This Fall, Let Building Authentic Relationships With Students Be the Best Incentive

I’ve been teaching English for over fifteen years in several different countries, and I’ve found that when I focus on helping students to learn new skills, make connections, and be reflective learners, they become the best version of themselves. This has always been my goal, so in the fall I will be working with a team of teachers to launch a program that focuses on these kinds of goals.

When you were in school, you probably made some friends within your class. Maybe you had a friend who was in a different grade and had a different interests. Then, you had your best friends. Then, you had the perfect friend, the one who was the best at sports, the one who was the smartest in your classes, the one who could always make you laugh. The one who had it all. And then you graduated.

To be successful in today’s global economy, the most important skills and habits that we learn are those that will lead us to success in our career or education. Yet, when it comes to designing rigorous curriculum and implementing it effectively in schools, many educators are wary of using extrinsic rewards when it comes to motivating students. So, what are the alternatives to extrinsic rewards, and what could we do to incorporate it into our schools?



Adults will give kids anything from gift cards to extra credit at hundreds of schools around the country this fall to get pupils to attend school regularly or complete necessary work.

The incentives will be well-intended. As schools moved away from more reactive, punitive tactics like suspensions during the last decade, several embraced more proactive approaches. Good Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a strategy that focuses more on promoting positive behaviors than punishing bad ones, is currently used in over 20,000 schools. PBIS urges schools to create “token” or incentive systems to promote good conduct, and many education websites showcase various prizes to motivate pupils as part of this strategy.

However, research into the use of rewards in schools raises serious concerns about their effectiveness. Researchers paid groups of children across several locations and grade levels to enhance their academic performance in one study, but found no statistical link between those who got the incentives and those who did not. More recently, researchers from many institutions cooperated on a comprehensive study of attendance certificates and discovered that employing incentives to promote attendance had either no statistical impact or had a negative effect.

These results are in line with motivation studies conducted outside of the educational sector. Higher incentives only generate better results when the intended behavior is simple or mechanical, according to MIT economist Dan Ariely, who has conducted studies all over the globe. The greater the incentives, the worse the consequences when the conduct in issue is complicated.

So, despite strong scientific proof of their ineffectiveness, how can we explain why thousands of schools throughout the nation continue to employ incentives as a key technique? The truth is that, with so much on educators’ plates in a typical year—let alone in the midst of a pandemic—we seek for shortcuts, and rewarding student conduct frequently seems to be the most convenient option.

However, like with other shortcuts in life, using financial incentives to motivate kids has unexpected effects. We establish a transactional connection between students and adults when we commercialize student behaviors, focusing on extrinsic rewards rather than dealing with the fundamental issue of why we believe kids need incentives to do well in school. The incentive mechanisms, more often than not, promote the same structural inequalities that are at the core of our institutions.

Students react to genuine, culturally responsive interactions and systems where they have agency and feel their identities are respected in the long run, according to the truth about student motivation.

Some schools and instructors are rethinking their incentive schemes. When one high school moved from a rewards-based system to a program that focused on character development, students’ academic abilities and desire to engage improved. Some instructors who abandoned their incentive schemes adopted Responsive Classroom techniques, while others concentrated on self-reflection.

Several groups are assisting schools and teachers in developing genuine, egalitarian, and reward-free learning environments. Building Equitable Learning Environments, Transcend Education, and PBL Works are all good places to start.

Let’s take use of this summer to reassess how we engage kids. When kids return to school, we should cease rewarding them with meaningless rewards for complying and instead treat them as important members of our communities, decision-makers, and co-constructors of learning.

Envato Elements-licensed photo by Mint Images.

A few months ago I posted about how innovative ways to motivate students could be discovered through the use of games and gamification. The article was titled, “How to Motivate Students by Playing Games”, and it was a big hit with educators. I was amazed at the enthusiasm that educators had for my ideas, and I wanted to get some solid, actionable ideas to share with all of my readers.. Read more about edutopia student engagement and let us know what you think.

Related Tags

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • authentic student engagement
  • best practices for online student engagement
  • pbis student incentives
  • classroom management models and theories
  • edutopia student engagement

About the Author: Prateek

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