Recognize and Reward: Reinforcing Positive Outcomes in the Classroom

 In Classroom Management, Reward and Recognition

Recognize and Reward. As educators, we’re responsible for shepherding Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z and giving them the tools to attain their personal and professional goals.[1] Each of these groups shares as many commonalities as they do differences. Our students come from vastly different demographics, stages in life, and technological expertise. One of our greatest challenges is understanding the differentiated learning styles while still engaging each unique student. It’s almost like wrangling cats. This makes our jobs especially challenging when it comes to recognizing good performance and behavior.

The individuality of our students challenges us to keep differentiation at top-of-mind as we prepare, execute, and reflect on our instruction and lesson planning. Taking the next step to recognize good performance and behavior can seem like an afterthought. Some teachers believe that it is too time-consuming or not necessary to the curriculum. The reality is that it might be even more important than the required syllabus.

By establishing proper classroom management and expectations at the outset, you can make recognizing good performance and behavior easy. The most valuable concept that I learned in TeacherReady was the importance of classroom management and a reward structure.  In all of my military instructor training, this was something that was never mentioned, because military personnel are expected to follow procedures.

recognize and reward carrot danglingIn Harry Wongs’ book, The First Days of School, two of the three teacher characteristics described are positive expectations for student success and classroom management.[2] Carol Dweck further supports expectations of student achievement as the key to success in school or in life. Her three decades of research on “the process” or a “growth mind-set” shows we can change a student’s approach by praising them for their persistence or strategies —not necessarily on their intelligence or ability. [3].

The Perils of Praise

From your youngest to your oldest student, everyone wants praise. However, in today’s society we tend to overpraise, which detracts from those students who genuinely demonstrate positive performance and behavior. “Giving inflated praise is well-intended,” Eddie Brummelman noted, a doctoral student in psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, in an email to The Huffington Post. “Yet, it can backfire in those children who seem to need such praise the most — children with low self-esteem.”

Dr. Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University explained, “The idea is that children who have low self-esteem are more anxious about maintaining a high level of praise. They’re less likely to believe that they’ll be praised again when praise is excessive, so they start to choose easier tasks. In general, children with low self-esteem are more risk averse because they fear failure,” he continued. “This can be triggered by … excessive praise.”[4]

Additionally, it is important to praise effort and accomplishment, not inherent ability.  Praise should focus on specific examples of student effort or accomplishment.  When praise singles out exertion and work-products, it can help students see a direct link between the effort they invest in a task and improved academic or behavioral performance (

The place I found this task to be most difficult was at the U.S. Military Service Academy, where I taught a core class discussing current international news and military events and their predictions for the future. The major emphasis they place on STEM classes paired with time constraints meant that they had little room for “fuzzy” concepts. As you can imagine, this meant that trying to teach the topic of reward and recognition to a classroom full of engineering and astrophysics majors was daunting. Moreover, these students are high achievers and accustomed to receiving praise. So, negative feedback or lack of praise for their projects resulted in bruised egos and stalled performance in class.

recognize and reward footbal brownies

Brownie Points

Of course, I couldn’t turn every STEM major into a political scientist or international relations expert, but I improved my students’ skills. Subsequently, I publicly praised and rewarded them for their effort, and offered several rewards to choose from. Most of them chose to have me make them a dessert of their choice.

What I learned is that we should reward and recognize in a manner which the student prefers.[5] My introverted students preferred to receive emails of kudos or stop by my office to grab their plate of goodies and a cup of coffee.

Clear Expectations

So when should you reward and recognize in your classroom? The short answer is that it depends on you and your students. All students are different, and thus performance and behavior expectations will be unique to the student. The art is in your planning. The important thing to remember is that, no matter what your system, you must set clear student expectations and have a solid classroom management plan. With this as a cornerstone, recognizing good performance and behavior is easy.

Rewarding good performance and behavior is one of the more enjoyable parts of teaching. And, don’t forget about the rewards you get when a student performs and succeeds.

[1] Williams, Alex (18 Sep 15). Move Over, Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[2] Wong, Harry K. and Rosemary T. Wong (2005). How to be an Effective Teacher:  The First Days of School. Mountain View, California: Harry K. Wong Publications.

[3] Dweck, Carol S. (1 Jan 15). The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. Scientific American. Retrieved from:

[4] Pearson, Catherine (23 Jan 14). The Over-Praise Dilemma: When Complimenting Kids Actually Holds Them Back. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from:

[5] Linsin, Michael (2010). How to Praise Students and Influence Behavior.  Smart Classroom Management. Retrieved from:

About the Author:

Jessica is a TeacherReady Alumni. She has taught middle school students in a top-10 private school in Canada; university students, future military leaders at a U.S. Military Service Academy, and veterans and their spouses who transitioning into civilian life. She is currently mentor at a charter high school for underprivileged students through Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentor 2.0.



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