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Are we over-incentivizing our students? Is this setting them up for failure?
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Our students are amazing people and they deserve the best that we can offer them every single day. But when does what we offer cross a line into a place that hampers them instead of helping them? There are times when I think that using incentives with students to encourage performance crosses this line from helping them into making them dependent and ultimately holding them back. Don’t get me wrong, I love systems that use positive reinforcement, especially when there are rewards instead of punishments. Too often the students that we serve are on the receiving end of punishment and harsh treatment and they do not get a chance to experience anything positive. Classrooms that are based on rewarding positive behavior instead of punishing negative behavior are typically better learning environments. A lot of my student’s best work has been the result of incentives and programs where they are working toward earning something that they want. Most times I am a strong advocate of incentives, especially when they help avoid unnecessary negativity and produce strong results.


However, I have also seen incentives taken too far. Sometimes students won’t even make an effort to follow the most basic rules or perform the simplest of tasks unless there is some kind of reward or treat in it for them. This takes something that is supposed to be a positive support and turns it into a system of incentive dependance that will ultimately harm the students more than it helps them. I have fallen into this trap as recently as this year - I have rewarded students with candy in my small groups in my fourth grade math class for answering problems correctly and adhering to our group norms. However, now they constantly ask for candy and will sometimes shut down or refuse to do what I need them to do if I do not offer them the incentive that they got the time before. We may be working on entirely different tasks or new material, but once they associated being in my group with getting candy, they became less cooperative if I wasn’t constantly forthcoming with treats. Luckily, I have good relationships with my students and elementary school students are typically fairly pliant to adult authority, so I can usually get them to do what I need them to do with or without the promise of incentives.


This is something I have seen across classrooms and it sparked a question in my mind: Are we over-incentivizing our students? And is this setting them up for failure? In the real world, no one is going to constantly incentivize our students to do what they are supposed to do. No one is going to offer them candy to play well with their coworkers or to submit their expense reports. These normal work expectations are just that - expectations. If they cannot fulfill standard expectations, they will fail. With this in mind, are we setting our students up for failure each time we give them an incentive to do what they are expected to do? If we give them candy for good behavior like being quiet during instruction, will that make them unable to meet expectations without rewards?


Additionally, if they are incentivized for baseline expectations, what will encourage them to want to over achieve? Will we have to constantly create bigger and better incentives if we want them to rise above our expectations? Will we have to break the bank to scaffold our incentives? But,worst of all, is it possible that our incentives will create a lack of self-motivation? Intrinsic motivation is essential to continued success, but will our students tie their worth to the amount of incentives they earn? Will they become so dependent on treats for motivation that they will become incapable of motivating themselves?


Think critically about how you are incentivizing your students and question yourself to determine if you are doing the right thing. I have more questions than answers, and I would love to hear other perspectives on this topic, so please reach out to me with your thoughts and opinions on the matter at erickey@cityyear.org!





Erica Rickey is serving as Team Leader with City Year Jacksonville. She graduated from Wooster College majoring in Political Science. This is her second year with City Year Jacksonville.

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