Reward Systems

When we try to get students to change their behavior we often take a “motivational approach.” We find something the student wants and offer that as a reward for doing well. People use the term reward to talk about something that you get after you have done what you are supposed to and reinforcement to describe something that occurs in the moment to make a behavior more likely to occur in the future. Thus, a reward for doing your work might be that, when its done, you get some extra free time. A reinforcement would occur while the student is doing their work and might include verbal praise, being handed a prize ticket (etc…).

There’s a problem with this “motivational” approach: If a student doesn’t have the SKILLS to engage in a more preferable behavior, or there is a stronger motivator (like not being embarrassed, or regulating strong emotions), rewards and reinforcement alone don’t work. So how do you use rewards?


What does that mean? While a student may not be able to perform a desired behavior under the circumstances you want, you can have a student practice new behaviors and reward that student for learning and practice time. This is much better than expecting the student to have the skill and know what to do.

Example A: “Jimmy, I will give you extra computer time if you can use a quiet voice when you transition in from recess all this week.”

Example B: “Jimmy, I will give you extra computer time if you will rehearse a quiet transition with me three times this week.

Example B gives you some time to set your expectations for Jimmy, teach Jimmy skills he needs to transition quietly and find out more about the problem.

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