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Behaviour - Devising a reward system that sticks

The humble sticker is one of the most effective weapons in your behaviour arsenal. To deploy it effectively, adhere to these tips

The humble sticker is one of the most effective weapons in your behaviour arsenal. To deploy it effectively, adhere to these tips

"I bet you're a primary teacher," says the lady in the wines and spirits section of aisle 14. It is Friday night and I am scouring the shelves of our local supermarket for a Chilean Merlot reduced from pound;9.99 to pound;4.99 while stocks last.

"What gave it away?" I ask. Was it my desperation for alcohol, the droop of my shoulders or the three whiteboard pens sticking out of my jacket pocket? She peels something off my back and hands it to me. It is a big smiley face proclaiming to the world that I'm a classroom superstar.

As you can see, I am a fan of the reward sticker. Without stickers to oil the wheels of good behaviour, much of the learning that takes place in my classroom would grind to a noisy, fidgety and argumentative halt. They are as much a part of the primary landscape as number fans, spelling lists and nasal secretions.

Being ubiquitous and tacky (in every sense of the word) doesn't stop reward stickers working, despite what some may claim. Sometimes I have only to reach in the direction of my Starry Smiles and the children respond like Pavlov's dogs. In seconds they are sitting up with their arms folded, the perfect litter of well-behaved pups.

Children crave approval, and rewards are the physical manifestation of that. And they don't really care whether that reward is the must-have Christmas toy or a simple sticky piece of paper with a face drawn on it.

That said, you do have to use rewards carefully. Like the glue on my Starry Smiles, novelty soon wears off; especially if you keep playing with it. So to prevent your sticker-based reward system from coming spectacularly unstuck, here are four rules worth adhering to.

Avoid inflation

The first guideline for promoting good behaviour is don't just throw stickers at it. Like the supply of money in the economy, the number of stickers released at any one time must be carefully controlled. Too few risks de-incentivising the majority, while too many leads to hyperinflation followed by devaluation and a slump in the very behaviour you are seeking to promote.

As a general rule, a good time to increase the supply of stickers is either at the start of a new term or at the beginning of a fresh behaviour initiative. At these points, the sticker-giving upturn should be announced with as much fanfare as possible and marked with the introduction of a new set of sticker designs. These should be jazzier, bigger and generally more desirable than the old ones.

After an initial period during which all children find themselves the beneficiaries of mass stickering, the qualifications required for gaining stickers should be gradually increased. Making the rewards progressively harder but more satisfying to achieve will avoid them eventually turning out not to be worth the sticky-backed paper they are printed on.

Target your rewards

Stimulating good behaviour in the wider sense may mean that you are not always making the best use of your sticker resources. It is best to be specific in your targets. For example, if your children are generally well-behaved and on task in lessons but desperately need to improve when it comes to tidying everything away at the end of the day, make sure that stickers are available for that particular activity. The important thing to remember when targeting your stickering is to make it clear to the children exactly what kind of behaviour you are looking for and how you intend to reward it.

Stickers as currency

Some children are immune to stickers. Either because of their age or through sheer sticker fatigue, they begin to think that there's got to be more to a life of unrelenting sitting up straight, not calling out and not running along corridors than a piece of sticky paper with a smiley face on it.

The answer is to turn your stickers into a currency that children can use to purchase more tangible rewards in the future. For example, why not allow them to trade in a completed sticker chart for 30 minutes on the computer? Even better, why not let them purchase a magnificent prize from your Friday Sticker Shop? Novelty erasers and glittery gel pens always go down a treat.

Peer approval

As most primary teachers know, an intensive programme of stickering is a demanding activity, both physically and in terms of time. One solution is to delegate the task. Choose a child who is demonstrating the behaviour characteristics you are looking for to be Sticker Picker. Then while you get on with teaching, he or she can pick out the children doing the right things. I find peer stickering is especially useful during long Friday afternoons. But one note of caution: choose your Sticker Picker with care. Derren in my class likes to sticker anyone and everyone - including his teacher.

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, England.

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