Creative Incentives to Encourage Positive Student Behavior

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Creative Incentives to Encourage Positive Student BehaviorAs a group of fourth graders was leaving my classroom last week, I said this to affirm their behavior: “Wow. They must have had awesome sauce for breakfast!”

Visibly delighted by my compliment, the fourth graders’ teacher instructed them to go back to their classroom and get their checkbooks. Gasps of excitement filled the room as the kids tried to contain their joy because she was going to make a Scholar Dollar deposit in each of their individual accounts for a job well done. It sparked a memory from when I was in elementary school: My teacher would give us postage stamps for every paper that earned an A. I vividly remember working so hard to earn those stamps, and though they have browned around the edges now, I still have that stamp collection today.

I left that interaction wishing I had thought to capitalize on good character choices when I was a teacher. Sure, I used novelty stickers, which my students loved because they were written in Spanish, for the papers with the highest grades, but I didn’t have a system quite as rewarding as Scholar Dollars.

What else can we do to creatively incentivize expected behaviors?

Brag Tags
According to my research, Brag Tags were created about three years ago by teacher-blogger Angie Olson at Lucky Little Learners as a way for teachers to acknowledge their students’ awesome behavior. Since this idea was rolled out, Brag Tags have become wildly successful. So what are they?

Basically, Brag Tags are a laminated piece of paper or cardstock that students can earn for doing something that makes their teacher proud. They might be for simple yet important things, like a Silent Walker tag for showing respect in the hallways; a Growth Mindset tag for showing best effort, perseverance, or grit; a Kindness Crusader tag for going out of one’s way to be kind; or a Peacemaker tag for spreading peace. There are also tags available for academic milestones and achievements. Anyone can earn a Brag Tag. Students can wear tags on a chain around their necks or attach them to their backpacks on a shortened chain or ring. If you’re trying to shape a specific behavior, there’s likely a Brag Tag that can help you.

I visited a first-grade class that is using Brag Tags as a goal-setting empowerment tool this year, and the students were so passionate as they told me all about the tags. They get to decide which Brag Tag they want to earn, then they set that as their goal at the beginning of the week by writing down exactly what they need to do to earn that Brag Tag. On Fridays, they reflect on what they’ve done to merit that specific tag, then conference with their teacher to decide whether they’ve met their goal or need to keep trying.

SUPERHERO Badges
Along the same lines as a Brag Tag, a SUPERHERO Badge is something the physical education coach at my school uses very effectively to incentivize superhero behavior. Using the acrostic “SUPERHEROES” from my character education manual What’s Under Your Cape?, her students learn about eleven different character traits and have an opportunity to earn a badge for each trait. To earn their Service badge, for example, students must provide a service, like helping with equipment, volunteering to be the scorekeeper, or walking with an injured friend to the nurse. This incentive creates a win-win for classroom climate because it not only gets students looking around for opportunities to serve, but it also provides much-appreciated assistance in those large PE classes.

Students have about three weeks to earn their Service badges before moving on to U, the Unconditional Love badge. This badge gives students a chance to serve as the “No Buddy Left Behind” friend who buddies up with a child who doesn’t have a partner that day. They might also earn this badge for behaviors like apologizing to right a wrong, affirming someone with kind words, or forgiving someone when he or she makes a mistake.

After rotating through all eleven traits, caregivers are invited to the SUPERHEROES Badge Ceremony designed to celebrate the students and the badges that they’ve earned.

Engaging Experiences
Some educators incentivize good behavior using a system where students earn tickets that they can trade for an outing or experience. Twenty tickets, for example, might equal lunch with the school counselor or a visit to read to the class of a former teacher. Thirty tickets could result in five extra minutes outside at recess or indoors in the class’s Makerspace. Or, the student could earn a nature walk with a role model at the school, or some alone time to practice mindfulness in a Calming Corner or Peace Area.

Forty tickets could put the child in charge of the Character Cam, playing the role of the paparazzi for a day. A fun, fifty-ticket option might be the chance to “Chalk the Walks” with a friend by writing inspirational messages on the sidewalks. Students could earn a spot as the Marquee Manager or a week on safety patrol, assisting younger students at crosswalks or greeting them when they arrive at school each day. Who wouldn’t work to earn some “Do Your Own Thing” free-choice time or have a chance to play with the special recess equipment? What other experiences can you think of that your students would likely enjoy? Why not ask them? You may be surprised by how willing your students will be to work for these simple yet powerful outings.

Other incentives to encourage desired behaviors include the chance to earn a Perfect Attendance Award for coming to school every day, the chance to be named to the All-A Honor Roll for academic achievement, and the chance to join the Character Honor Roll for making good character choices.

An important reminder: Our goal as we employ extrinsic incentives and rewards is to work toward intrinsic satisfaction and motivation, so always check to make sure you have a healthy balance between the two as you work toward building self-discipline, self-control, self-management, self-regulation, and self-reliance.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 33rd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.


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