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Using house points and digital coins to promote school values


Offering rewards that students (and teachers) are excited about has changed the dynamic of our PBIS program

GEMS American Academy in Abu Dhabi has had a Houses system for a number of years. Over the last few years, while I was working in the PE department, my team and I worked to revamp the system that was in place. The old system meant that students were changing houses each year based on which class they were in. This created some limitations and also meant that students were not learning to be loyal to their house and develop the team spirit.

Last year, I changed from being a PE teacher to being the elementary innovation and technology coach and coordinator, and also joined our PBIS team. As a team, we saw that the faculty wasn’t able to use the old system to support our PBIS framework as well as we wanted.

We’re a K-12 American Curriculum/IB school, so our goal with Houses is to support our learners to develop specific skills that have a positive impact on the school culture. Our elementary school follows the PYP Program, which uses the 10 IB Learner Profile Attributes, which include being principled, caring, and a risk-taker. These help our students to become global citizens.

The rebuild of our House system started in the elementary school and will now be gradually implemented over the next few years in our middle school and high school. The goal is to get our students and faculty excited about it.

Choosing foundational school values

The PBIS team’s first step in revamping the Houses system was to research a number of different companies to support our efforts. We decided to implement CritterCoin because it not only helps teachers sort students into Houses and award points for positive behavior, but also makes it simple for the administration to see which students and teachers are using the system, giving us a layer of accountability that we didn’t have before.

Instead of offering incentives for every attribute of our learner profile, we eased teachers and students into the new system by focusing on rewarding four central values: 1) We are respectful; 2) We take ownership; 3) We have a positive attitude; and 4) We are responsible.

Building the houses

When we did the revamp of our House system, we decided to link it to different aspects of the United Arab Emirates, so we used the four colors of the UAE flag and named the Houses after four animals that are common here: Vipers, Foxes, Scorpions and Falcons.  CritterCoin allowed us to customize the visuals of the of the House display, which really appeals to the students. To build a sense of continuity that our previous system didn’t have, we let students know that they would be in the same House for as long as they were at the school, and we sorted siblings into the same House. We also sorted every member of the staff into a House.

Now, when students demonstrate any of the key attributes, teachers reward them with digital coins that we were able to easily create and customize. Each coin that a student earns counts towards the overall House score as well as their individual balance in our Rewards Store. We keep students engaged by having the House display on TVs around the school. Kids love arriving in the morning and seeing who’s in the lead. In the past, we have run mini competitions for each semester and also recognized the overall winning House for the full academic year. It really motivates them to earn points for their House. We’re also lucky enough to have a budget to spend on tangible rewards like hats, water bottles, and reusable masks for our kids.

Some teachers have expressed interest in these incentives too. A few of them saw what their students were wearing and said, “I’d like my own mask with my House on it.”

The PBIS team then offered those teachers the opportunity to earn a reward if they could show us how they log into the system or how they award a point. This was a little bit of fun, and it also took what we were doing with the students and reinforced it with the teachers.

Earning teacher buy-in

When we first introduced CritterCoin, the PBIS team chose not to make using it a requirement, but we did strongly recommend it—and our support went far beyond offering rewards for logging on. We did a group professional development session where teachers brought their devices and we walked around to make sure they were on the system. We also created a website that answers frequently asked questions.

When we identified teachers who weren’t using the system, I talked with them about how to get started. I emphasized that, unlike with our previous system, if they’re walking down the hallway and they see a student demonstrate one of our four central values, they can just spontaneously award the student a point. Any teacher can award points to any student, so if the volleyball coach sees positive behavior, they can award points right there on the court.

Towards the end of last school year, at a time when teachers and students tend to burn out, the Houses system was a simple reminder of our values. It was ongoing and students could choose whatever rewards they wanted, so they stayed motivated. Because it changed the whole dynamic between students and teachers for the better, we have fully expanded the Houses into every grade level for this year.

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