Guest writer, Patey Yeh, has not only discovered a brilliant way to address the flaw in typical reward systems, she also has the generosity of spirit to share it with us! No matter how satisfied you are with the system you may already be using, I urge you to give this a read. It completely embodies the philosophy of teaching kindness first. All the best to everyone for a beautiful start to the new school year!
Ever since I was a little girl, I made these little origami stars. Several years ago, I can’t remember why, but I made one while in school, and one of my students at the time saw, and begged me for one. I let her have one and of course, as teachers, we all know that when we give one student something neat, 7 other students come within the hour, asking for the same thing. At that point, I decided to just encourage the class to behave, and if they did, I would give them each one. It was simple because it takes me about 20 seconds to make a star, and I used recycled paper so it never cost anything. It was perfect. The kids were on board for the reward system; they asked for it! Everyone brought a jar from home and each student made their own label, decorated it and put their name and “Star Jar” on it. It was lovely seeing the array of different jars lined up with their individual labels. Every day at the end of the day, we would take 15 minutes and hand out stars. I’d write their names on the stars and they’d put them in the jars daily. They never got to take home their stars until the last day of school. It was special and fun for them, and I did this for several years…
The last year I did this reward system, I had a very strong willed student. Very type A, very controlling and very over-achieving. Quite manipulative of her peers, and after one incident where I threatened to have her lose her star for her behaviour, she had a massive melt-down. It shocked me. I think her need to control, or the fact that she wasn’t going to have what she believed was perfection was unacceptable for her. I went home reflecting upon what this reward system really represented. It was very clear to me that the message being sent with this reward system held the same faults that any other bribery based system held. It fundamentally does not work for more than a quick rectification of behaviour. It is not sustainable, nor is it truly what I want my students to learn from me, and the world. Yes, of course the world is run on fundamentals of bribery, but the most authentic motivators aren’t. What messages do I want to send in how I behave towards my students?
I took the summer to think about it. All I knew is that I needed to think of another way to do it. I was Ms. Yeh, and I was known for my stars. My students would tell their younger siblings about it. I didn’t want to get rid of my stars, but I needed something new. I think I dreamed this up this idea overnight (or in one of those thought driven nights where you work out issues you have been thinking of for a long time), and these were the basic guidelines:
-Students do not receive stars from the teacher.
-Stars can only be obtained from a peer who recognizes an exceptional behaviour in another.
That was basically it!
The 15 minutes before dismissal at the end of the day was a time for my 2nd graders to sit in a circle and reflect positively on the day. It was interesting at the beginning. Nominations came slow, and the kids weren’t used to noticing the positive behaviours of others. The negative they were programmed to point out…
Examples of nominations sounded like this:
“I nominate X, because he helped me up when I fell on the playground”
“I want to nominate X because she brought my lunch box back to class for me when I forgot”.
The deeper ones sounded like this:
“I know X has been working on X, and I saw that they did it during recess or class today!”
I would write their name on one side and try to squish in what they did on the other side of the star. Once in the jar, they could look back and think, OH, I got this one because of X… ☺
I have to say that doing this at the first day of school is FABULOUS, because you really set the tone about what kind of teacher you are. You recognize that the negative exists, but you send the message that the positive it what I’m looking out for. I’m dealing with the negative, but how do we change it to be positive? How do we show gratitude at the end of the day? The kids caught on very quickly as the days passed.
What you can suspect happened. There were the usual suspects of SUPER kind or popular kids who got nominated often, for simple things…”He picked up my ruler when it fell” etc. What soon happened was a clear disparity between those who had more stars that others. What I observed within the first week was that all students tried their best to behave in a kind way towards their peers. It was really lovely to watch and it was ultra positive in the class, right from the beginning. The kids left the class GRATEFUL. It’s a good feeling to leave school with.
My favorite thing came up several weeks later, with a student who was struggling with maturity. He didn’t bother to learn names of peers, didn’t work well with others. Very self-focused. He didn’t have any siblings and that unfortunately never gave him to a lot of opportunity or need to share. The students in the class did not really like him, and he was the one that I got complains about and who had conflicts with many others in the class. Of course, he came to me in tears.
I took the opportunity to have a class discussion. It was great. He wasn’t the only one that was being nominated less. I drew attention, NOT towards those not nominating (no blame here), but everyone towards themselves and WHAT they could each do to help those who were struggling. How do we rectify this injustice? I told them that we were like a family. Sometimes we don’t always like each other, but we are together and we want to make it work. NOTE, this links directly to my policy on tattling: It does not exist in my class. If, for example, my brother happened to get himself into trouble, the first thing I would do would NOT be to run to my parents or to the police to get him arrested. If I care about him, which I do, I would do everything I could to help him directly. THIS is what I remind my students of in the class. We ARE a community. We might not like everyone, but we do what we can to build each other up.
SO we discussed with this little boy, his behaviour. We gently discussed with him what we saw, but also what we would like to see. I helped the class encourage just ONE change in him every week (eg: sharing the soccer ball this week). I also strongly encouraged the class to open their eyes to the possibility that he could do something good, because we could all see he wanted to. EVERY SINGLE student had a job to look out for. It was the responsibility of our community to help him.
The weeks following was a beautiful blossoming to mutual nominations and happy children who reflected on how their behaviour affected others. I loved when this little boy, grateful for his first nomination, nominated his nominator right back the second he got it. I let him give it, even though it doesn’t usually qualify for a star. He was just so happy, I couldn’t deny him his gratitude. Every week, we made a new social goal for this boy, until he didn’t need us to anymore. He blossomed and made friends. I have to say it was my best teaching year…classroom management was a pleasure, and it was so positive in the class.
As the year progressed, I encouraged nominations at deeper levels. “She picked up my ruler for me” didn’t cut it anymore. I was looking for deeper stuff. I was looking for individual growth. I saw a lot of competition and I hated seeing a student compare reading levels, for example, when I had a class full of ELL students. One thing might be huge growth for one student, but easy for another. They could handle more, and most importantly, kids can UNDERSTAND more. I explained to them the injustice of comparing grades or levels. They understood because it involved their daily lives. They took it on. I am still so proud of them.
Only other guidelines I’d say I used were:
I didn’t want to see the same people nominating their best friends. It had to be real. I would take the liberty of veto-ing nominations that were meaningless.
Special nominations were given by me, ONLY if I saw some special things that the students did, that no one else noticed. Stuff I felt important to acknowledge. It didn’t happen often, but at times I really wanted the class to recognize with me. I sometimes would encourage a student to nominate for me, but sometimes you just need to give one particular kid something special.
The only other rule I had was that a student could only be nominated once for something they did.
I definitely saw shifts in behaviour, in self-reflection and in an understanding that the classroom is a community, much like a family. We are in this together and we look out for one another. With that said, I encourage you all to use whatever you feel you want to, and tweak it in a way that will best suit you and your class.
It fills my heart with joy to have seen how many teachers have been interested in this. I’ve never felt so popular! I believe it’s time for something different than the same old reward systems, and I’m so glad that some of you might think about doing this for this new coming year. I hope the consequences of this positivity reverberates exponentially beyond me taking this time to write these words. This is truly what I love most about teaching.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions, and enjoy it! If you do use this method, please send me feedback! I’d love to hear from you! I send you all my love and positive wishes.
Much gratitude for the opportunity, and feel free to share this with others!