Why Rewards Don't Work | The Highly Effective Teacher

Why Rewards Don’t Work

Marie Amaro

13 Mistakes Teachers Make When Using Positive Reinforcement

13 Mistakes Teachers Make When Using Positive Reinforcement

There can be debate on what positive reinforcement actually is, and whether you should or should not use it. Positive reinforcement can be a variety of things: grades on a report card, verbal praise, non-verbal acknowledgement, specific feedback and tangible rewards.

IT’S A HOT TOPIC: To Use Rewards or Not To Use Rewards?


What is Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

What Mistakes Teachers Make When Using Positive Reinforcement

  1. Not addressing the learning
  2. Limiting their use to tangible objects
  3. Don’t use it strategically
  4. Not giving prompt rewards
  5. Unachievable goals
  6. Not used enough
  7. Used too much
  8. Lack of sincerity
  9. Not giving specific behavioural feedback
  10. Using rewards that are not meaningful
  11. Stop using them too soon
  12. Using reinforcement and rewards as an add-on
  13. Not using natural reinforcers

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

The debate can also be muddied by misunderstandings about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

  1. When you are intrinsically motivated you are doing something because you want to, you enjoy it or you have had success with it in the past. No one can give you intrinsic motivation.
  1. Extrinsic motivation on the other hand, means being motivated by something outside yourself. That could be praise from your teacher, or a high mark, your parents’ approval, as well as chocolate, stickers or a pay cheque.

Of course, most teachers would love for their students to see learning as its own reward.

  1. External motivators. But when you have tried to make the learning as appealing as possible, or you have to teach boring content that may be the basis for more interesting work (e.g. times tables or capital cities) or students don’t have the experience of success yet, you may need to use external motivators.

The Top 13 Mistakes Teachers Make With Positive Reinforcement

  1. Not Addressing The Learning. When determining why a student displays certain behaviour it is important to look at and ensure that learning is differentiated, interesting and relevant for that student.

Other Relevant Resources:

  1. Limit Their Use To Tangible Objects. Reinforcement is not just tangible motivators such as lollies or stickers, but also includes praise, feedback and positive comments. Rewards can also be free time, a game, time with a friend, being the leader or helper, the list is endless. In our complex roles as teachers, we play an important part in developing the whole child. The feedback we give kids teaches them how to monitor their behaviour and assess their own work, and can help them label feelings.

For example, ‘Tom, you must feel proud at how much you have improved”.

  1. Don’t Use It Strategically. According to John Maag in his seminal article Rewarded by Punishment, positive and negative reinforcement occur naturally in the classroom, so it makes sense to decide in advance the behaviours you want to reinforce rather than inadvertently or haphazardly reinforcing negative behaviours. Whatever you give attention to will increase in intensity and frequency so make sure you are putting more of your energy into the behaviour you want to encourage.
  1. Not Giving Prompt Rewards. For a reward to be effective, it needs to be administered as close to the task as possible. When a student has to wait too long for the reward, it loses its meaning and appeal.
  1. Unachievable Goals. Ensure that the student can achieve the behavioural or academic goal. If you make the goal too difficult and the student does not feel that they can achieve it, they will not be motivated to put in the effort.
  1. Not Used Enough. Not giving enough praise and encouragement can have the impact of demotivating students and fails to teach them to celebrate small wins in their learning.

KEY: Students who lack confidence at school may not have experienced academic success, so the use of external reinforcers such as teacher praise or tangible rewards is necessary to help them on the path to internal motivation.

Depending on the age of the student and their past behaviour, use reinforcement that will improve the current situation e.g. if a student does no work, reward 10 minutes of work.

If a student refuses to enter the classroom, reward entering and sitting down (once that is occurring consistently, move onto a new goal).

  1. Used Too Much. Going overboard with praise and rewards devalues the (positive) reinforcement and can come across as meaningless.

Positive reinforcement needs to be carefully aligned with the needs of the student and you need to use the least amount necessary to achieve the goal.

The reinforcer can also be faded with time as the student consistently displays the behaviour i.e. they need to achieve more to receive the same reward.

Be truthful about what has been achieved, compare it to past efforts and look towards continuous improvement.

Rewards Needs to be genuine and authentic
  1. Not Giving Specific Behavioural Feedback to the student.

When you want students to repeat a behaviour, or learn a new behaviour it is helpful to give specific feedback about the behaviour.

For example, if a student continually calls out, raises their hand or wait their turn to speak, specific feedback reinforces the behaviour and lets them know what they did that was appropriate.

Praising student effort and improvement rather than ability and talent can assist in developing a growth mindset.

Other Related Resources:

  1. Use Rewards That Are Not Meaningful to the student.

Sometimes teachers rack their brains trying to think of appropriate rewards for students. I have found that the best way is to go to the source.

Ask the student!

If they have trouble thinking of rewards, you could make some suggestions and discuss what appeals to them.

  1. Stop Using Them Too Soon. Some teachers lose heart when a student’s behaviour does not change or the reward stops working.

You need to be flexible and adaptable, give choice of rewards, and persevere despite the setbacks.

When you are working with a student with challenging behaviour there will be times when a particular reinforcer does not work, that doesn’t mean that reinforcement doesn’t work, it means that you need to think more creatively and involve the student in the decision making.

12. Using Rewards And Reinforcement As An Add-on rather than as an integral part of their teaching.

When positive reinforcement is part of the fabric of your classroom, it doesn’t feel like extra work and students will participate in giving each other positive feedback and encouragement.

Other Related Resources:

  1. Not Using Natural Reinforcers. When a student raises their hand instead of calling out, the natural reinforcement is to be called on to answer.

When a student completes work early, they get to have free time or have a choice of activities.

Other Related Questions

Why Is Positive Reinforcement So Good For Teacher Wellbeing?


Marie Amaro

Marie is the author of Habits of Highly Effective Teachers and is a passionate educator, with over 30 years experience working in education. Marie is a speaker, presenter and specialises in positive behaviour management, teacher wellbeing, restorative practices and school culture.