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Teacher holding up Dorian's Rocket Math certificate that says he rocketed through subtraction facts

At Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School, we leverage learning through consistent schoolwide incentives. It isn't just the incentives that engage students, but a combination of rewards, total school commitment, and consistency from adults that have created incredible academic results and happy students. Within our student body, 93.1 percent are predicted to make benchmark on the STAR reading assessment. As of early February, 468 students have read 68,623 books since the school year began. In of our first and fifth grades, 81 percent have reached fluency for their grade level benchmark. We recognize the power of consistency through guaranteeing all students the same incentives regardless of their classroom assignment for the year. This creates a motivating atmosphere which, coupled with the positive schoolwide attitude, ensures that students are engaged in their learning.

Layers of Incentives

We have several layers of incentives that we believe are important to meet the needs of all students.


Every teacher has incentives designed to provide students with clear feedback on appropriate classroom behavior, and a path to progress toward mastery of the curriculum. Teachers are free to design their own incentives here. Which system they choose isn't as important as the fact that there is a system in place and that it's followed consistently.

Grade Level

We have two types of grade-level incentives, one for reading and one for math. For reading, we use the Accelerated Reader (AR) system for tracking. Students earn a point when they pass a quiz demonstrating comprehension. Quizzes can range in value based on the complexity of the book. We like AR because most of our books have a comprehension quiz to prove that students have read and understood the story. Easy books have five questions, and more difficult books have ten.

For math, we use Rocket Math. When students master key units, they receive a certificate and a charm. For math, they get one charm each for all addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. For reading, they get one charm for each series of books that they complete.

Once a month, we calculate all the points for all classes. The class with the highest number of points gets to house the grade-level trophy in their room for the next month. Classrooms love to win the trophies, which keeps their achievement levels high.

But we don't just incentivize academics. We also hold a monthly citizenship assembly to award good citizens, junior chefs, and the grade-level trophies. Each grade level performs at one assembly a year.


Schoolwide incentives provide another layer of teacher support that can be incorporated into classroom and campus management. Our students earn I spy tickets from all staff members for doing good things. They can be given out for any reason at all. Each Friday, the students with ten I spy tickets come to the office to receive a prize from the principal. If they have 20, they get a sticker sheet and the prize of the week. This is a standard routine that the students can count on, and it allows playground supervisors, custodians, and lunchroom supervisors to pass out rewards when kids make good choices.

Emphasis on Reading

Reading is positively reinforced across the campus through our Reading Series Explorations. This is a program where students choose entire series of books that they want to read and work with different staff (not necessarily their own teachers) to accomplish their goals.

Leveling Up With Series

Book series are a great way to engage tentative readers. We have created face bookmarks which students use to track their progress. For instance, if Johnny wants to read the Hardy Boys, he takes his own face bookmark to Mr. Harris and then gets the first book in the series, as well as a series bookmark. Each book lives in a pocket which also includes the series bookmark. Johnny reads the book he's chosen and takes a quiz. If he passes it with 80 percent or better, he returns to Mr. Harris and exchanges his book for the next one in the series. When he's done with the series, he shows the bookmark to Mr. Harris and gets a charm. He reclaims his face bookmark and goes on to the next level-appropriate series that he wants to read.

All teachers and support staff participate in this program to create a total school commitment toward literacy. Students earn a charm for each completed series, and their necklaces are proudly displayed in their classrooms. Each student immediately earns a certificate and charm when they complete a level in Rocket Math, delivered to the classroom by administration. In addition, each month the students can earn a Lucky Ducky for completing 20 AR points. This is a stretch goal for most students, and they're very excited when they win a duck.

Managing the Costs

Our school is committed to implementing all programs with integrity and consistency. This creates a very positive environment where all students know exactly what is expected, can choose their learning goals, and are consistently rewarded. Think of it as getting a paycheck for your job and a raise for a job with extra effort. While some of our reward systems are expensive, we also add strategies to reduce the costs where we can. The trophies are purchased only once and are given back at the end of the month to be earned again. The charm necklaces require an initial investment, but we're always coming up with trade-in strategies to recycle the charms. Certificates and I spy tickets don't cost much at all but are very powerful as a schoolwide system. As a staff, we know that we need all of these systems in place and would certainly add more, but we never consider losing any of these established reward systems.

Does your school use incentives? In the comments below, please describe what they are and how well they work.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School.

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Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

If you have to reward children to learn what you are teaching, there's something seriously wrong. Children are born learners. They don't have to be externally rewarded to learn to communicate or to walk. Not to mention that they do it without much in the way of "direction instruction." Just watch a toddler repeat the same actions over and over, oblivious to what is happening around them. They continue doing this until they have learned what THEY want to learn. No external rewards or bribes necessary.

In Daniel Pink's excellent book Drive: Surprising Facts about What Motivates Us, he argues that people are motivated when they see a purpose in what they are doing. Children are no different! He also provides research suggesting that external rewards or incentives may actually decrease motivation. When a teacher is forced to use a carrot or stick to get kids to learn, there is something radically wrong with the system. Learner-centered schools in which students have a lot of choice in what, when, and how they learn have no need for rewards or incentives. You can see by their faces and actions that the only reward the students need is to be given the freedom to learn.

Cheryl H.'s picture
Cheryl H.
Second grade teacher from northern Maine.

Like you, Judy, I have read Pink's Drive. It is difficult to argue with the research. However, I think we have all seen what can happen when students are motivated extrinsically. For an M&M or stickers, I have seen students add more sentences to stories, more details to pictures, work harder on math. It is actually a little eerie what a Tootsie Roll can cause!

I do agree that overall it is intrinsic motivation that is more meaningful and lasting, but as a teacher, I use whatever tool I can to get my little ones to put in more effort. If it's stickers, bonus time, or beads on a board, I am doing it!

I am also becoming a big believer in students monitoring their own progress. I have been doing this with math fact. BAM! They are so excited to watch their scores go up. Again, I will use whatever I can. We track using scores. (Free!!) The students add beads for each fact mastered. They love watching their strings get longer and longer.

Jessica Sell's picture

I believe that the use of incentives is a form of positive reinforcement for our students. A school-wide incentive that we use to reinforce reading at home is a program called BOOK IT. It is a free program through Pizza Hut that rewards the students on their reading accomplishments with praise, recognition and pizza. It runs from October through March. I have seen the positive effects of the program in my classroom. I see my students get excited when they receive their reward and when they get the new months calendar. I was wondering if anyone else has any other free incentive programs they are using at their school?

Pam's picture

Our school uses "Class Dojo" as a behavior management and incentive tool. Our grade level uses it in each classroom, and the school uses it to offer incentives for positive cafeteria behavior. Parents also receive immediate feedback via text on how their child is performing. Overall, it has worked well this school year.

Nona Craft's picture

We use PBIS in our building. Teachers purchase incentives. It can get costly and burdensome. What ever happened to work ethic and perseverance?

vlevans3's picture

I feel that incentives are a great form of positive reinforcement, but I do not think incentives should be used all the time. Students should by encourage with tangible incentives once in a while, but also encouraged with social praise. Students should learn to enjoy school and learning whether they are earning something or not. It is important to recognize appropriate classroom behaviors so students can get into doing these positive behaviors all the time.

akjacks2's picture

Incentives are a great way to teach students expected behavior and then over time can fade to things that are not tangible. Our school uses PBIS and all of the items on our store are donated by companies, parents and local businesses. They only go once every two weeks but it is often enough to give them a reminder to keep up the good work for the next time we go to the store.

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