A few years ago, a co-teacher taught me a positive reinforcement behavioral system to use in the high school classroom, where students played a game every class to get points for good behavior. Students were working toward a goal that they selected as a class, such as free time at the end of class, a piece of candy, or a whole-class party. The game was effective, fun, and…expensive. We were either losing too much class time to the students’ free time, or I was raking up the receipts at Walmart from all the candy I was buying.
I decided to make a shift in my classroom. I had seen how much using positive reinforcement had energized my students, and I didn’t want to go back to the behavioral issues I had before I knew a better way. However, I needed something that didn’t cost me or my instruction so much. I decided to come up with a handful of free-to-me, yet motivating, coupons.
A lot of people think that something like coupons is too juvenile for upper-level students, but I would argue differently. I brainstorm the rewards my students want to receive with my students to ensure that they are desirable, and I really recommend this strategy. Now, my students will jump at the chance to receive a tiny piece of paper. Here are some ways I use my coupons in the classroom, and how my students respond:
Change Unwanted Behaviors
I have a class this year that struggles with tardiness. Several students were coming in late and being disruptive to the students who were already engaging in their work. I was marking them tardy and reminding them of the school’s consequence for receiving six tardies in one class, but it wasn’t working. One day, I decided to change my tactic to praise the behavior I liked seeing. Two minutes after the bell had rung, every student who was in their class with all of their necessary materials out and ready to go received a coupon. The next day, I kid you not, I had 90% of students who were ready for class. Although I had to keep working with the others, this was a much higher success rate. Now, I randomly reward timeliness to keep students motivated to come to class on time by rewarding them with a coupon.
Make group work a competition for engagement
When students are doing group work, I will state that the two groups who have the best participation will receive a coupon. As students are working, I will verbally call out and praise specific behavior that I like seeing from students (for example, “I love how everyone in this group is leaning in so they can all see the problem”). This helps other groups know what they should be striving for or redirect to get back on track. At the end, I present the coupons with specific reasoning to the whole class about behaviors I noticed in the participants. To be honest, I’m not sure which is more effective here–the coupon or the verbal praise–but I’ve seen wonders worked through positive reinforcement.
Praise the One Kid Who is Being Kind
Sometimes, when I’m rushing at the end of class, I’ll ask someone to pick up my whiteboards, dry erase markers, and timers, for example. At this point, kids are packed up and ready to go and, often, there is the one lone student who volunteers. To show this student that I notice their kindness, I will give them an unanticipated coupon, and let the whole class know that I am doing so. This often also helps me drum up more volunteers for the next time. I will also occasionally give a coupon to a student who I see doing something kind or including a student who is sometimes left out. I want my students to know that kindness counts in my class.
Motivation for Undesirable Tasks
This year, I challenged my students to act out a part of their learning. One class was super not into it. We were also running short on time, so I decided to not require that all groups perform their work. I offered groups two coupons, if everyone in their group agreed to volunteer to perform. Well, this one kind of bit me in the butt, because every single group volunteered for the coupons, and we had to rush through the presentations. This really showed me how much my students value these coupons. I was shocked they would do a pretty undesirable task for just a couple of them.
Here are just four of the coupons that I’ve created in my classroom. While I highly recommend brainstorming ideas for what students want with your students, these have been very popular in my classes over the years:
- Sit on the couch: I inherited a classroom couch last year, and students love to sit on it. I only let one person sit on it a day, and that kiddo will stretch out and get comfortable to do their work. They love this one. I also bought a lap desk, so students could work more easily.
- Tardy pass: As I’ve mentioned, tardies are an issue with my students. This pass allows them to be up to five minutes late without being marked tardy. They will ask if they can double them up by using two tardy passes to be ten minutes late, and the answer is: no.
- Break out of cell phone prison: Cell phones are so distracting for all students. Gosh, they are even distracting for me! I give my students ‘cell phone breaks’ in class every day, but if students are using their cell phones inappropriately beyond that, I put their cell phone in prison. Students can get it back immediately if they turn in a ‘Break out of cell phone prison’ coupon. I always recommend that students have one of these in their reservoir, just in case.
- Positive Guardian Contact: This one is the BEST! Students love this one, but I love it too. If you turn in this coupon, I will call or text the parent/guardian that day to tell them something awesome the student did in class. It is a great way to help me continue to praise my students to their guardians throughout the year. It improves my relationships with students. Secondary guardians are not accustomed to this, so parents are really thrilled to hear from me. This is a win-win all around.
As you can tell from my gushing, I love, love, love my coupon system, and I know that my students do too. It’s never too late to incorporate more positive praise in the classroom…even if it’s in the middle of the year! I’d love to hear your stories about your rewards systems and how they work in your classroom. Reply below to let me know! Additionally, I am sharing my coupon templates with you for FREE. Click the button below!