Six Simple Tips for Teaching with Stickers

"How do you use stickers?" Elissa asked.
I thought she was joking.
"No," she said. "I really want to know! I want to know EXACTLY how you use stickers!"

My initial answer was:

  • Diagnostically
  • Therapeutically
  • As Rewards

Oh, you'd like something a bit more specific? Here you go! 

Teachers have always used stickers as rewards. But there are so many more inventive ways to use them!

Everything is more fun with stickers. When a student chooses and applies the stickers herself, she's involved in a physical, aesthetic way. 

Here are just a few of the ways I use stickers during lessons.

To help you navigate this post:

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  • Any text in color is a link. (You can look at all the links without buying anything - they're there to give you ideas.) 

# 1   Same and Different

The second phrase begins like the first but changes at measure 6. Ask the student to find the first note that's different and put a sticker there to remind them about it. Postcard Sonatina is a wonderful "first sonatina." It uses Middle C Position and C Major Five-Finger Position with interesting articulations.

"The first line and the second line look pretty similar to me. Are they exactly the same? Where's the first note that's different? What sticker might help you remember to do something different there?"

It's helpful to guide the student to place the sticker to make it easier to see the difference. In this case, we blocked the right hand so it was easier to see it stopped playing.

In this way, it's a therapeutic use - helping their eyes process the difference. It's also a diagnostic use - in the sense that before they play, they are troubleshooting a challenging moment. Take the time to have your student find things for herself. Seeing and describing differences is an important skill. Stickers can help bridge the gap between imagination and reality.

#2 Changes in Tempo or Dynamics

"Can you find a place where it says to play a different way?

Oh...interesting. You're supposed to play slower. And softer? found ANOTHER one? Wow. That's a lot of different ways you have to play. Let's make sure we've marked all of them with stickers."

San Francisco Morning, from Attention Grabbers Book 2, has a beautiful, sweet sound. Learning to slow down is a skill in itself. Notice that the words are in English - slowing down (not ritard.)

What sticker might a student want to put at the beginning to help them remember to play gently?

This affords you the opportunity to say, "Remind me...what did this snail mean?" Which is ever-so-much friendlier than, "Why didn't you do the ritard in measure 14?!"

Why would this particular sticker help a student remember to play slower here?

The stickers I use for these purposes are a different size and style than I use for "reward" stickers. I use tiny stickers that are extremely expressive. Tiny animals, faces, fruit, almost anything goes. I like the Japanese stickers the best. (I stumbled on my first ones in Japantown here in San Francisco but have since found them online.) I've sprinkled some possibilities throughout this post. Some I've just discovered - like these cool Djeco Pirate stickers - a brand that I've never used before and can't wait to try!

#3 Things to Remember - Special Exceptions

Sometimes you just have to explain something. You can do it in an interesting way, but there's no way a student can intuit the meaning of a coda sign. Once you've explained it, let them run with it. Give them an opportunity to use stickers to interpret the sign's meaning.

Excerpt of Groovy Movie from Elissa Milne's Little Peppers book.

"Skipping to the Coda" might become monkeys throwing bananas. In Groovy Movie from Elissa Milne's fabulous Little Peppers book.

There aren't any right or wrong answers. That's one thing I like about this method of teaching. It's about associations and internalizing concepts, not about doing something in a specific way. That's why it's a good idea to have lots of different kinds of stickers on hand. I have everything from Pandas and Ice Cream to Sushi and Dragons


Mady's two-robot-sticker solution.

Mady after she solved her fingering problem with two tiny robot stickers.

Today, my student Mady had another common problem - she kept forgetting to use her 2nd finger in a passage from Bells Across the Lagoon, a lovely piece by William Gillock from his collection called Miniatures. I gave her a choice of stickers and she chose these - plus writing in her fingering choice herself. Voila. Problem solved.

"Can you think some stickers that might help you remember to jump to the coda the second time?"

#4 Sneaky Rewards

Isolate a discrete task

  • Succeed
  • Reward
  • Modify the task

First, I use a post-it note to visually isolate the first measure of the piece. 

"James, can you play just the first measure with a beautiful hand position?"

This may take two or three tries - or even more. But when James finally plays it correctly, James gets a sticker on that measure.

Two Measures of Sawdust

"James, that was great. Do you think you could do the second measure correctly?"

Usually this goes a bit quicker. Measure by measure, James accrues stickers until there's one on each measure. He will not be asked to do more than one measure at a time right now.

"Wow! Did you just play every single measure with a beautiful hand position?"

"Yes," James says, proudly.

"OK. Well, in that case I have some good news and some bad news...The good news is that you know how to play every single measure with a beautiful hand position. The bad news is that I KNOW that YOU KNOW how to play every single measure with a beautiful hand position."

This elicits a look of horror.

"Oh no," thinks James. "I'm going to have to REMEMBER to play it this way?"

At this point I dangle a carrot - music money (which can be used to buy prizes) or some stickers, or anything else I think will motivate James. 

"If you can play this piece perfectly next week, you can have $100 in music money!"

Stickers placed BY the student have a special kind of credibility. If they put them on themselves, they remember their purpose. Sometimes it takes a reminder, but they'll remember.

The goal is to have James play each measure with a strong, curved fingers without collapsing his first joint. Proving to him that he's already done it successfully makes it logical to hold him accountable a week later.

If a student has particularly wobbly hand position, I might make this task even smaller. Last week I assigned only one measure to one of my students.

The important thing is that the student understands the task is first. Only then will she be able to achieve it. As a teacher (just like as a parent) you want to build on successes. Even a tiny success can be expanded on.

#5 Ladybug Reminders

Some of you may be familiar with the use of Ladybugs to help with hand position. You can read about it here if it's new to you.

Having a student decorate the beginning of the piece with ladybug stickers may help them remember to use their best "ladybug" hand position. Have them add a sticker or two in place where they might forget to keep their hand healthy and stable.

#6 Spotlighting Hand Position Changes

Symbols representing different heights of animals might help a student remember to move down the keyboard. Remember though, they might want to use something entirely different!

Helping students feel comfortable moving around the keyboard can be difficult when the 8va symbol is in play. It's a wonderful symbol, but it's cruel as well. Just a student gets used to reading up and down, an 8va symbol will rear its head and the students is supposed to remember than up may no longer be up. At least not for a few measures. I used just this symbol in my NFMC piece Secret Agent

A close-up of the passage from Secret Agent

Any time a student needs to move their hand, they may need a reminder. Be wary of using things that make sense to an adult, but might not to a child. "Here, you're moving to G Position, let's put a Giraffe there!" may seem logical to you, but a child isn't necessarily thinking about how "Giraffe" is spelled when they look at a giraffe. It might be more logical to them to move to "N Position" because of its long NECK.

Puffy Sticker

That's why it's always best to have the student involved in the entire process. 

In fact, students should always be involved. Period. In the selection of everything, in the interpretation of everything, and in the assessment of how it's going. 

If you can accomplish those goals in your lessons today...give yourself a sticker!

Here are some reward stickers I would like myself. If I can't stop and have a cup of tea or go for a walk in nature, at least I can put a sticker on something and pretend. Or I can look at my Holiday Wish List and think positive thoughts.

Good luck Teaching with Stickers!