Stickers Don’t Work – Behavior Management

I do not have all the answers when it comes to behavior management.  Let me say that again.  I do not have all the answers when it comes to behavior management.  But I can say this – stickers do not work.

When we try to teach kids how to act, and react, we have to keep in mind the long term effects.  We want to be teaching kids to do the right things because they are the right things to do.  We want to build people that have an internal moral compass that guides them to make good choices BECAUSE they are good choices, NOT because we are paying them.


Paying them is a broad term, because we pay them in lots of ways.  We pay them with praise, stickers, marbles in a jar, stars, candy, extra minutes at recess – you name it.  We do this because we are at a loss for a better way.  This is bribery, plain and simple.  It is done with the best intentions, and we often see short term benefits.  The kids get quiet, they stay in their seats, etc.  But the fact is, they are doing it FOR the payment.  They are concentrated on the prize, and when the prize is gone, they no longer have any reason to do it.  When no one is “paying” them to take turns, be kind, or listen, they are left with a poorly developed internal motivation.  Instead, we have been feeding the bribery center in their brain.

So please, please, please, stop with the stickers.  Children should be taught precisely what we want them to do, and we should help them to recognize feelings of pride for doing good things well.  I don’t have all the answers, but stickers don’t work.

25 Responses to Stickers Don’t Work – Behavior Management

  1. Donna Slatton September 5, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

    Thanks! You are right, stickers don’t work. This year I decided that was not going to do candy or prizes. It has been very tough but I’m determined to make it work. Let me know what you are doing to encourage intrinsic motivation.

  2. Teaching Ace September 5, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    Thanks for posting! I find that the language I use is critical. I try to label for kids what they are feeling. For example, I might say, “You are feeling proud because you decided to help your friends clean up.” It is tough, but I try to avoid putting MY feelings into it (I am proud of you), and rather put it on them. The flip side also works. “You are a little embarrassed because you didn’t clean up your spot. I see you folding your arms and looking down. That is an uncomfortable feeling. Try cleaning up next time, and we can notice how you feel then.” It is also a lot about community. We make promises to one another to be safe and kind, and in our “family” that is expected. Thanks for reading!

  3. Susanna October 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    I love what you posted. I enjoy rewarding student\ts, but I hate having students who expect to be rewarded for doing what is right. I want to instill in them the desire and conviction to do what is right simply because it is right. I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching, I would love to hear what works for you. I like what you said in your response to the other person who posted,

    • Teaching Ace October 14, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

      Thanks! It is a tricky thing, I guess. There are a lot of things we can do to build the internal motivation. One is using positive examples. I spend a lot of time having kids observe their peers doing things well. So I might ask for a student to show us all what it looks like to walk safely. We all watch, and I comment as they do it. This is a lot of positive attention focused on what I want. It is not a tangible reward, but it is being specific as to what we want kids TO do. The other kids are usually very good at repeating what they have seen, at least for a while. We also do puppet shows in my room, talking about appropriate behavior. I think kids often are able to think critically about situations when they don’t think it is specifically about them. This is the same with certain read alouds. It is great to talk about characters and their motivations, and then relate back to the classroom. I think one more thing that is very important is to help kids learn what to do when they feel upset. Most kids know when they are not doing what they are supposed to do, but often they do not know how to manage themselves. We need to do things like teach them to breath, teach them to walk away, etc. It is also important to model for them. Sometimes I will say, “I am feeling really frustrated and I need a minute to take a breath.” This is so powerful because they see me doing it. Rather than rewarding and punishing, it works well to teach REAL skills that will work in the real world. I hope that helps! Please let me know what techniques you use as well!

  4. Jo Bowman October 14, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

    I understand your point. However, just a question…do you work for the intrinsic value of knowing you have contributed to society or do you take your paycheck, cash it and spend it? We all work for pay in one way or another and students can be given short -term payment while building the character we desire for them. Just my thoughts after 43 years of teaching.

    • Teaching Ace October 14, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

      I think there is a difference between working for a paycheck and being an involved and motivated teacher. I could do my job much more simply – I could do the same thing year after year, and still collect the paycheck. However, my intrinsic motivation helps me strive to be a better teacher. And in the end, we want more than just worker bees. We want creative people. We want good, kind hearted people.

      I think “paying” children when they are in such pivotal times in their development can be damaging. They have not developed who they are yet, and we are building them into being people that only do it for the reward. We need to give them a chance to be a bit better.

      I know that stickers can work short term, but I guess I think the bigger picture is important. Thanks so much for commenting! This topic is still very much under debate in my own school, and there are plenty of views. I appreciate your contribution!

      • DJ August 26, 2014 at 8:13 pm #

        You say “I think this does not work” referring to stickers, class dojo, prizes or candy. Can you please provide a study showing that there is long term damage to children that are motivated to do work in this way? If you can’t you are basing all of your arguments on anecdotal evidence which has no place in any kind of argument where you make such a grand claim. Reforming the whole behavior management system just to replace it with absolutely nothing is ridiculous. In the schools I have worked at so far behavior isn’t taught at home (that is the real issue at hand not whether teachers are using stickers as praise) and there is no consequence at home in the form of a disciplinary action when a child does misbehave. It used to be you would send your child to school to learn and be disciplined (if necessary and then the principal or teacher would bring out the paddle.) Then that became barbaric and then it was discipline will be handled at home just send your child and we will educate them. Now discipline is not being handled by anyone at school or at home. Even in your other blog posts you make a lot of assumptions that people who use these systems are just “zapping” their students into good behavior (with only short term results) and publicly shaming them when they are behaving badly. You have no evidence that either is being done. In reality, any teacher that would take the time to institute a behavior management system would also take the time to explain what is expected of every child, what are good behaviors and what are bad behaviors. They would also take the time to consistently reinforce those ideas and the notion that it is the child that has to make the decision on how to behave and why. The actual system is secondary and only really used as follow through and for consistency. Any system that isn’t done properly won’t work because children can spot a hypocrite and will respond negatively if they felt there was something unfair about it. Teachers that you describe in your other blog post that just use these systems to magically zap kids into doing what they want wouldn’t even bother going through the hassle of setting up that system. (I have plenty of teachers at my school that are just there to collect a pay check and their only behavior management system is a write-up and then the child is sent to the office so they don’t have to deal with it. Even if they did somehow go through the extra trouble of creating a behavior management system it would eventually fail after a few days when the children realize that there is no real follow through. To make the comparison if you use these management systems you might as well just tase your students is an extreme exaggeration I imagine only to get people to come to your blog. I also looked up some of the suggested books you recommended in your other blog post and there is no real information on them. Conscious Discipline just brings up what looks like a self help program but for a classroom. The only way to get more information is to buy the program. That is a red flag for me. When you google a supposed wonderful theory of behavior management (that doesn’t involve “trickery” as you put it) and you can’t find any information on it then there is a problem. I can look up positive reinforcement (positive discipline) I can also look up negative discipline.
        The only thing I can find on conscious discipline is a website that wants to sell you curriculum and workshops. I imagine its just like every other reinvention of the wheel it takes techniques and strategies that everyone is already doing but puts a new name on it and then claims this is the next big thing. Then in five years it will be some other theory or they will revert back to the old way of doing things which happens so much in the education field.

    • Gus February 26, 2014 at 7:22 am #

      Exactly my point! Don´t over do it, but a few rewards here and there definitely help build positive behavior.

  5. Pamela October 14, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

    I appreciate what you say, but I am still conflicted. I don’t give out stickers, marbles, or anything tangible. However, I give praise if it is deserved. I give them my understanding, my assistance, my attention, and my respect, and, yes, my compliments. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. After all, any job can be done but one which is done out of liking for another is done willingly and with a sense of the joy of pleasing that person. (I hated Math, but for some reason, I did my best for my algebra teacher just to please her. I still don’t know why.)

    If a child asks, “Is this good?”, I answer, “Is it done correctly? Then it is good.” Or they ask, “Do you like this?” I answer, “More importantly, do YOU like it? If you are trying your best, then I like it!”

    I agree that we give too many rewards for every day tasks or behavior. Something should be done well for the simple joy of a job well done. But what makes them do it well? I think it is the person holding their arms out saying, “Come on, walk! You can do it!”

    • Teaching Ace October 15, 2012 at 7:25 am #

      Hi! I agree that praise is important. I like how you said “praise as it is deserved.” I think that is the key. As teachers we can tell the difference between a student’s real effort, and a lack luster performance. So praising them for work truly well done is important. I also like how you turn it back on them, to encourage them to consider their own work. I try my hardest to use specific praise – praising with details. For example, “You organized your pile of papers so that you can easily sort through them. That plan helped you to be more efficient.” Then they know exactly what they did well, versus a general “good job.” It sounds like you are doing that too!

      One thing I am struggling with is praising, or not praising, baseline behavior. I have been attending some professional development where we are discussing not praising baseline. “I expect you to use a pencil safely, so I shouldn’t praise you for doing it – you are just doing the minimum expectation.” However, I struggle with this because some kids just are not there yet. Like you said, they need someone to help them walk. How do you handle this?

      It is always a learning process!

  6. Diving Into Learning October 16, 2012 at 5:52 am #

    I don’t use sticker charts or any other behavior based award system in my classroom. I had not had any good experiences with them and it was always the same students getting rewards and others were not. I do have rewards and a treasure box in my classroom but it’s for winning games and mastering new skills- not for behavior.

    • Teaching Ace October 16, 2012 at 6:50 am #

      You make a great point – when we use stickers (or color cards, stop lights, etc) it IS always the same kids that are winning/on green/ etc. And the reverse – the same kids that are struggling. Then it ends up being a public display of their struggles, which just makes things harder. I used sticker charts a few years ago as a behavior intervention for a few students. It was not a good experience, and I don’t plan on going back to them!

  7. Nikki Sabiston October 28, 2012 at 11:18 pm #

    I don’t use sticker charts or a treasure box either. It really is just the opposite of tracking negative behavior and, like you, I don’t want to bribe anyone to behave. We have to find a way to get those kids to WANT to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Not an easy task!
    I do give praise, but it is not indiscriminate praise. Praise in my class always recognizes a specific behavior or procedure I am trying to promote. Then the children can identify positive behaviors and repeat them. I ask the children to reflect on what works and what doesn’t work so they can own our classroom space and feel inclined to make it work. They tend to support each other and not need so much praise from me. I think giving stickers would sabotage that.

    Thanks so much for linking up. This is such an important part of the discussion. We often make the leap to give up a system like clip charts only to replace it with an equally damaging system like sticker charts.
    Great discussion!

    ~Nikki Sabiston

    • Teaching Ace October 29, 2012 at 7:20 am #

      I love what you said about specific praise. I think that is the key. I use praise as well, but, like you said, it is meant to really help kids know exactly what I want them to do. It is really a challenge to retrain the way we speak sometimes, but it is so important! I was at a workshop recently where the instructor was making a point about reward systems. We would be involved in a great activity, game, or discussion, and he would interrupt us and ask us how many stars we think we should be earning for our work. It really highlighted how silly it all is. In fact, it downplayed the important work we were doing.

      But, with more people talking about these systems, and really thinking about how they impact kids, we can change things!

      Thanks again for your post!

  8. Jbar399 December 16, 2012 at 3:31 am #

    Hi,

    I am a new teacher, and find this post really interesting. I am wondering however what strategies you would use instead?

    Many thanks

    • Teaching Ace December 16, 2012 at 9:37 am #

      Hi! I think building community and relationships is first and foremost. Kids are very savvy, and they notice and appreciate when we are authentic with them. I think labeling positive behavior for them is critical, and then calling their attention to how they feel when they do things right. I have made books with my kids where I take photos of them and have them say kind or positive things to say and do. They really begin to own the behavior when they feel like they are teaching it to others. I als shared some ideas in previous comments on this post, which could also be helpful. I think it is important to consider what our kids will remember about a sequence of events. When we use things like stickers, or the punishment aspect of names on the board or something like that, all they remember is the reward or punishment. They can easily tell you who got in trouble, for example. What we want them to remember is what they should do, and how good they feel when they do the right thing. So we label it for them, and give them lots of opportunities to practice. Hope that helps! I am always looking for more ideas, so please share away!

  9. AJT February 24, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    I have always had this philosophy but my school’s PBIS policy doesnt allow me to implement it. We have “gold cards” that we give them for positive behavior and once every 6 weeks we have “gold card cash in” I hate it. The kids that misbehave often have way more gold cards than the kids who never get in trouble because the well behaved students often get over looked. I try to make it a point to give well behaved students more gold cards. I dont even give out many gold cards but other teachers give them to my students for walking correctly in the hallway and stuff.

    • Teaching Ace February 24, 2013 at 11:46 am #

      I have heard a lot of similar feelings regarding PBIS. I am unbelievably thankful that I am not forced to implement something that I do not believe in. Good for you for working to recognize the kids that often get overlooked. Sometimes there is only so much we can do within a system.

  10. Leah November 4, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Thank you for this post… I am not a teacher, rather not a teacher in a classroom setting.. I am however a parent and foster parent raising children born with addictions that make it very hard for them to pick up on social cues! The line about feeding the addiction center of the brain really rings ture. I find that reward/punishment systems leave the bulk of the burden for controling behavior on the adult in their lives. One of my little guys seems to think that getting in trouble means to try harder not to get caught next time. He only regulates his own behavior when he thinks someone is watching him.. Moeover if that person lets him take an inch he will take several miles… Just not a good situation for anyone. We are going to try using these books at home to teach these kidos to actually self regulate their own behavior… I pray it works!

    • Michelle January 8, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

      Hi Leah,

      I have experience raising a child with RAD. It sounds like you may be running into some of the same issues. Heather Forbes BEYOND CONSEQUENCES are great in behavior modification for kids like outs.

  11. These items could be addressed in lesson plans, projects, literature and readings, historical concepts, and many other ways.
    Special needs technique – This type of classroom management may not be
    effective for students suffering with emotional disorders due to either a chemical imbalance or
    childhood trauma. Everywhere I read all the advice I see is about treating children with respect,
    about being a ‘nice’ teacher.

  12. Misty April 19, 2016 at 2:20 am #

    I totally agree. That is my biggest struggle teaching middles school students is that they only do things if there is something in it for them (because a quality education isn’t good enough). It is so frustrating, especially when that is how they’ve been taught. I think that is one of the major problems with society today as opposed to how it used to be (Andy Griffith days).

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