The Effects of a Positive Incentive System in Middle School

Female middle school student writing in a workbook

In my classroom, finding a behavior management system that works was one of the toughest obstacles that I’ve had to overcome. What I have realized is that a truly effective classroom is not possible without first realizing what management techniques work for you. Every great teacher has their own procedures in place, and just because it works for them does not mean it will also work for you. The hardest part is not coming up with a creative and unique system to put in place, but staying consistent with whatever system you choose.

If you’ve ever taken a psychology course, you know the name B.F. Skinner, who coined the term “operant conditioning”. What “operant conditioning” refers to is the strategies we use to modify behavior such as positive and negative reinforcement (McLeod, 2007).

We all know the effects of negative reinforcement on students. When necessary, a simple consequence will always stop behaviors that are creating a problem in your classroom. The key to using negative reinforcement is to be completely transparent with your students before the behaviors begin. If you make the expectations clear, negative reinforcement is a fair way to stop behaviors as they are happening.

However effective negative reinforcers can be, we never want to have to reach that step. In order to be more proactive with behavior interventions, creating a positive reinforcement system in your classroom can be a fun way for students to hold themselves accountable for their actions. Skinner defined positive reinforcement as providing an outside stimulus to increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur again (Skinner, 1948). According to Kendra Cherry, “The shorter the amount of time between a behavior and the presentation of positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be. If a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be. It also becomes more likely that an intervening behavior might accidentally be reinforced” (n.d.). Providing students with an opportunity to feel successful in the classroom without providing a grade can be greatly beneficial, especially for students who struggle to keep an A in class, but have great behavior and work hard.

Here are some great ways to apply this theory to your classrooms:

  1. Try tangible rewards. Tangible rewards, or things such as candy, toys, and prizes are one of the oldest ideas out there. Students love the opportunity to win tangible prizes, especially if they feel that they earn it. Tangible prizes can also include paper passes for fun activities in the classroom (such as sitting at the teacher’s desk, using headphones when individually working, 10 minutes of free time on the computers, homework passes, etc), as a way to keep costs low.
  2. Positive praise goes a long way. Positive praise such as making a positive phone call home, or giving a student a positive referral to an administrator can be a lovely way to build relationships with students. This works especially well with students who tend to have behavioral problems in the classroom. A lot of the time, that student’s family will only receive negative calls home from teachers, and for some students who get a lot of negative calls home, something as simple as a positive call can make all the difference.  
  3. Create an opportunity for something fun, and hold students accountable to their behavior. This can range anywhere from something small such as a special seat at lunch, having an opportunity to see their teacher outside of school for ice cream, or can be as big as a field trip. When students know they have a prize to motivate them, and can work towards, their behavior will follow.
  4. Have a visible way to show positive behaviors. For example, try having a student of the month or having a visible point system in the classroom. In my classroom, I have a SWAG (Students With Academic Game) board. On the board, I put excellent student work, or remarkable student growth, and I send a positive note home to parents explaining that I have showcased their child’s work in my classroom. My students love to see their work up in the classroom, and knowing that an assignment has the possibility of making it onto the board almost always guarantees that the quality of work will increase.
  5. Allow students an opportunity to positively reinforce their peers. This can be done in many ways such as having an anonymous shoutout bin that is read by the teacher to the class or even allowing students to nominate others for a classroom award. I find that when the praise comes from a peer, students react strongly, especially in middle school.

Find what works for you

What I use is a simple classroom currency, which has helped me combat certain behaviors I do not want in my classroom, such as lack of energy or participation. To keep it simple, I bought raffle tickets and run a classroom store twice a month. Students have to participate, answer questions and help other students to earn tickets, which they can trade in for prizes of varying prices, similar to an arcade. What I have found is that whenever I provide an opportunity for my students to earn tickets, participation goes up, and unwanted behaviors usually stop. Usually, the most commonly bought items in my store are snacks or candy. However,  in order to keep costs down, a lot of my rewards are “passes” for the classroom.

Whatever you decide, you need to find a system that works for you and your specific group of students. If you can’t be consistent, it will not have the effect that you want. Be consistent, and allow your students an opportunity to tell you the kinds of incentives that would motivate them. You may be surprised at what they come up with, but if it works it works.


Cherry, K. (n.d.). What You Should Know About Positive Reinforcement. website. Retrieved October 11, 2015, from

McLeod, S. (2007). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Simply Psychology website. Retrieved October 11, 2015, from

Skinner, B. (1948). Operant Behavior. In Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis. B.F. Skinner Foundation.


About the Author
Sari Goldstein

Sari Goldstein

Sari Goldstein is a graduate from the Pennsylvania State University with a degree in political science and a minor in psychology. She spent most of her 3.5 years in state college, PA, but also spent one semester studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain. After graduating from college she began working for Teach for America in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. She teaches middle school language arts, and is hoping to continue making a difference in the lives of students nationwide. Her passion is creating educational equity and higher literacy rates within Title I schools.