Rewarding & Punishing Student Behavior: Moving from External Rewards to Intrinsic Ones

Rewarding & Punishing Student Behavior: Moving from External Rewards to Intrinsic Ones
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I used rewards, both tangible and intangible for years with particularly challenging problem kids, as an incentive to get them to do their work, get along better, and make the right choices.

But eventually, we want students to develop a sense of self-reward from doing the right thing. So how do we move students from extrinsic or external rewards to intrinsic or internal rewards? Here are five steps that may serve as a pattern to follow as you try to evolve a student from rewards to self-sufficiency.

  1. Start with the Basics when Giving Rewards

Rewards do not always have to be tangible. I have found that sometimes starting with something the student likes to do, rather than giving them something may be a better reward for them. Also, later on, as you phase out the more tangible rewards, rewarding them with an occasional “early lunch” or trip to the library is easier to employ than giving them things.

Giving these intangible, but appreciated rewards more closely emulates the real world in that they are allowed something they want to do in return for good work or a positive attitude. In the real world, on a job, people experience a similar scenario. Those who work hard for pay may get a raise, while those who goof off may lose their job. So this also teaching an important lesson about what to expect in the real world, as well as controlling behaviors over the short term.

  1. Punish and Reward Behaviors Immediately

At first, behaviorists tell us that behaviors must be rewarded or punished immediately and every time, in order to see changes. This is likely true in the beginning, so the second step should be making sure the reward/punishment plan is put into force quickly, and enforced consistently. Make a chart of progress as you observe improvements and record which types of rewards or punishment worked the best with that student.

  1. Use Variable Reinforcement Schedules

Experimental psychologists use variable reinforcement and intermittent reinforcement schedules to reward occasionally rather than all the time. With time, behaviors may diminish due to the fact that they have been rewarded so often, that it comes to be expected. So introducing intermittent rewards and reinforcement may be the answer at this stage, in order to make the rewards a little less predictable, and it may inspire them to exhibit better behaviors all the time, since they do not know when they will be rewarded.

  1. Use Signed Contracts in Lieu of Rewards

As students begin to exhibit better behaviors, draw up a contract signed by yourself and the student in which you both agree to do something. The student should agree to continue improvements in the problem area. The teacher or counselor may agree to be less judgmental or more accepting of some of their off-the-wall behaviors, as long as it is socially acceptable and not aggressive.

By bending a little, the student may see you are trying to get on their level too, and may go further toward following the important rules. The best part is, you may be able to wean the student away from tangible or intangible rewards and make the reward a bit more intrinsic when they see they have a better school experience if they just do what they promised to do. They also may feel less manipulated, and empowered with choice as they make better decisions and see that adults begin to trust them more.

  1. Decrease Rewards and Increase Self-Fulfillment

In this final stage, you want to move students away from any type of external reward or control and toward internal fulfillment. To do this, talk with the student often about how far they have come, ask them what their goals in life are, and gradually wean them away from tangible reinforcements.

Once the student sees how much better their life is without getting into so much trouble like before, one day they will realize they are just better off making the right choices. Once they do this, they are not far from being a self-sufficient responsible person who takes pride in their life and their choices, and tries to make the right ones simply because their life is better. With time, they may even want to make the right choices just because it is the right thing to do. That’s how you know the student has really progressed into a mature thinking individual who is ready to take responsibility for their actions and to do the right thing.

This plan starts with rewards and punishment and ends with self-control. It is not an easy journey, nor do we propose to say that it happens overnight. For some students, they may stay in stage one for a long time before ever moving to stage two or three. For others, they may move more quickly through the stages. Still others may skip a stage completely. This is not meant to be a fix all solution for every student. But it is a good guide to follow, to try to move someone from relying all on tangible rewards and ending with someone who feel that doing the right thing is its own reward.


This post is part of the series: Secrets to Behavior Management

Managing a disruptive student’s behavior can be one of the biggest challenges for a teacher. This series explores how to effectively manage a classroom by showing students that you’re on their side and want what’s best for them.

  1. I. Behavior Management Doesn’t Come from a Textbook
  2. II. Getting Through to the Rebellious Student
  3. III. Beyond Reward and Punishment
  4. IV. The Ultimate Goal in Student Behavior Management