Every teacher wants a positive classroom environment. And it's easy when you've got a bunch of students who always do the right thing. But let's take a reality check. Good behavior doesn't always come naturally. Sometimes we have to provide an extra incentive for hard work and making good choices - especially with younger children.
That's where whole class reward systems can really make a difference.
If visions of an overflowing prize box full of expensive toys and treats comes to mind, never fear! There are better (and cheaper) ways to encourage positive behaviors in your classroom.
Free Classroom Reward Ideas
The ultimate goal of any behavior system is to help students build intrinsic motivation. But that can be hard if the only connect good behavior with getting stuff all the time. Instead, you want them to learn to associate being a good classroom citizen with positive feelings and a happy environment. You can do that by rewarding students with experiences instead of material things. That's not to say you should never give them a little treat or piece of candy for doing a good job. But there's a better and easier way.
Here are some of my favorite student rewards that are mostly free and don't require a trip to the store:
Whole Class Rewards
Sometimes you'll want to reward all of your students for excellent class behavior. Maybe they were amazing audience members at an assembly. Maybe they finally mastered the skill of walking quietly in line all the way to lunch. Did they make you proud when a special guest came to visit? Or maybe they worked together to reach a class goal.
Whatever the reason, there are times when whole-class rewards are in order. Here are some fun and easy ways to recognize your entire class for a job well done:
Lunch in the classroom
Silly Teacher Stunts
Extra computer time
Most of these ideas are self-explanatory, but here's a closer look at a few of my favorites:
My class always goes crazy for this and it's so simple! All you have to do is
compile a list of their favorite kid-safe songs. I write them on little pieces of paper and keep them in a jar. When they earn this reward, I pick a song out of the jar and then pull it up on Spotify (or whatever you have). The kids get to go crazy with the dance moves. Sometimes I even join in which they think is 100% the funniest thing ever. For this reward, I usually let them have 3-5 songs.
There are a lot of options with this prize. You can get out some board games and just give them free time to play in small groups. Or make it a whole class game of charades, 4 corners, or bingo. One of my students' favorites is Statues which is an active game that can be played indoors. Game time is a great whole class reward because it also gives kids a change to practice important social skills like sharing, taking turns, and losing graciously.
SILLY TEACHER STUNTS
You wouldn't believe how exciting this one is for students! Here's how it came to be... A few years ago I was co-teaching with one of my best teacher friends. We had looped with our students and being in year two, had an amazing rapport with them. One day, we were all getting ready to take a big test and my partner came out of nowhere with, "If everyone shows improvement on this test, Mrs. E is going to do a cartwheel for you!" WHAT?!!! I tried to reverse the crazy train right then but the kids were all chanting DO IT, DO IT, DO IT.
Well guess what...the whole class somehow managed to all raise their scores just so I would have to do a cartwheel. So... I did a cartwheel. And it wasn't pretty. I mean I'm in my 40s for God's sake! I haven't done a cartwheel in at least 20 years and my inner thighs made sure I knew it. But my antics set a precedent and from then on, silly teacher stunts became an often requested class reward. So if you have some kind of special trick or talent, use it to show your students just how much you care.
Most school administrators are more than happy to help out when students go above and beyond. For this reward, you just need to shoot your admin an email and ask if they could please call into your room to give some verbal recognition. When the PA system comes on and your students hear the principal announce how amazing they are, you will see a room full of proud grins.
PAPER AIRPLANE COMPETITION
This is just what it sounds like. Students get to make paper airplanes and then see whose will fly the farthest. Just pull out some paper and markers so they can decorate their planes. i always let my class watch a video on how to make a good paper airplane first. Here's one to try - How to Make the World Record Paper Airplane for Distance When everyone is ready, take them outside to fly their planes.
So those are my favorite whole classroom rewards that don't cost a penny. If you like these ideas, check out these Classroom Reward Coupons.
Rewards for Individual Students
So what about rewarding individual students for their personal accomplishments and good behavior? There are many ways you can do that without spending your own money. Here are some ideas:
Phone call home
Sit at the superstar table
Work at the teacher’s desk
Special pen (Use glitter pen, gel pen, etc. for the day)
Special seat - sit by your best friend
Pick a job
Positive note to the student's parent
Show and Tell
This is a special desk that is designated for superstars only. Students who earn this reward get to sit there for the day. I have it set up like a little office with a pencil cup, stapler, sticky notes. It all looks very official and important. They are even allowed to sit in a rolling teacher chair.
PICK A JOB
I'm not sure why, but this reward is very appealing to younger students and often their first choice. Most elementary school teachers have class jobs. A super easy reward is to just let a student choose his or her own job for the day or the week. They almost always pick line leader. I guess that's the most coveted position.
I'm not talking about a real animal here. All you need is a stuffed one. Bring some from home the your kids have outgrown or hit up your local Goodwill (not technically free, but really cheap). Have a selection of some cute animals for students to choose from. I keep mine in a box labeled ZOO. A student who earns this reward gets to keep their special pet at their desk for the day.
This one is pretty obvious, but you can make it even more exciting by involving other teachers - if they're willing. Instead of just helping you in the classroom, maybe they can go help the PE or art teacher, or maybe their teacher from a previous year.
This reward works well for older students. Ask a few local restaurants to donate a coupon for a free kids meal or ice cream cone or whatever they offer. This is surprisingly easy. Most of them are happy to help out a school (so be sure to bring your school ID). You can also ask your PTA of they have something to donate.
Once you collect a few cool prizes, set up a raffle. Students can earn tickets as a reward for good behavior. I don't suggest doing this in the lower grades because kids that age don't understand the concept of a raffle and the possibility that they might not win.
If you have kids that like to be the center of attention, they will love this reward! Set aside a few minutes at the end of the day for them to put on a performance by telling their favorite jokes. You will want to pre-screen their jokes to make sure they are appropriate and set a limit on how many they can tell. If you have a student who is a great singer, you can let them do a karaoke performance instead. The point is to let them show off!
This is a little area I set up in my room that is a special spot for special kids. There's a beanbag and comfy pillows, a basket of books, a lamp for soft lighting, and a tablet with headphones. Students who choose this reward get to sit and relax instead of doing morning work or some other task (that isn't essential to their grade).
Keys to a Good Classroom Reward System
I hope this list has given you some new ideas! Here are a few ways to make these rewards as effective as possible:
Use a choice board, spinning wheel, or a prize jar.
Let the students choose the reward or spin the wheel, pick from the jar, etc.
Choose a reward ahead of time and then let the class word towards it.
Always use verbal praise and recognition alongside your rewards.
Make it clear that the students themselves determine whether they earn a prize or not through their actions and behavior.
Once you start using free rewards in your classroom, I think you'll be happy to be rid of the treasure box once and for all. There are so many things you already have in your classroom that can be used to motivate your students to do their best.
If you want even more ideas, try just asking your students what they want to work for. You'll be surprised at some of the things they'll come up with that don't cost a penny. Be creative, think outside the box, and have fun!
classroom reward coupons
Reward Coupons are a great way to manage your classroom rewards! This set includes some of the free ideas mentioned in this blog post and many more. Just print and post on your choice board or drop into your prize jar!
Want more teaching ideas, tips, and freebies like this delivered right to you? Sign up for my Teaching Tips Newsletter! It's quick, easy, and no pressure!