with decision makers.

  21. Matt,
    We agree on this topic (as well as the NO GLITTER!). I stopped giving treasure years ago. I explain to the parents (because sadly, they are the ones that are disappointed) that as adults, we don’t get stickers and treasure each time we make good decisions or behave as we are expected to. We work on socially appropriate behaviors and they know when I am proud of their choices.

  22. Jenny says:

    I have used a clip chart in my room the last two years to help manage behavior. As a new teacher, I really felt I had to have a ‘system’- but I tried one of the clip charts with the positive side. My students have really responded to it, in part because there are hardly any punishments or rewards directly associated with the chart. Red, which students hardly ever make it to, means they meet with me for a few minutes to talk about their choices and then fill out a “Think Sheet” at home. If they make it to the top, Sparkling, the only reward is a certificate to take home to show their parents and getting to sign the “Sparkling Hall of Fame” in the hallway. My mom keeps collecting Happy Meal toys for me “just in case I have to go back to a Treasure Box,” but the recognition of a job well done (especially the other kids clapping/ congratulating you, which I have never taught them to do but the kids always end up doing) is really motivating for them. ALL of my kids made it to “Sparkling” last year at some point, and by the end of the year, I was barely even needing the clip chart at all because my students knew what I expected. Eventually, I could maybe move to just using verbal reinforcement, but right now this has really worked for me and my students, and they seem to be feeling proud of what they’ve done without getting the “stuff!”

    • Matt Gomez says:

      Jenny it sounds like you are on a similar journey as when I first started teaching. I applaud you for sharing your thoughts and reflecting. I felt like I needed a system the first few years but over time I learned the kids cared more about the attention and reinforcement than the “clips.”
      I feel clip systems are a form of punishment because they are public. Removing the system gave me freedom to truly handle every child and every situation independently. That has been the biggest improvement in my “management”

  23. Melissa says:

    Just logging in to say, “Yes!” I emphasize to my parents at back to school night that in addition to academic goals their children will have social goals that will help them to be better citizens. They always want to know if we have a behavior system–many of our K teachers use a behavior management system with a stoplight analogy. When I first started teaching I used something similar but found it annoying to keep up and the children who needed the help weren’t benefitting from it. Parents are disappointed when I reply that I don’t use one. Their response is, “How will my child know if he/she is behaving well at school.” My response is usually along the lines of their behavior is the reward, learning is the reward . . . My boundaries are firm, fair and consistent, these boundaries teach them the norms in the classroom. Teaching those norms and boundaries takes a lot of time at the beginning of the year but it pays off big. I loved your response to the students about the treasure box. Well done!

  24. Great post – I agree with every word. I was lucky to sub many times in a class (grades 2,3,4) that was run completely by rewards. I found it suffocating and, looking back, I realize the ‘system’ was blocking a true relationship with the students. Every interaction had a currency – ‘what will this (chore, schoolwork, helping a friend) get me?’
    From then on I vowed that once I got ny own class, to never have a reward system. It was difficult those first few years as a newbie. But I found Responsive Classrooms and Alphie Kohn and that made it easier! :)

  25. I watched Alphie Kohn present at a conference my last year in college. I was a big believer. I never had a treasure chest in my classroom and never will. I don’t even have a “turn the card” system. Build a classroom community, foster relationships with your students, and celebrate successes together. Those who end up with prizes from the treasure chest usually do not need the motivation. Those who need help with behavior the most, rarely can meet up to the standards of the “treasure chest.” Then Friday becomes a day of failure for those children. And yes, I had to explain why I didn’t have a treasure chest to my families, but my students never envied the classrooms that had them. However, each teacher has to find their own path for “classroom management.” It is an evolving process for many. Good luck to everyone this year!

    • Matt Gomez says:

      Kathy, it certainly was a path for me. My big “awakening” was realizing just what you stated, the kids benefiting the most did not need the rewards. I really appreciate your thoughts!

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