How do you balance your use of rewards and sanctions, and are the rewards you’re using really having a positive effect on student behaviour? Dave Stott provides some practical tips

How effective are the rewards you use in the classroom? 

Before evaluating them, it’s worth spending some time taking a closer look at the balance between sanctions and rewards. Although you may think you are using a positive approach to managing pupils’ behaviour, you may be surprised to find that in practice, your style is rather more tipped towards negative consequences. 

To check your overall use of rewards and sanctions begin by noting down all the strategies and techniques you use relating to rewarding good and appropriate behaviour and all those strategies and techniques you use relating to sanctions or consequences of unwanted or inappropriate behaviour. It’s important to include all techniques, beginning with the simplest and lowest on your hierarchy. Begin both your lists with ‘The Look.’ Now build up a comprehensive list of strategies. It may appear something like this: 


  • ‘The Look’ (positive facial expression)
  • Secret positive signal (thumbs up, etc)
  •  Positive verbal comment together with pupil’s name
  • Sticker
  • Point or credit if you are using a points system
  • Positive note/phone call home
  • Refer to another member of staff
  • Certificate
  • Special privileges (activity, use of play equipment, etc)
  • Raffle tickets for weekly/termly prizes 
  • ‘The Look’ (negative facial expressions)
  • Secret negative signals (outstretched open palm indicating ‘stop’)
  • Negative verbal comment
  • Verbal warning
  • Raised tone and volume of your voice
  • Invading personal space
  • Loss of credit or point from system
  • Negative note/phone call home
  • One-to-one meeting
  • On report
  • Send to another member of staff
  • Loss of privileges
  • Time out
  • Change seat
  • Detention
  • Fixed term exclusion
  • Permanent exclusion

The above lists may not be entirely accurate or reflect the exact strategies you may be using. However, it is quite clear that even in a hypothetical list of techniques and strategies, there is a clear imbalance: far more negative techniques relate to sanctions and consequences than positives relating to rewards.

Even if your own lists are totally balanced (ie you have a similar number of both reward and sanction techniques), you may find that, in practice, you are overusing the sanction list.

Practical Tips

For rewards to be be effective in encouraging appropriate behaviour they should be used with all pupils (even the ones who behave well all the time) and be delivered in an appropriate manner.

If you are using positive verbal praise, try to link this technique with a range of other positive strategies.

Let’s say you have noticed that a particular pupil has followed your instructions and you decide to reward his or her behaviour with a positive verbal comment. Do you simply say ‘Well done!’ and continue teaching, or, do you take the opportunity to ensure the comment is used as an effective reward and a positive reinforcement to other pupils?

First, consider how the pupil is likely to react to your comment. Should your comment be public, for all to hear, or would it be more effective to move in closer to the pupil?

Use the pupil’s name, think about your style and speed of approach, tone of voice, intonation and body language, particularly your facial expression. Consider physically touching the pupil’s desk or book when speaking to emphasise the comment.

If you are prepared to let other pupils hear your comment, then don’t simply say ‘Good’ or ‘Well done’ – be prepared to add why you are giving the positive comment: ‘Craig, that’s great, well done you’ve put your things down and you’re looking at me.’

This gives the positive comment to the pupil and reinforces your instructions about putting things down and paying attention.

How effective are your rewards?

Moving through your hierarchy of positive rewards, how effective are they in practice? Are the rewards offered valued by pupils? Do you have some individual rewards specifically designed to manage the individual needs of some pupils? Are any of your rewards directed toward the whole class group?

If, through your monitoring of pupil behaviour, you are aware that even though you are using the recognised rewards within the school/class environment, they are not having any effect, it’s time to review the rewards. There is no point continuing to use something that is not working.

This is true not just of rewards but also consequences and sanctions. Continually monitor the range and number of rewards you are using. Are they being used with all pupils or just those who demonstrate poor behaviour? Take time with your pupils to review rewards, techniques and strategies and be prepared to consider suggestions that will increase effectiveness.

Finally, if positive rewards are to be truly effective they should be something that the pupil values and appreciates, something you are comfortable using and are ‘in line’ with your school behaviour policy.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2012

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.