Behaviour: the art of using rewards right

There is more to rewards than stickers. A behavioural psychologist and early years teacher discuss effective strategies

rewards that will get your pupils jumping for joy – and learning more effectively

Every teacher quickly learns how to tell a child off. 

The science of how to use punishments is a huge focus of teacher training.

Teachers are taught how to alter their voices, adjust their body language and de-escalate tense situations when they’re delivering a sanction.  

But do we spend as much time on the skill of effectively giving out rewards?

Rewards may feel like the friendlier and easier strategy of the two, but rewarding students effectively is much more complex than you may think.


Quick read: 4 things teachers need to know about attachment theory

Quick listen: The problem with whole-school behaviour policies

Want to know more? How to get pupils talking and improve outcomes (free to subscribers)


Part of the problem, according to behavioural psychologists, is working out what motivates people to make the right choice.

We just want to fit in

“People like to think that they’re not influenceable,” says Elspeth Kirkman, senior director of health, education, and communities at the Behavioural Insights Team in London (a group made up of 240 people based all over the world, working on all kinds of policy challenges).

She gives an example: “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?”

But she’s got bad news: “Unfortunately it turns out that’s exactly how our brains are wired.”

Do not despair, she says. We can use this depressing fact about human behaviour to our advantage.

“Often just pointing out [a person is] not behaving in line with what someone else is doing is a really good way to get someone to step up and do the right thing,” she explains.

Micro-decisions shape your life

In her work, Kirkman has found that behaviour isn’t about big moments in learners’ lives, but rather a series of tiny decisions that add up over time.

“When we talk about behaviour, we’re thinking about these small moments of choice, these small decisions that you make,” she explains.

“These really add up over the course of an academic year, across the course of a decade, across the course of a lifetime.”

It’s these decisions, Kirkman says, that can set a student off on a positive course.

“And those choices can be really small micro-decisions like: ‘Am I going to class today? Am I going to read the chapter? Am I going to revise for the exam?’ But they do add up to having these trajectory-changing effects.”

So how can schools use rewards to influence those micro-decisions?

Don't accidentally demotivate 

According to Kirkman, science tells us that the rewards we use with students shouldn’t focus on material things, because you only have a finite amount to give.

“When we talk about rewards, we often think about extrinsic motivators, such as money,” she explains. “And those things definitely can be motivating.

"But one of the problems you have with this is that they’re a limited resource, and so you get the best students, and the same students, winning them every time. So, you’re only motivating the most motivated.”

It’s much more effective to motivate students by appealing to the intangible: their values.

“We’re actually much more motivated by intrinsic factors – things that are innate within us,” she explains. “Those things could be how others perceive you, or being consistent with what we’ve publicly stated we’re going to do.” 

But how would this work in practice? Kirkman explains a study the Behavioural Insights Team conducted in the use of positive affirmations with students, and returning to them during key points in the year.

“People would often write about making their friends and family proud, or building up their own knowledge – things that people deeply value,” she says. 

In the classroom

So, when you get into a classroom, what other considerations do you need to bear in mind?

Claire Watkins, early years lead at Westmeads Community Infant School, let us visit her in her classroom to talk about the tricky task of rewarding pupils.

In Watkins’ classroom, children can be rewarded in a number of different ways.

In her reward arsenal, Watkins has stickers, verbal praise, a jar of marbles,  and also a special badge that pupils can wear, inviting people to ask them what they did that day.

“Then all the adults ask them what they’ve been doing and how they got the badge, so they can share what they’ve done,” she says.

Less is more

Just like learning how to manage sanctions in the classroom, Watkins has found that, over time, her skills in the administration of awards has also improved.

At the beginning, she found herself using a lot of praise before she realised that less is more.

“You learn what the most effective way to praise is,” she says. “Some children don’t like it – they don’t like the over-the-top stuff. And you find out, actually, a smile is enough, because they get quite embarrassed by overpraise.”

The other danger, according to Watkins, is that you can end up praising behaviour that you expect as standard. And in doing so, you start to send out the wrong message.

“The behaviour you want to be considered ‘the norm’, you don't want to keep praising over and over,” she explains. “Because you just want them to expect that this is what you do normally.”

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Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan is senior content writer at Tes

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