Get the Most Out of Your Student Reward Dollars

Student incentives don’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. Try these ideas for inexpensive and free ways to say “great job!”

An elementary school girl high-fiving her teacher in class

by NEA Member Benefits

Educators go to great lengths to inspire students to read, achieve, behave, participate—or sometimes just show up. In addition to yesterday’s gold stars and candy, today’s rewards include everything from principals shaving their heads to e-rewards kids cash in online.

Studies show these types of reward systems work. “Rewards are a very public way of acknowledging positive behavior or accomplishments,” says Nicole Green, vice president of Customer Insights and Communication at Carson-Dellosa Publishing. “Plus, it creates positive peer pressure, motivating other children to work harder so they can earn the reward, too!”

But how do you reward students when you’re strapped for cash? Don’t fret. The following inexpensive and even free ideas can help incentivize your students without breaking the bank.

Merit: Certificates/paper rewards

How it works: From temporary tattoos and badges to bookmarks and congratulatory certificates, paper rewards are an inexpensive way to congratulate students for a job well done. “Educators use behavior charts, incentive charts or a stop light chart (green = good, red = poor). If a child is on green all day or all week, the educator issues a reward,” says Green. “Other educators use ‘Caught Being Good’ awards to spontaneously recognize good behavior.” Depending on the educator’s reward system, students may earn rewards for everything from random acts of kindness to completing homework assignments and achieving a high grade.

Merit: Tokens

How it works: At Great Oak High School in Temecula, California, American Sign Language Teacher Meghan Santone awards students beads for participation. Students who earn 10 beads at the end of the unit get to skip a quiz. “I thought my high-schoolers would be ‘too cool’ for beads, but they love the competition,” says Santone. Other educators have a “store” or treasure box filled with goodies such as stickers, tattoos, bookmarks and other treats. At the end of the week, they will allow the students who earned the most stickers on their incentive charts or who had the best behavior to choose a prize from the treasure box. Target, The Dollar Store and other retailers offer many of these items at discount prices. They don’t cost much, but they pack a powerful motivational punch.

Merit: Intangibles

How it works: Elementary school principals shave their heads to get children to read more at home. Junior high school teachers throw pizza parties for students who boost their grades in at least two subjects each quarter. And high school teachers might excuse a student from taking a quiz for turning in perfect homework assignments. Some students are more motivated by these intangible rewards than a material object. “If you can create that excitement for learning and doing, you almost don’t need a reward,” says Brittany Rowe, 4th grade educator at Eastridge Elementary School in Tennessee, who has lunched with students and their friends, kissed a pig and sat in a dunk tank, all in the name of inspiring her students to learn. As a 6th grade educator at Piedmont Middle School in Alabama, Michele Downey came up with an “eggcellent stunt.” “I promised each student could crack one egg on my head if they met their reading goal. 83 students met their goal!” says Downey who asked a local grocery store to donate the eggs. “Was it messy? Yes!! Was it stinky? Oh yeah! Eggs in the springtime sun in Alabama quickly began to smell. But my students loved it!”