July 2, 2015

PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support) is an approach used by educators to develop interventions that help students achieve as much success as possible within their school environments — success on an academic, social and emotional basis. This proactive, evidence-based approach focuses on encouraging positive behavior in students through use of a PBIS rewards system and positive reinforcement.

As psychologists have demonstrated in experiments conducted over the past 100+ years, animals and humans alike respond to positive reinforcement. This is particularly true in regard to the behavior of children and how they react to feedback they receive from adults. The PBIS rewards system approach focuses on positive reinforcement and avoids punishing children. Another important facet of the PBIS program involves using rewards to motivate children to behave in a positive manner.

The Three Tiers of the PBIS Rewards System

The PBIS approach involves three tiers:

  • Tier 1 – School-wide prevention practices
  • Tier 2 – Interventions targeted at groups
  • Tier 3 – Intensive interventions for individuals

Tier 1, which we’ll be discussing in this article, involves the following:

  • Educating students about what type of behavior is expected from them, and about standard acceptable routines they should be following within the school environment
  • Acknowledging positive behaviors through some type of reward system
  • Responding to non-acceptable behavior by first defining it, then establishing a system for tracking the behavior

Rewards (physical and emotional) play a crucial role in the PBIS program. In this article, we’ll discuss why, when and how rewards should be used in this first-level tier of the PBIS approach.

Why You Should Use Rewards in Tier 1 PBIS Rewards System

You don’t have to study the numerous experiments conducted by psychologists over the past century to realize that rewards are effective incentives for promoting positive behavior. If an adult in the workforce knows that he’ll receive a bonus if a project is done within a certain timeframe, he/she is usually more motivated to get the job done quickly. The same is true for children within the school environment. As Cumberland PBIS states, “PBIS research teams have conducted a series of reviews and analysis of [the reward] literature; their conclusion is that there is no inherent negative property of reward.” In fact, there are several reasons why rewards should be an important part of the Tier 1 PBIS approach.

Students are more willing to work for something they want

Just as adults are motivated to perform well for desirable rewards, the same holds true for children. It may be hard to convince a 10-year-old student to study for her math test so she can get good grades, go to college, and later find a high-paying job — few 10-year-olds are that forward-thinking. But if she knows that getting a high grade on her math test means a longer recess on Friday afternoon, she may be more likely to put in the extra study time. In many situations, a system based on rewards is an ideal way to motivate many of us to do a better job.

Students are more willing to work with PBIS rewards system in place.

Some students need external motivators

It’s a teacher’s dream come true: a student who wants to learn simply for the joy of gaining knowledge. While there are those students that have intrinsic motivation for learning and/or behaving well, this is not the case with every child, for every subject, in every situation. Many students, in fact, are initially more motivated to work toward improved academic achievement or positive behavior if they know that a reward is waiting for them for a job well done.

Rewards provide visual and tangible indicators of progress, success, behavior, performance, etc.

A reward is a perfect way to recognize the merits of a student who has successfully completed a task. There is no better way to indicate progress or special performance than to offer them something immediate and visible, so the accomplishment feels real. Especially for children, it can be difficult to grasp success, so by providing them with something they can see, use, enjoy, and be proud of (such as a public acknowledgment of their accomplishment in the classroom), you encourage them to continue their good work.

Rewards increase motivation, buy-in, and sustained effort

Consistently recognizing students’ accomplishments improves the chances that they will continue to accomplish more and more. If students know that they are earning rewards they want, it’s easier for them to become internally and externally motivated, and to put in the effort time and time again. This creates a habit of hard work and positive achievements that they are ultimately proud of.

When You Should Use Rewards in Tier 1 PBIS Rewards System

The timing of when you present rewards to students has a great deal of impact on how effective the rewards are within the PBIS rewards system. Immediate recognition is a powerful tool, and offering students a way to control what they do with those rewards is also powerful. Rewards should be provided to students who deserve them and who need the reward.

Rewards and incentives should be a regular part of classroom learning

Students who regularly earn recognition for a job well done become accustomed to working towards a goal. The rewards don’t have to be large — in fact, some of the most effective rewards are simply verbal recognition by the teacher — and even the smallest reward can have a tremendous impact on students’ performance.

Use rewards when students need encouragement and self-esteem

Anyone who works with children regularly understands how fragile their confidence can be, and how easily it can be damaged. That’s why students often have difficulty believing in themselves and in fulfilling their potential. In short, nearly all children need encouragement. A small reward or token can make a world of a difference and provide the much-needed confidence that a student may be missing.

Use rewards when students lack intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation for certain learning areas can be illusive even for adults, and it is similarly so with children. This is particularly true if a student’s task doesn’t hold his or her interest. But a consistent rewards-driven approach can help to build intrinsic motivation in students. While children may initially begin to modify behavior to earn a reward, over time their behavior can change as healthier habits take root. In this way, rewards often do, in fact, build intrinsic motivation in school-age children.

Use a PBIS rewards system for students lacking intrinsic motivation.

Use rewards when you want to increase student outcomes

Rewards can be an effective means of motivating an entire classroom full of children to improve their performance. A collective reward can be given to a class for higher grades, but also for behaviors such as teamwork or creative problem-solving, for example.

How to Use Rewards in Tier 1 PBIS Rewards System

Ask students what rewards they will work for

In order to implement a rewards-based system successfully, you want to make sure that the rewards are motivating enough for the students. The easiest way to do this is to ask the students directly what they will work for. Rewards can range from consumables (candy, gum, etc.) to recognition (certificates of achievement, verbal praises, etc.) to special allowances (longer recesses, sitting closer to the teacher, etc.).

A good way to help your students determine which rewards will work best for them is to apply a forced-choice reinforcement menu, like the one available here. This gives the students several options to choose from over others, in order to ultimately determine what kinds of rewards they prefer.

Identify what behaviors students will earn rewards for, and post these clearly

It’s very important to clearly identify the behaviors that will result in students receiving rewards. Not only is this essential for the children — it also helps the teacher to be able to fairly apply the system to all students. Children should know from the very beginning how to distinguish between behaviors or achievements that might earn them a token, a gold star, or some other reward. They should also understand which behaviors would be considered as average or sub-par. These guidelines could be clearly posted on the classroom wall for everyone to see.

Define a clear PBIS rewards system or token economy system

If you choose to use a token system — one in which children are given a token for certain accomplishments, and those tokens can be later traded for rewards — there can be no ambiguity about eligibility or the number of tokens required in order to qualify for a reward (unless that ambiguity is part of a game mechanic that the students understand). The token economy system can be a very effective way of improving students’ behavioral issues.

Track each student’s progress daily with PBIS rewards system classroom software

One of the basic tenets of the PBIS approach is the fact that it’s evidence-based. In other words, educators need to record and track students’ behavior and progress daily. At the end of every day and/or week, students who have achieved outstanding performance might be awarded accordingly with the kinds of rewards that they themselves established early on.

Deliver rewards faithfully and consistently

Consistency is very important when you employ a rewards-based system. Students must be able to trust you and know for sure that the system will reward deserving people in an equitable way. Recognition must be awarded fairly and promptly, otherwise it is no longer effective in motivating students. If they perceive the system as unfair or faulty, they will not only stop working towards the rewards, but they might develop resentment towards the teacher that they view as being unfair or playing favorites.

Incentive rewards can be highly effective in Tier 1 of a PBIS rewards system, but only if educators are careful about how they apply them in the classroom. There is an appropriate time and place for recognizing students’ accomplishments, either big or small. A rewards-based system has many benefits when it is employed appropriately and in a fair, clear, and consistent way. Used in this manner, it can effectively motivate and encourage students to display positive behavior and achieve academic success, both individually and collectively. For more information about using rewards in Tier 1 PBIS, contact our TeamYou professional educators today.


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