As well as being a PE teacher, I am also a year 7 form tutor. Previously, I have only been involved with KS4 forms, so this is the first year I have truly seen first hand the impact of the whole school reward system (it is not used at all with KS4 students). At the time of writing this, the student in my form with the most yellow stickers (awarded for outstanding work or improved attitude behaviour) happens to be the same student who has the most negative behaviour entries, including a short-term, temporary exclusion to his name. Herein lies my biggest issue with our school reward system, and is the primary reason why I have set out to create a staff working group designed to completely revamp the system we use. As the tongue in cheek title of this post suggests, there is an over-representation of rewarding naughty students simply for not being naughty.

How has this situation come about? Is it possible that the student in question represents the polar opposites of desired behaviour in my school? One minute he is terrible, the next delightful? Improbable. Here are more likely reasons for such an irony:

  • Teachers do not reward positive behaviours enough, especially to students that are neither exceptional nor terrible.
  • Students frequently in trouble are given interventions that, if they achieve them, result in a shower of rewards.
  • There is a lack of consistency in what students are rewarded for.

What is the purpose of a reward system?

Generally speaking, schools employ reward systems to promote positive behaviours and reduce negative ones. Reward systems in the wider world aim to do the same: Tesco Clubcard rewards you with discounts for continually shopping in their stores; Costa coffee stamps reward you for achieving a certain number of purchases; seaside arcade companies offer prizes rewarding people that have spent enough money and time to collect increasingly more tickets; video games reward achievement with unlockable content and access to new and exciting levels. I believe the concepts from all of these real world examples can and should be applied to school behaviour reward systems.

What should we be rewarding?

Before devising a structure for administering rewards, it is essential we have a clear idea about the behaviours we deem positive. Currently, I believe rewards are awarded almost unanimously in two areas: classwork/homework, and achieving targets on individual behaviour plans (such as the student mentioned above). There are a plethora of desired behaviours that students are exhibiting on a daily basis that are going unnoticed and without reward, including:

  • Attendance – simply turning up to school is inherently a desired behaviour, and something that should be rewarded to encourage in the future. This could easily be administered using the school registering software via an automated system e.g. 1 week without a day off, 1 point. 2 weeks, 2 points, 3 weeks, 3 points etc. I feel a cumulative reward such as this will make students value the need to remain at school for extended periods of time. When they finally do have a week off, their bonus returns to 1 point.
  • Helpful behaviour – offering to carry books for a member of staff, holding doors open for others. All things that we try and encourage, but very rarely in an overt manner using the reward system.
  • Extra-curricular participation – going to chess club, playing in the school orchestra, representing the school in a hockey tournament. All things that we want students to be involved in, but never attribute rewards to.
  • Non-negative behaviour – whilst I’m fairly sure non-negative is not a word, why is it only the students that misbehave who are rewarded for then not misbehaving, as my title suggests? Again, it would be very easy to apply an automated reward to all students that receive no negative behaviour entries in a week. Similar to attendance, this could be cumulative over the course of the year. Eventually, those students who drift through school doing nothing wrong will begin to be recognised positively for doing so.
  • Healthy eating – as above, students that purchase healthy items from the school canteen can receive an automated point for doing so. These could be clearly labelled on the counter with special signs so students are aware what counts and what does not.

What are the potential barriers to such a system?

Some might argue that an effective system used to administer rewards is only half a solution, because first and foremost, members of staff have to support it. It is inevitable that some staff will be more willing to offer rewards than others, and this can then lead to frustration and disillusionment from students who feel they are getting a raw deal as a result. However, part of my suggestion above points to the idea of trying to automate as much of this as possible. In a world jam-packed with data and systems, schools should utilise these to assist with the process of giving rewards. Three of the ideas above (attendance, non-negative behaviour and health eating) could all be calculated automatically on the school system, with a weekly email being sent to the form tutor stating how many points each student had received. These would then need to be shared with students during registration, with them adding them to their record in their planners (or, even better, logged on a digital platform if students have digital devices and access to wifi). Minimising teacher workload is important to me, and any improved system for rewarding students should recognise that.

Some might then argue that such a system would lead to rewards being given too often, leading to students amassing heaps of points and diminishing the effect of the increased motivation you are aiming to achieve. I would challenge this notion and say a culture of receiving rewards and praising success can only be a good thing. As long as it is delivered in a way that is consistent and widespread, it will inevitably lead to the desired behaviours you are seeking from a greater number of students.

Finally, some might argue that for a reward system to be truly effective, there needs to be tangible rewards and prizes along the way to truly engage consumers (students). Arbitrary and inconsequential “points” aren’t going to motivate anyone, right? For many students, I would agree, although I have no doubt that the idea of competing against friends to see who can amass the most points will motivate quite a few. Tangible prizes cost money, and I know that some schools have a “tuck shop” of sorts where students can trade in points for items ranging from stationery all the way up to iPad’s. However, I would argue, with a bit of creative thinking, prizes could come in a variety of forms that require very little expenditure on behalf of the school. It is just a case of thinking what you have to offer them that they might want. For example, front of dinner passes, access to special areas of the school during lunchtimes, lunchtime sessions in the gym/swimming pool/sports hall with a group of friends, discount on school trips. All of these are things that students would want, and combat the issue of having to fork out for potentially expensive prizes.

What should a reward system look like?

Firstly, I feel it is important that it transcends as many different year groups as possible. At my school, the reward system used really only has an impact on year 7, and very quickly dies out for year 8 and up. For this to happen, tangible prizes need to be relevant to different aged students in order to make it desirable.

I also feel it should tap into many of the principles that video games (see my previous blog on the gamification of PE) utilise to motivate players to progress. The first of these is the idea of levels – reaching a ceiling to progress to the next level, in the process unlocking a new badge or title that levels below do not have access to. The more levels the better, ensuring students always have a short term goal to reach the next. Mobile games do this incredibly well, always adding new levels to ensure no one ever reaches the top. Video games also make great use of a points system, with players scoring thousands, even millions in the course of playing. Tapping into this language, and the notion that scores can be very high, will help students relate a school reward system to things they participate in outside of school (I defy you to find any student with a smart phone that doesn’t play a mobile game of some kind).

Furthermore, I think a reward system needs to become a part of the school culture. It needs to be visible, in-your-face, celebrated at every possible opportunity. Assemblies, meetings, form time, you name it. It needs to become ingrained in the culture of a school and impossible for students to ignore. This is something that doesn’t happen over night, and needs significant investment from staff of all roles to embrace and promote.

Finally, I feel that, where possible, it should be digitalised. The school I am in currently does not have access to a vast array of laptops of mobile devices, making this quite challenging. But I feel to truly make a reward system effective in the 21st century, and one that engages students fully, taking it online will help significantly. I am aware there are many online packages that offer ideas similar to those I have mentioned in this blog, at a cost, but I am advocating an in-house system that can be tailored to the school and the students in it. Hopefully, such a system will remove the irony of particular students receiving an over-representation of rewards, and also help celebrate those students that are neither remarkable or terrible, but are prevalant in every school across the country.