Middle school students are notoriously difficult to motivate. They are beyond the tried-and-true elementary reward of stickers, but cognitively not able to work for intrinsic rewards like their high school counterparts. They still want a tangible reward but it has to be something more than stickers. It is at this level that students are transitioning from needing measurable rewards to gaining an understanding of more intrapersonal, immeasurable rewards. However, before students can self-motivate they still need their teachers to provide motivation which is usually in the form of a reward. Many teachers feel torn about the idea of rewards at the middle school level because they feel that students of this age shouldn’t need to be rewarded for doing what is asked of them. Once they understand how powerful a motivator a reward can be, another issue comes to light. Teachers usually don’t have a lot of extra money to spend on rewards, particularly ones that can be significantly more expensive than stickers. However, many of the rewards students like best don’t cost anything and those that do usually can either be gotten through donations or through a supportive administrator.
1. Extra privileges – Extra privileges can be anything from computer time, to a front of the line pass for the cafeteria, to being able to help the teacher during lunch or study hall. Students love getting extra privileges and many times those privileges have something to do helping a teacher they like. The one-on-one attention not only helps to foster a strong teacher-student relationship but it also allows teachers to encourage middle school students to move toward internal motivation without the need for physical rewards. Strong relationships with adults at school lead to student success, particularly in schools with a large urban population. Urban students who feel connected to their teachers are more willing to work harder to please that teacher.
2. Homework passes – Most teachers don’t like to give homework passes as they feel as if it makes homework seem less valuable. Best practice says that homework should have a purpose, not just busy-work or a way of adding points to the grades. So, if they are following best practice, many teachers feel that by giving a homework pass that they are releasing students from important work as well as trivializing the role of homework. Therefore, in order to meet the need for practice and answer teacher objections, homework passes can be issued with the stipulation that the homework must be completed but the pass will give the student full credit regardless of their true score.
3. Extra credit – Extra credit is another sticky issue for teachers. Many teachers don’t like it because they feel that students should be graded on their performance, not on how many points they collect over the term. Students love extra credit because they think they are getting points without having to work for them. Extra credit as a motivator can be created through a compromise of the teacher’s needs and the students’. Teachers can offer extra credit on a specific assignment and give enough points to motivate the student but not so many points as to radically affect their grade.
4. Snacks/Candy – This is the one physical reward that works on all ages of learner, from kindergartners to adult. While no one would suggest that students should always be rewarded with candy, it is a good motivator for smaller behaviors like returning homework on time or answering a question in class in a particularly insightful manner. Candy is relatively inexpensive, particularly if teachers purchase mixed bags of small, wrapped candies. After any major holiday, particularly Halloween and Easter, are the best times to find candy on clearance sale which is another way teachers can save money on rewards.
5. Free time – Free time is a wonderful motivator for groups of students. Middle school students will do a lot to get free time. Setting a class goal with the promise of a free period when it is accomplished will actually cause the students to motivate each other because that’s the only way they will get the reward. Teachers can control this reward by showing a movie, one that is enjoyable and related to the curriculum, during that time or playing a game with the whole class that either reinforces the desired behavior or one that fosters teamwork.
6. Drawings/Lotteries – For larger, long term goals, a drawing or lottery may be a good motivator for students at this level. Students collect tickets that they enter into the drawing. The more tickets they earn, the more chances they have to win the drawing. While prizes for drawings and lotteries have to be more significant, it is worth the investment because the goal is larger and there is a more complex set of behaviors that need to be modified. Teachers, many times, can get prizes donated from local businesses or through grant money. If the program is school wide, a case can be made for administration to request the funds from the district or ask the school’s parent-teacher group to provide them.
7. Tickets to school events – Teachers often forget that middle school students enjoy attending school events such as athletic events or dances. Tickets for these events are usually inexpensive and can be a great motivator. Not only does it reward the student for the target behavior, it also encourages students to be a part of school activities which makes the student feel they are a part of the school community. If a teacher approaches administration with this idea and asks for some complimentary tickets, in the long run, it is a very inexpensive way to encourage the behavior change and make students a part of the school community.
8. Logo-wear from the school store – Middle school students enjoy being recognized as belonging to a group which is where school logo-wear comes into play as a reward. Again, if a teacher approaches administration with the idea of using school logo items as rewards for a larger behavior change, it is possible that administration would be willing to donate the items to be used as a reward. Teachers can also offer subscriptions to the school paper or other school-related items as a reward.
While the same reward won’t work for every kid, it is worthwhile for teachers to have a few options to offer when seeking a behavior change, large or small. While it may, at first, feel like the rewards are a bribe, teachers will soon discover that the reward is a physical object students can relate to the achievement of the goal. Middle school students still need a tangible reward due to their cognitive development level, but they can be taught how to begin to internalize the reward mechanism for the future.
Kathy Davis is a professional blogger that provides parents and guardians with information and reviews for after school care programs and day cares. She writes for The Learning Experience, a leading after school program in Boca Raton and Boca Raton Toddler Care.