Why Stickers and Other Incentives Don't Work

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

And 8 ideas to try instead...

You have spent hours creating the perfect, creative, TPT worthy lesson. Bought bags of candy to handout to students. Rearranged the classroom and poured your heart and soul into this day! Your students walk in the room and respond with...

"Do we have to do this?"

Your jaw drops, why are they asking this crazy question? You were so excited and now...ugh! Another soul crushing day in the classroom.

So you respond by trying to convince them, "Oh my gosh guys this is going to be so much fun!"

"This is so lame."

"But I brought candy."


Why do students respond this way? Why aren't they as excited as you are?

'We can offer every reward in the world or threaten every punishment at our disposal...but nothing works!


Because we are trying to force our belief of what is important and exciting onto the student. Our perfect lessons are designed to extrinsically motivate the kid.

Extrinsic motivation is when a reward or recognition motivates a person to perform. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is what causes people to accomplish something simply because they want to.

According to Daniel Pink, career analyst and author of Drive,

"when it comes to creative problem solving, the prospect of extrinsic rewards actually hurts performance."

It is always going to be our relationship with the student which helps them be successful, not dangling the carrot (sticker, star, candy, or punishment.)

Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards says:

"Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards–like punishments–are unnecessary when these things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case."

I know you have created engaging, important (no busywork) lessons, and established a caring, empathetic and student centered environment. So what are we missing?!

The number one way to help students discover their intrinsic motivation for learning is CHOICE!

How do we create choice in our classrooms?

1. Allow students to choose what materials to use.

There is a wealth of information at student's fingertips, we don't need to provide the material for them!

When students are allowed to choose the material, they are more likely to engage with the article or story and therefore will get more out of the experience.

2. Allow students to choose to work alone or with a partner.

I love working with a partner, but not everyone does, so why make them?

Encourage the collaboration but in the end allow the student to choose. What I have learned is when students are forced to work together they often just sit and stare at the page, getting nothing done at all. These same students will have the entire assignment done quickly if allowed to work alone.

3. Is a test really necessary?

Allow students to choose different assessments. I mean, what is the main goal here? To teach test taking strategies or the content?

I want to know the student understands the content and there are an unlimited number of ways to do that. Let them choose!

Deborah Meier and Matthew Knoester pose numerous ideas for alternative assessments in their book titled, Beyond Testing: Seven Assessment of Students and Schools More Effective that Standardized Tests.

4. Do I have to take Cornell notes?

Why??? Why do teachers force their students to take notes one way? Because that's what they like? Come on people, that makes no sense.

You should see the look of glee on my students faces when I tell them they get to take notes however they want. Their response is "really?!" Like I'm trying to trick them into something. "Yes, really!"

Again, what is your main goal here? Teach them how to take notes several different ways and then allow the students to decide what works best for them. The University of Redlands gives this handout titled, Five Notetaking Methods in their Academic Success Program, check it out!

5. I hate homework.

Whoops, that was me as a parent speaking. Homework sucks! If you are going to hand it out, make it important! Give options!

Can students do a one-pager using any format they want? Can they define terms by other means than writing down the definition? How about drawing a picture or finding a meme that defines the word? Can students choose which 10 problems to do in math?

You are taking away valuable family time, make sure it is interesting and important.

6. Where else in the world do I have to write a 5 paragraph essay?

I'm sure someone, somewhere had to write a 5 paragraph essay outside of school... well, wait I take that back, HAS anyone outside of school HAD to write a 5 paragraph essay?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron author of Just Ask Us (Corwin, 2018) suggests giving students choice in the structure of their essays. She says, "We know that the traditional five-paragraph essay doesn’t exist in the world outside of school, and in fact, in many of the formal tests administered to students, that standardized structure never even appears, so teach students to take risks with their written structure. Teach students how to organize their thoughts using subheadings, bullets, and numbering. Teach them how to use transitions that not only work between paragraphs, but also work between sections of text. Teach them about captions and integrating quotes. Allow students to embed images and videos into their essays as well as data or textual evidence. Give them choice in the structure of their essay and you might just find that they can communicate their knowledge more clearly than trying to fit what’s in the brain into a structure that doesn’t connect with them."

How awesome is that?!!!

7. Why do we make students sit all day long?

A few years ago, I begged my principal for some standing desks. It took a lot of begging but he finally got them for me.

My fidgety kiddos love the option of standing!

These are the desks I got from AlphaBetter and they have been great! To all you teachers with flex seating options, you guys rock!

8. And sometimes there is choice even when there is no choice!

In my class, student's cell phones must be put away. There is no choice. But how they put it away can be a choice.

I have all of my students place their phones in a padded, Velcro pouch which they keep at their desk, but remind them not to use the phone.

I made 30 different pouches and students get to choose which one they want to use.

They can also place their phone at a charging station -a couple of power strips with USB inputs on a table- in the front of the room. (I found these cool power strips with USB inputs at Amazon.) That choice is theirs.

When students have choice in their day, they have ownership.

This ownership naturally leads itself to a student wanting to do well...just for the sake of doing well. Choice leads to intrinsic motivation in such a way that stickers, treats, rewards, or punishments never could.

We would love to hear from you in the comments below...How do you allow choice in your classroom?

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