Feb 16

Awards as a Habit

A little over a year ago I wrote about some issues with award ceremonies in schools. I shared some of the things I was learning about rewards, punishments, and competition in schools with the staff at my middle school. We discussed it and are looking at alternatives that work best for all kids. Teachers were wondering what students thought about all this. I had discussed these issues a few times with my advisory group and they were excited thinking of different ways to show appreciation and honor all students without leaving anyone out and without providing rewards to everyone. They actually are getting the idea that if you reward something then the reward becomes more important than the good things you were doing in the first place! But we wanted to see what other students thought so my advisory kids came up with some questions for everyone.

Below are seven of the eight questions (I’ll share results from the 8th one below because the answers aren’t graphable) and the results. About four advisories submitted their responses on paper and 26 students took the online survey. So these results are from 73 students out of about 250 in our middle school, so almost 30% of our students have responded. (You can click on the graphs to see a larger graph image.)

1. Do you feel rejected when you don’t get an award?

28 responded yes, 44 responded no

2. Do you feel rejected when you don’t get chosen for student of the month?

24 responded yes, 47 responded no

3. How do you feel when you get an award and your friends don’t?

28 responded Good/Okay, 27 responded Bad

4. How do you feel when you get chosen for student of the month and your friends don’t?

29 responded Good/Okay, 23 responded Bad

5. How would you feel if we stopped giving out monthly awards?

28 responded Good/Okay, 35 responded Bad

6. How would you feel if we stopped choosing students of the month? What if students who wanted to compete for student of the month, a mostly academic, good effort, good behavior award, could put their names in so that not everyone had to compete for this?

27 responded Good/Okay, 31 responded Bad

7. How do you feel about having every student’s name be included in the lottery? That would mean no more lottery tickets being handed out in classes.

45 responded Good/Okay, 21 responded Bad


These results are very telling. What they tell me is that we’ve convinced so many kids that to be appreciated they need a certificate or award. That doesn’t seem right. Years of getting awards, stickers, and other rewards for doing the right things have taught them that without those rewards we don’t appreciate them. A teacher whose blog I read recently wrote some blog posts about these same issues. When I shared our results with her she wrote a post on motivation and achievement. Here are some quotes from those who want to keep awards in our assemblies:

“It [the award] might make them [kids who don’t get awards] want to try harder.” (Cause we know that works, right? No!)

“I feel accomplished.” (So if you don’t get a certificate you don’t feel accomplished? What have we done?!)

“Not appreciated [if they don’t get an award]” (So I’ve been asking, how can we show each other appreciation without calling some out for an award and leaving others behind?)

“I feel awkward,” or “I feel embarrassed.” (When called up for an award.)

“I wouldn’t feel special.” (That one hurts.)

One person even wrote that they believe that being called up and put, “in the spotlight,” causes more bullying because kids in middle school can use anything against you.

These are just my opinions. What do you think? Have we damaged these kids or is this what we want of our children? I don’t want my son or my daughter waiting for an award to feel accomplished or to feel special. I’ve heard some people wonder what will happen when they get a job and their boss doesn’t give awards or doesn’t praise them. (Read this about praise to get some ideas on how to do it better.) If our kids have a growth mindset and can self assess and are confident in their abilities, then won’t they succeed?

The last question asked kids what they would like to see during our monthly assemblies. Here are some things they came up with:

  • interactive
    stuff about bullying
    having assemblies on holidays and special days
    talent shows on our themes
    shout outs
    playing instruments
    funny stuff
    students choosing

Sounds good to me.

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    • Gabriella Ashford on February 16, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Recently having been to a Lego Store, my kids suggested we change “candy” spelling bingo to “lego” spelling bingo. They were inspired by the wall of Lego bins they could pick from at the Lego store.
    They came up with a great new way to inspire themselves. I upped the Ante, by suggesting that bonuses would be awarded when they worked as a team helping each other hit their individual targets. AND their bonus awards go only towards Mindstorm lego parts. Nothing like sneaking a little STEM reward in when no one is watching!
    The point though is that awards and accomplishments should be changed frequently and be based on independant learning plan achievements. Bous challenges can be created so friends can help friends reach goals together! Teamwork incentives! And of coarse, when the kids design the incentives, it really means that THEY GET IT! Ditch the assemblies and go grassroot.

  1. Gabriella, I’ve been rethinking how we use rewards to motivate students (and adults!) and what keeps nagging at me are the works of Alfie Kohn and Dan Pink. Read this article by Alfie Kohn on rewards: http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/ror.htm
    And watch this TED Talk by Dan Pink on motivation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y

    Those two have brought up some points about how rewards may help in the short term but don’t help in the long term. Since I am in the business of encouraging students to see themselves as life long learners I prefer giving my students feedback instead of rewards or incentives to do things. Even if it’s something they don’t want to do forcing them with punishments or enticing them with rewards seems manipulative to me. It’s a fine line because I do have to daily convince some of my students that it will be better for them to work and learn, thereby gaining good habits, than it is for them to goof off and avoid the work we’re doing in Science. I would much rather motivate by helping my students than by forcing them to work. They just need to accept my help. 🙂

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