I have found it is much more useful to give learning rewards. As a way of scaffolding students into doing the correct behaviors, I provide learning oriented rewards. Building our silent reading stamina is one area that this has been particularly successful. We first went up minute by minute. Students felt accomplished as the little bars slowly grew. Then we had a particularly chatty day and our graph dropped. One student pointed out (without any prompting), "that's embarrassing." So we talked. Yes, that is embarrassing, but we have proven that we can continue to improve and we can't let this one dip hold us back. Let it be a reminder as we move forward. Now my students were more determined than ever. I offered them a great reward: If we make it halfway to our goal of 30 minutes, you can take turns sitting on the carpeted space for reading time. The students just love my reading nook and it is the best reward. They want it and it keeps them reading!
Other non material rewards include
-lunch outside or in the classroom for good lunch behavior in the cafeteria
-5 minutes to chit chat for an extended period of quiet work time
-free choice centers (legos!) for good behavior during learning centers
I am required to have a class store full of cheap toys. So, I decided to make it into an economics lesson. Students earn a dollar each day their classroom job is done well. They are really doing work which should be paid. I made them practice for a whole week before I gave them their first pay check. They thought it was really great to be paid for the work they do. It is not paying them for work I expect from everyone. Each student has his/her job and that is what earns them money. Filling in for an absent student to make sure their job is done, earns an extra dollar. I occasionally give bonuses for extremely polite behavior, being extra thoughtful of others, and other things I notice students doing that go above and beyond to help our classroom and school run smoothly. Students understand that they need to have generally good school behavior in order to earn these bonuses. Students are learning responsibility and the value of hard work through their classroom jobs. I am hoping they begin to learn to save their money too. There are some high priced items in the store that the students really want. Only one or two students are saving every week, but I know the other students will catch on when they see those students get a bigger item next week.
I can't say my method is perfect or that I haven't used material rewards. Some days are just really tough and it is so easy to offer a small eraser as a prize to well behaved students to get the others in line. But in general, I think my students are learning to be more intrinsically motivated as they reach for an educational prize rather than a cheap toy.
I do have some students for whom school behavior is an extra challenge. For them I have implemented my Smiley Behavior Rating Scales. They earn prizes at home for earning a smiley face (good day) at school. Most parents opt for material rewards such as candy, but going to the park can be just as great a reward. I must say that the external incentive is working very well for those students. They are also learning the satisfaction of having a great day. In just four weeks I have seen two students turn around their behavior and are no longer being considered for special ed!
How do you motivate students? I am constantly learning and changing. I would love to hear what has worked for you.