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Incentives Part Two: Reflections and Follow-Up
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After doing much thinking about incentives since writing my last piece centered on that topic, I have to say that we are indeed over incentivizing our students, much to their detriment. I think this because incentives are essentially rewards, and said rewards are treating symptoms, not causes, of certain behaviors. Allow me to explain. The offshoot behaviors that our students display when we ask them to behave a certain way or accomplish a certain task are reactions to their expectations and their environment more than a genuine reflection of them as people. Therefore, when we promise them certain rewards for certain behaviors, we are just conditioning them to do what we want based upon what we can manipulate in their environment. However, the behaviors that earn or prohibit candy are usually reactions and are not the best gauge by which we should offer gift or penalty. Instead, I have found that consistency and clarity are ultimately more important than reward.


I have found this by experience in my own work as well, as I have been able to try these different approaches with two different groups of kids over the course of my service year. At my site, Team Leaders work in classrooms for part of the day, and I started my year in a fourth grade classroom. That is the classroom that I was in when I wrote my first article addressing incentives, and it was the classroom where I used candy to drive good behavior and attention in my math centers. However, I found that more often than not my students were just looking for that candy and were not there to actually try to learn. This was demonstrated by times that the first thing they would ask me about is how to earn candy, after which I would tell them that there would be no candy that day, and they would immediately either rebel or shut down. I eventually weaned them off of candy and had them learning what they needed to learn, but I had to introduce something to replace the candy first. I put straightforward and consistent expectations in place, and they were able to understand what I expected of them based on whether or not they were following my rules instead of whether or not I was handing them candy. I was also seeing better results on their work since they understood that they were expected to try hard because that’s what I needed them to do, rather than rushing or cutting corners just to earn their candy faster.

I was taken out of that classroom and replaced by a mid-year corps member who could be in class with them more consistently and for the entire day, so instead I was recently shifted to a fifth grade science classroom. From the beginning with these classes I have only addressed them with my expectations and I have never even offered them candy, but they are still doing their best to live up to expectations regardless. In this way I am working to ensure that they are doing their best to actually learn material and I praise them or penalize them for that effort. Our students ultimately just want to do a good job and know that they are doing the right thing, and they don’t need candy or other rewards to see that.


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.