Put Down the Stickers and Believe in Yourself

ljhahm-1Lori Hahm is a full-day kindergarten teacher at Thomas Metcalf Laboratory School and has been for the past ten years.  In this post, she offers insights garnered from many years of experience in helping children develop “response-ability.” Read more for great ideas!

Put Down the Stickers and Believe in Yourself: How to Create a Classroom Environment Free from Rewards and Punishment…Yes, You Can!

I love looking on Pinterest for new teaching ideas. As an experienced teacher (33 years now) I love the fact that I can type in any topic ranging from Abraham Lincoln, reading fluency, or the best iPad apps and find any amazing number of creative lesson plans and ideas.  Lately, I’ve also noticed the abundance of ideas for “behavior management” that involve colorful charts and clothespins, jars full of pom-poms, or certificates promising extra free time.

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These types of systems are popular with early childhood teachers because they do work. The kids will work hard to earn that reward…usually.  Who doesn’t love to get a shiny sticker or have a pizza party?  I’ve been asked to write many behavior plans for my students throughout the years–not for when they are in my classroom, but mostly for those times when they are not–specials such as gym, art, music, before-school, and after-school.  They always involve some type of “reward” such as a sticker or happy face that the student is working towards with the goal being to earn enough for the “big prize” along with some type of “consequence” that involves missing free choice, not attending the class party, or getting to choose from the class treasure chest.  I have been “that” teacher who wrote the plan and implemented the plan.  Eventually, I stopped using the plan because the newness of it had worn off, the chart was forgotten or not filled out, or more often than not it didn’t stop the temper tantrum/ hitting/ talking out of turn/ class clown-type of behavior we had hoped could be stopped by the “bribe” of a happy face or the promise of getting that extra fifteen minutes of free choice.  My reward at the end of all of this was that I no longer had to manage a behavior plan that I really didn’t buy into in the first place, and I could instead focus on establishing a better relationship with my student.

In my full-day kindergarten classroom I use a type of classroom management known as Positive Discipline.  I was fortunate enough to be introduced to this as a very inexperienced teacher when I was teaching deaf and hard of hearing students.  Jane Nelson, co-author of the book Positive Discipline in the Classroom defines this style of teaching as “methods that involve students in focusing on solutions instead of being the recipients of punishments and rewards.”  The authors go on to say

“a positive discipline classroom is a place where students can experience that it is okay to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes.  In class meetings, they learn to take responsibility for their mistakes because instead of being punished (or rewarded) they receive assistance in exploring ways to learn from their mistakes.”

This is a huge paradigm shift from the hundreds of different “cute” reward programs that are currently being used in many classrooms today.  I know what you might be thinking right now– “my system works for me!”  I am just encouraging you to do some research and think about the kinds of expectations that you have in your classroom, and how you are going about achieving them.  There is a wealth of current books that address “drive” and “motivation” for both children and adults, as well as the effects of rewards and punishments on these important traits for being successful.

Jane Nelson’s response to a type of classroom discipline that uses “rewards” could lead to some great discussions with your teaching peers:

“The problem with this sort of “discipline” is that it often appears to work for the moment. Rewards do produce short-term change because kids obviously want to earn the treat. But as children grow older and more sophisticated, rewards begin to create new problems. They discourage children from accepting new challenges, and they teach that motivation comes from outside oneself, not from within–just what you’re concerned about. And as children get older, they usually up the ante: what seemed like a sufficient reward at three is no motivation at all at five. In other words, rewards can accelerate the “I want more” syndrome.”

Consider these quotes from Daniel H. Pink:

“if-then” rewards usually do more harm than good.  By neglecting the ingredients of genuine motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—they limit what each of us can achieve.”
Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

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“Rewards can deliver a short-term boost—just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours.  But the effect wears off—and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.”
Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

“Careful consideration of reward effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.”
Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Here is a brief synopsis of what my classroom management plan looks like instead.  It is hard to explain “on paper” and even harder to imagine implementingbut it is really simple and it works for me, as well as my students!

Classroom Management Plan

We have three classroom rules:

  1. Do nothing that will hurt or disrupt learning for you, others, or school property.  (This covers a multitude of things, such as hitting, kicking, placing yourself in danger, being too loud or noisy, bothering a friend who is working, etc.)
  1. The teacher should always know where you are, or where you are going.  (This means staying with the group, lining up on time)
  1. Go to the think sign or thinking chair quickly and quietly. (There are three think signs and a think chair in the classroom.  If a student is doing something to be disruptive, I simply call their name and tell them to go and “think.”  This means they remove themselves, walk to the think sign, touch it quickly, and come right back to the group).  If they have to think three or more times and the behavior does not change, I tell them to go to the “think” chair.  They will sit for five minutes on the think chair, and then come back to the group.  The think chair is placed in a spot where the child can always see the lesson.)

We role-play this on the very first day of school and continue to practice it throughout the first week.  I introduce the rules during class meeting using pictures and a favorite story “Pete the Cat” to help children realize that they are not in trouble, and I will not be calling or e-mailing their parents any time they need to get up and go think or sit on the think chair for a short time.  I use a neutral, friendly voice when I ask a child to go and think or go to the stop chair.  My lesson is never disrupted and the learning continues for all! There are no charts to make, no stickers and toys to buy, and no notes to send home every day.  We revisit our rules, make new rules, and discuss problems during our class meeting time.  We also give each other compliments and allow time where others can say how they were affected by hurtful behavior.  I cannot stress enough the power of our class meetings!

I spend time at my first open house explaining our classroom system and encouraging parents not to ask their child if they’ve had any “go thinks” or sat on the “think” chair.  I consider it perfectly normal for any of the students to have to “think” or even sit on the stop chair sometimes–it is part of their nature and their learning experience.  We use our class meeting time to discuss natural and logical consequences, and I provide limited choices to help guide children toward making better choices.  This might mean that a logical consequence of choosing not to work during work time might mean they would have to do their “work” during free choice time.  A natural consequence might be not being allowed to play outside in the winter time if they don’t have the proper clothing- boots, mittens, a hat, etc.

It is important to note that ANY type of classroom management plan can turn into something punitive and negative. I remind myself of this everyday when I think about the tone I am using in my voice, the restlessness of my class (I’ve pushed them too much and it’s my job to fix- not theirs) or when I am feeling REALLY frustrated and annoyed by a particular student.  It is real life, and I have apologized for being “cranky” and impatient more than I’d like to admit.  These are the days that I try and focus on what I am going to do differently the next day- not what I can “make” my students do differently.

As you think about what you hope and dream for the children in your classroom this year, consider asking yourself some important questions:

  1. Do you want your children to learn responsibility? (the Positive Discipline term for this is “response-ability”)
  2. Do you want your students to be more cooperative?
  3. Would you love to see your students have more self-control?

These questions as well as a complete guide to using Positive Discipline in your classroom are all addressed in the following resources.  I would also encourage you to visit a classroom near you that uses Positive Discipline.  I would love to have visitors in my kindergarten classroom at Thomas Metcalf Lab School on the ISU campus!

References and Resources:

Duffy, R., Escobar, L., Nelson, J., Ortolano, K., & Owen-Sohocki, D. (2001 ) Positive discipline: A teacher’s A-Z guide revised 2nd Edition. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Glenn, H. S., Lott, L., & Nelsen, J. (2013). Positive discipline in the classroom- Developing respect, cooperation, and responsibility in your classroom, revised 4th EditionNew York: Three Rivers Press.



Pink, Daniel H. (2009). Drive–the surprising truth about what motivates usNew York: Riverhead Books.

2 thoughts on “Put Down the Stickers and Believe in Yourself

  1. ketaninkorea February 2, 2015 at 10:45 am Reply
  2. Paige Givens February 3, 2015 at 2:43 am Reply

    I’m a kindergarten teacher and I LOVE THIS. I agree, I agree, I agree. I wrote a post this year called “I’m Through With Time Out and Pulling Cards.” It’s at http://paigegivens.com/2014/09/20/teaching-kindergarten-im-through-with-time-out-and-pulling-cards/. I usually don’t advertise my posts in the comments, but I SO agree with this philosophy. Thanks for sharing!

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