High School Student Reward Systems

Authored by Julia E. Barrus in Teaching and Learning
Published on 06-29-2009

Every teacher struggles, sooner or later, with the issue of setting up a reward system. It would be great if students were motivated by the intrinsic (psychological) value of gaining an education. The reality is that it takes a while for students to be motivated to learn for the sake of gaining knowledge. This is where the reward systems come into play. There are two main types of reward systems, exchange value, and positive behavior support. Let’s take a look at both and examine the benefits and drawbacks of using each system.

Exchange Value

In the exchange value reward system, students are given a slip of paper, postcards, tokens etc. that symbolize the value of good behavior and/or participation. These objects serve as a symbol of what they are worth and really aren’t worth anything themselves. In a way, this is similar to a piece of paper that really isn’t worth much on its own, but society gives it value by calling it “money.” Usually, students take these objects to the teacher and exchange them for a prize, piece of candy, gift certificate etc.

The benefits: This reward system is relatively low cost to establish since the goal is that students will want to accumulate more of the symbolic objects in order to receive a larger prize. The teacher establishes the value system, and so can make them worth as much or as little as he or she chooses. Also, a competition factor comes into play where students compete with each other to have the most and the best of the prizes offered.

The drawbacks: Some students may get discouraged with how long it takes to earn enough of the objects to “buy” something of “value”. They also may not buy into the reward system if the prizes aren’t to their liking. One never wants to make the mistake of giving rewards in a predictable fashion because then, good behavior will only be present if a reward is given. These drawbacks can be conquered when one person gets a universally acknowledged “amazing” prize and spreads the news through word of mouth. Also, major prizes should only be given sporadically, such as once a quarter.

Positive Behavior Support

The Positive Behavior Support reward system is based on supporting desirable behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. Usually, those that abide by the rules of the PBS system get some sort of monetary, verbal or exchange value prize for their good behavior.

The benefits: PBS systems are established at the outset of a class or school year. They are only strong when bought into by a lot of people and established across the board. The students who thrive best within the PBS systems are those who value their place in the system and the positive opinion of authority figures.

The drawbacks: Rewards cannot be emphasized more than the validity of the system as a means of establishing a desirable and productive learning environment. Students will only buy into a system if they experience the negative aspects of not having the system in place.


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