What's Enough

In the time since I first wrote about creating an successful incentive program, I've had a nagging question.

If I believe in intrinsic motivation, why do I have a chest full of prizes?

I find the book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes absolutely brilliant. 

So why do I need to use charts and stickers and music money? I think I finally understand how to reconcile these two seemingly opposing views. 

Tiny, incremental bits of learning are hard to quantify.

Clementine listening to a fellow student at a Saturday Master Class.

Clementine listening to a fellow student at a Saturday Master Class.

Clementine is seven years old and loves music. She loves to sing the lyrics to the songs so much that she often forgets to learn the notes of the melody.

She's only beginning to understand what practicing is. Like most children, she thinks that "doing something right" is the desired behavior and a mistake should be ignored and forgotten as quickly as possible. Acknowledging an error seems like a pretty bad idea to Clementine.

This is where some kind of currency comes in. I need a way to show Clementine how to practice. A tool to measure and reinforce. It's not that she is thinking about prizes, we both just need some help.

Yesterday, we didn't even use Music Money because I needed something she'd never seen before. We started simply. I made a practice chart for her with little boxes to check off. If she made a mistake and went back and played that section correctly she could check off a box. Playing one page of a piece without error also got a checked box. It was a pretty messy page . The thing that actually made it work was the little Owl Incentive Chart. (I gave her the choice between Pirates and Owls. She chose Owls. I'd bought the Pirates specifically because I thought she'd like them. Go figure!)

At first, she thought that she could get a sticker each time she played something correctly. This is typical. The idea that there was a reward for making a mistake, catching it and fixing it was new to her. (Though I'd explained it before - it hadn't stuck.)

I explained that each time she filled in four boxes she could put an owl sticker on the chart. At first I gave her seven owl stickers to take home. As she bought in more and more to the process, I kept giving her more stickers to take home. ("Wow - you're catching onto this so fast I bet you're going to run out of stickers!")

We pretended that we were at home and did a practice session. She dutifully stopped when she made a mistake and repeated the measure correctly twice. Box checked. It didn't take long to get her first owl sticker. And then her second.

After a few minutes of box checking and owl stickers she looked me right in the eye.

"Can I practice when I get home today?"

I played it cool.

"Yes, Clem, you can practice when you get home today. And you know what? You get double credit for practice done when you get home from your lesson because it's the most important time to practice."

Clem's eyes lit up. I'll bet all those stickers will be on the chart when she comes back next week. Mistakes will have been made and corrected. Learning will have happened. Will it be perfect? Unlikely. But we've started something. She is beginning to understand how to make a goal into a set of tasks.

So much of what we do as teachers is cerebral. Simply saying, "Do it again!" over and over is not a rich and meaningful experience for our students. (Try keeping a tally of the number of times you say "Do that again" in a day. You might be shocked.)

Half the time they don't even know what they did wrong - how in the world can they be expected to stay interested?

Kids need to know when they've done enough. As teachers, we need to decide exactly what's enough.


How I Organize My Stickers

Three sticker sheets that make a nice combination. (Notice my uncoordinated attempts at punching holes in the one on the right. Oops.)

Three sticker sheets that make a nice combination. (Notice my uncoordinated attempts at punching holes in the one on the right. Oops.)

Each week I put together a group of stickers for the kids to choose from. These are the three for this week. Valentine stickers for kids who like them, and some goofy sneakers for kids who don't.

I punch holes in three or four sticker sheets and make a sticker group. I used to use ribbon, but have now settled for rubber bands which are much easier to manage.

Three sheets of stickers connected with a rubber band.


Here are a few ways to sane while dealing with kids and stickers:

  • Give them only a few choices. Anybody with kids know that you don't say "What do you want for dinner?" It's better to say, "Would you like Mac & Cheese or Fish Sticks?" (Or in my fantasyland, the cook would say, "Ms. Hidy, would you like the sushi or the steak tonight?") "Would you like the African Animals or the Fairy Stickers?" will be more successful than, "What kind of sticker do you want?" This will invariably be answered with, "I don't know." Followed by you making lots of suggestions, none of which are the right thing. (Which reminds me of my old college roommate who worked as the Recreation Director at a city park. When she gave out things like balls and jump-ropes, the children would invariably say, "No, I don't want that. I want SOMETHING ELSE." Finally in desperation, she learned to hand the child something and say, "THIS is something else.")
  • Notice which kids can make a quick choice. If you find that Maya takes five minutes to decide between three stickers, next time just choose one for her.
  • Vary the choices. (Animals one week, Pirates the next.)

Kids like to see what their choices are for the week. Something about having them put together in a stack makes it more fun.

Since I see each child only once a week, (except for groups where I don't usually use stickers) I only have to do this at the beginning of the week.

Stacked neatly these little books take almost no space. 

If I'm feeling too lazy to deal with sticker sheets, I rely on the Dover Little Sticker Books.

Just a few of the  Dover Little Sticker Books  I have. 

Just a few of the Dover Little Sticker Books I have. 

One of the things I like about them is that they are neat and orderly. You can pull out a little sticker book and then put it back on a shelf or throw a rubber band around a few of them. You can pick three for the week and give the students their choice.

If you're a traveling teacher, they are sturdy and can be transported easily.

I keep a wide variety of stickers handy for "Therapeutic and Diagnostic" uses. These may be different than my "weekly" choices. You can read more about that here

These are some of my favorites.

Happy Teaching with stickers!

PS  You can also visit my Sticker Store