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How to change your school culture on the cheap

Why small incentives are more psychologically powerful than costly rewards

If you’ve ever been to a special event, a professional or collegiate game, or even a fundraiser, you likely observed a promoter, DJ, or other variation of a court jester launching promotional t-shirts into the crowd. Everyone goes crazy and, as the t-shirts are tossed or shot out of a cannon, people jump up to grab the items with energy and excitement. Why? Is this t-shirt a first edition made exclusive by Ralph Lauren? Made out of diamonds? Certainly not. In fact, if you walked by this shirt in a Walmart, you probably would not even notice it. But that’s not why people want the shirt. There’s something so much more powerful going on here. The same logic works with children in your classroom or school.

A quick backstory

Years ago, when I was a new teacher, in order to make the kids like me and respond to me positively I felt compelled to offer the best incentives I could find. Little did I know what a big mistake that was. Aside from being a just-out-of-college, loan-ridden newbie who could barely afford ramen noodles—let alone lofty awards for my new classroom-management system—I realized over time that the best incentives were low-cost or free because they actually worked more effectively.

On one occasion, I convinced my class that if they accomplished their goals each week, on Friday afternoons they would have a full period to have a party, watch a movie, or have 45 minutes of free time. There were several significant mistakes to this approach. First, a 45-minute celebration became the norm, and at what cost? We lost considerable instructional time. Even worse, the kids quickly expected more: “Mr. Gaskell, why not two periods next time?” Finally, if you’ve ever observed 25 adolescents with 45 minutes of unstructured time, you can appreciate the challenges of begging the clock to move a little faster!

Resorting to gift incentives was also not viable. Even if I had been the wealthiest first-year teacher in history (and I was not), this approach was not sustainable. A better way to motivate would be to transition from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

Related: Resources for creating a school culture of empathy, inclusion, and kindness

Years later, my school adopted a positive behavior support (PBSIS) model. A group of teachers, school counselors, and I spent a year strategically gaining favor with our faculty and whole school population. We learned that the psychological power of incentives is far greater than coming up with the most costly resource-heavy prize.

How to motivate students & change culture the right way

This is a simple technique that will have your students motivated for the little things and also allow them to focus on the winning instead of the value of the prize. As our training through PBSIS taught us, small incentives are more desirable than big rewards.

The same psychology works with teachers because… well… they are just older human beings. When teachers win incentives alongside students, there is a strong bond built in a quick experience. What do teachers like? In my school, we offer a premier parking spot or a duty period coverage. They love it.

Another advantage of low- or no-cost prizes like two minutes of free time for students or a premier parking spot is that you can offer them more frequently than some end-of-year grand prize. This is an invaluable injection into your school’s culture during critical phases of the school year, often when it’s most needed. Has anyone ever experienced behavior issues the week before the winter holiday? How about in June? I thought so.

Going beyond the classroom

One way we turned bus behavior around was through a bus challenge during which drivers handed out good-behavior tickets to students. These went into a special drawing, precisely during one of those high-energy times when bus discipline referrals spike. The result? Bus discipline plummeted and drivers and students were on the same team. Students got dollar- store prizes and drivers got a free coffee. (Drivers love free coffee!). Everyone wins, and a positive school culture permeates.

Undoing costly resource-heavy rewards and incentives takes some time but the payoff is well worth it. If you have been giving out big incentives in your classroom or school—or none at all—this method is easy to switch to; it’s replicable, and it works.

You can start at any time, but be patient: Transferring from extrinsic resource-heavy rewards to low- or no-cost incentives takes time, but it pays off huge dividends in your school community. Students and staff buy in, there’s a positive energy and competitive spirit, and it certainly feels better than bargaining with kids over 90 minutes of unstructured free time.

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