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What COVID-19 Taught Schools About Rewards & Punishment

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

I am often asked if group or individual rewards will work with older students. Do they still need that sort of thing? Isn’t it too childish? Yes they do, and no it's not - here’s why.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a hard time for all of us. Social isolation, restrictions, new rules, loss of friends and family members to name just a few of the things we have had to deal with. Change is hard and mandatory change is even harder. To beat the virus we had to adjust our day-to-day routines. No more going out to let loose and unwind, no more sporting events, and no more eating out. It became a matter of life or death to change our behavior. Yet, even in the face of ‘’punishment’’ by a horrific death it was incredibly hard to change our ways and adhere to the new social rules like keeping social distance and wearing masks.

In the Netherlands, where I live, people were asked to keep 1.5 meter distance at all times to keep from becoming infected. Just like everywhere else in the world, the Dutch government, schools, and business owners reminded us to social distance with signs, stickers on the floor, painted sidewalks, and even chalk on the grass.

But, like everywhere else in the world, this new social rule was nearly impossible for people to follow. Even with reminders, and even if people were in agreement with the rule, who wanted to do it, had a really hard time

Social scientists from the University of Amsterdam took this opportunity to do some research on human behavior. They looked at different measures taken by a popular grocery store to help people keep their 1.5m distance while shopping. Each person who came into the store received a proximity sensor. This sensor allowed researchers to collect data on the movement of all customers in the store. What they found was that requiring each customer to have a shopping cart did not help people keep a 1.5m distance, nor did the painted lines on the ground at check-out, nor did the one-way system.

What did work was offering a reward at check-out of a small bag of chocolate Easter eggs. The ‘’punishment’’ of catching a potentially deadly disease did not provide enough incentive to keep 1.5m distance but a small reward of chocolate did.

Schools can use this social science to develop better ways to influence behavior than leaning on punishment to motivate students. In schools we so often use strategies, whether intentionally or not, like humiliation, exclusion, detention, and suspension to shape behavior. But research consistently tells us that positives, like praise and rewards, are far more efficient and effective. You’ll have more success giving out positive tickets to be entered into a raffle, than you are doling out detentions. In short, rewards work better than punishment.

As a side note, some educators might argue that a student's grade in their course is a reward or punishment and should be sufficient. But the truth is that grades are simply an indicator (albeit subjective) of a students grasp of the course content. Grades and marks are a tool for an educator to plan the next step for their students learning journey. This indicator informs the teacher what to do next - reteach, review, or move on with the course content. The same goes for a 'bad' grade - it is not a "punishment." A low grade at the end of a unit in most cases does not increase learning in the future.

Grades are not rewards or punishments, they are simply an indication of learning for the teacher to inform their practice.

Additionally, grades in themselves are not enough of an incentive because too much time elapses between the starting and finishing of a unit of study. Research shows that more intermediate rewards are needed in between the beginning and the end of the unit.

The job of an educator is complex. Teachers, particularly at the high school level are primarily interested in delivering academic content. That is, after all, their job. It is easy to think that our students should know how to study by now, or how to behave, or be able to do things that, in our opinion, should have been learned and internalized before coming to class. And because it should have been learned and internalized before coming class, we believe it is no longer our responsibility to support the student in that area. This is where we are wrong. When a student lands in our class it is our responsibility help them not only academically, but also socially and emotionally, to prepare them for life beyond the school system. An age appropriate reward system helps us achieve this.

If you want to give it a try at your school, consider creating a single positive ticket that adults can give to students who are demonstrating desired behaviors, like being kind to each other, working hard, and being respectful. Then, tickets go into a weekly drawing and students can choose from a menu of prizes.

For ideas on rewards that wont cost you anything, and that kids will like much better than trinkets and swag, download my No Cost Rewards list where I’ll have it posted for the next few weeks (I frequently change the resources on my site so be sure to check back regularly)! In the download you'll find lists of free rewards for elementary students, secondary students, and even adults in your school!

All of the rewards are based on activities and privileges that are designed to bond students to our school community.

For example, high school students can earn the privilege of choosing the music for passing periods, be an assistant coach for a sport, or get free entrance for a school play or sporting event. Younger students can earn lunch with their teacher or favorite adult, wear a vest and give out positive tickets at recess to students who are following the rules, or even get to sit in the teachers chair for a day. Teachers can have a Starbucks drink of choice delivered to their classroom or get their principal to cover their class for 20 minutes while they take a break!

If your school is struggling with student buy-in with your current positive reinforcement system you might want to consider changing the rewards you offer and talk to your students to find out what they want. If your school is struggling with adult buy-in, consider adding adult incentives! Every time you draw a students name out of the raffle, offer a reward to the teacher or staff member who gave it to them! Or simply notice and acknowledge each other in each and every staff meeting for people who went above and beyond that week. Adults will quickly enjoy the more fun and positive atmosphere that has been created. There might be a small number of students (and staff ;)) who need more specific targeted interventions, but even they will benefit from the positive atmosphere that reinforcement systems will bring.

Rewards will not only bring about more positive behaviors in students, it makes school more fun and helps our students become more engaged at school and build positive relationships with the adults. As a result, students will develop better social skills and learn more academic content. When setting up a positive reinforcement system, all you need to do is keep your system simple, manageable and preferably free. With the right rewards students of any age will buy-in.

Check out my video on Rewards Work Better Than Punishment and comment below to let me know your thoughts about rewards and punishment. It is a complex and worthwhile discussion!



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