This strategy helps to build a positive reinforcement system or economy in the classroom in a way that should feel more meaningful and aligned to a teacher's key values. By first determining a teacher's "Cultural Big Rocks", the key values and soft skills students should demonstrate in the classroom to move toward a more student centered culture, the strategy helps teachers develop a meaningful positive reinforcement system in which students will be held to high expectations and will be able to verbalize the value of them. While this strategy can be used all year and for any grade level, it should be designed before the school year and implemented once the semester starts.
The desired outcome of this strategy is to create a positive culture in the classroom, one in which the teacher focuses most of his or her energy on observing, narrating, and rewarding students when they meet or exceed high expectations, as opposed to focusing on behavior corrections. Its effectiveness resides in the way it makes the teacher think about building a system that reflects the cultural values they are working with their students to build together.
1. List the different types of academic and social skills you would like to stress in your culture this year in order for your classroom to feel like the vision you drew for it in the summer. Ex: Showing a Growth Mindset, Resilience, Perseverance, Supporting claim with evidences, citing the text, etc….
2. Narrow down your list to 5-10 "Big Rocks" of your classroom culture.
3. Communicate to students the rationale behind these big rocks and their meaning in the reality of your class. In other words, what will it look like in our classroom to display these key values/skills?
4. Commit first to narrating these key values/skills every time you see them in action in your classroom. Catching students doing the right thing, even without a reward attached, is already extremely rewarding for them and for you!
5. Determine your system to award a point when you see a students meeting or exceeding your expectations. In particular, make sure to answer the following questions:
Which skill/behavior displayed will be granted a point vs. simply acknowledged?
How will you keep track of the points each student receives in a manageable way (for example, a clipboard with a roster, an app like Class Dojo, etc…)?
How will the points translate into "virtual dollars"? In other words, after how many points can one individual claim a reward? Should there be a different reward for different amount of points?
What rewards will be both manageable for you, aligned to your vision, and interesting for your students? After you asked yourself, feel free to survey the students. They will come up with great ideas of privileges they'd like to earn (Special seat, 10 minutes of free time, etc…)
6. Introduce and launch your system, and keep track right away of the points you award. Celebrate your students reaching their first goal and show them that this new economy will become a true reality. The moment students earn their first reward is very important to building momentum around your system.
7. Create a daily/weekly opportunity for you to reflect on how you have been awarding points and look for evidences of inequity in your practice. Ask yourself questions like, "Am I awarding some students more than others? Does it truly align with their work and behavior? Do I award points during certain phases of the class (warm-up) more than others (group work)?" Let this reflection drive some intentional changes in your practice.
8. Create a daily/weekly opportunity for your students to reflect on how they have been earning and not earning points. Let this reflection drive a goal setting process for them before the day or the week starts. Have students write these goals in a place that you can both visit together (i a folder, in an app, etc…)
9. Continue to monitor progress made by the class and individual students in relation to their goals. Share with the group progress and areas of growth regularly. Share with individual students suggestions for growth. One-on-one check-ins can be very helpful in that regard.
When students will be working on a collaborative project, it could be interesting to think about a specific and separate system to reinforce positive collaboration skills, at the group level or at the individual level but within the context of a collaborative group project.
Define the key collaborative skills you would like to see students display during their collaborative project. You can invite students to help you define them during a collective brainstorm.
Derive from these skills a rubric that will help students know from the get-go what is expected of them during the process of collaboration, and not only when it comes to the product they will submit.
Adapt your point/ticket system to also focus on these collaborative skills during this project. Determine if you want to continue to award points individually or if you want to award these points at the group level for the duration of the project. A tool like Class Dojo will allow you to create separate groups, and group points (see Tech Tool section below to learn more about ClassDojo).
Launch your project and track the points you are giving right away, at the group or individual level. Narrate with intentionality the new skills you are trying to promote during this project.
Create an opportunity for your groups to reflect and set goals regularly, driven by a self-assessment using their rubric and the breakdown of points they have received so far. This will help them monitor their progress and make adjustments to continue to grow in their collaboration.
It is important to allow learners in high school or middle school to be involved in the creation of or to provide feedback on the positive reinforcement system so that they have an opportunity to reflect on how the system is supporting their own learning and what they like or do not like about the system. In addition, it is important that any positive reinforcement system is equitable. Enabling learners to provide feedback around equity is important and will be beneficial in ensuring ownership of the system.
In a distance learning environment, reinforcing class values helps students to remain connected to the classroom and interact pro-socially from a distance.
Choose a platform to house your positive reinforcement economy. Tech tools like Class Dojo and Class Craft are designed to award points, but even a google spreadsheet will do the trick!
Brainstorm a list of rewards that are conducive to distance learning. See the list below for ideas.
Introduce and launch your system, and keep track right away of the points you award. Celebrate your students reaching their first goal and show them that this new economy will become a true reality. The moment students earn their first reward is very important to building momentum around your system.
During synchronous class periods, share your screen to show students the points they have earned. Frequent opportunities for students to check on their progress will help them to stay committed to their goals.
To adapt this step for asynchronous learning, send out frequent updates using a program like Class Dojo or Remind. Take a screenshot of the point board and share aggregate class data, or share individual point data with each student.
Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their progress. Reflect on your own use of the point system and look for inequities. Ask yourself questions like, "Am I awarding some students more than others? Does it truly align with their work and behavior? Do I award points during certain phases of the class (warm-up) more than others (group work)?" Let this reflection drive some intentional changes in your practice.
Set aside time for students to "cash in" their points on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
If you are working asynchronously, create a form for students to submit with their point values and requested rewards.
Creating and implementing a positive reinforcement economy in a classroom that helps create and sustain effective and inclusive learning communities is a foundational tool teachers can use to support all students with disabilities. In particular, it is a crucial tool in supporting students with emotional and behavioral impairments as they are often disproportionately negatively affected by punitive classroom management tools. In order to create an effective positive reinforcement economy, consider the following modifications:
Teacher knowledge and acknowledgment of student disabilities is a key way to create an inclusive classroom for them. Before finalizing positive reinforcement economy tools, teachers should consult with special education department administrators or specialized teachers for information on specific disability types. They should ensure they are clear on IEP goals and requirements and how they present in a classroom. See the "19 Big and Small Classroom Management Strategies" resource in the resource section below for more information.
Public acknowledgment of disabilities that may be present in a classroom is important information that needs to be shared by teachers with their students to better inform discussions around positive reinforcement systems. All students in a classroom should be empowered to learn how impairments may impact their peers and the overall classroom culture. See the "Talking about Disabilities in the Classroom" and the "Nine Things People with Learning Disabilities Want You to Know" resources in the resource section below fore more information.
For students whose disabilities impact their ability to meet expectations with classroom transitions or procedures, providing visual references with reminders of what to do can help them navigate difficult moments. See the "Transition Visuals" resource in the resource section below.
Using a positive reinforcement economy in the classroom is an excellent way to forge a community committed to learning and foster individual learner growth. Learners are provided with constant feedback and are empowered to turn their success into real-world rewards.
English learners may be required to use all four domains of language in order to participate in daily activities that are positively reinforced. In order to support English Learners consider the following modifications:
Pre-teach the “big rocks”. English learners at lower levels of proficiency may require explicit instruction about social and academic skills that will be the focus of the economy. Create a reference sheet that includes vocabulary, context, examples, and non-examples of each “rock”. Use visual or audio models and home language to support understanding of concepts. Consider creating an anchor chart to post for all learners. See the "Pillars of Power Reference and Reflection Template" resource in the resource section below for more information.
Preview the system. Find time to orient English learners at lower levels of proficiency to the reward system. Explicitly teach any necessary vocabulary or tech tool use. Consider partnering with learners’ language specialist for support and reinforcement. Check for learner understanding during preview and throughout whole class learning of the system.
Differentiate instruction of “big rock” skills. Learners’ language proficiency levels may affect their ability to reach goals at the same pace as their peers. Use data about learners’ language level to ensure learners are asked to perform appropriate tasks. Keep individual learner growth and effort in mind when awarding points. Ensure actions that may lead to losing points are not related to linguistic misunderstanding before removing points. See the "Equity for English-Language Learners" and the "WIDA Can Do Descriptors" in the resource section below for more information.
Communicate feedback personally. English learners may not register narration of points awarded immediately. Ensure they are receiving this imperative feedback by communicating it 1:1 to English learners in language they can understand or with a familiar and pre-taught non-verbal signal. If using a tech tool, consider setting up a time to look at a learner’s “bank” together to provide specific feedback and model reflection.
Never forget that the greatest reward for your students is often you noticing their effort and acknowledging them. In other, a positive reinforcement system is no substitute for telling your students they did a great job and why!
Keep raising the bar! As your students start consistently meeting your initial expectations, revisit your system and your big rocks. Make your expectations more and more rigorous and challenging and they will keep rising to the challenge!
To learn more about building a positive classroom environment, explore the Classroom Management Reconsidered strategy in the BetterLesson Lab.