Finding ways to motivate students can be difficult. Finding ways to motivate students when you have a tight budget can be even harder. But with a little creativity, a teacher can find multiple tricks to bringing a free incentive system into the classroom.
These ideas are separated into four different areas that research has indicated motivates students: adult approval, peer approval, consumables, and independent rewards. The level a student is motivated to obtain one of these will fluctuate from one student to the next, but by a quick survey, a teacher can find the area that calls to each student and then have a list of ideas for engaging them to work for a reward. Most of these are free and take very little effort, but will be greatly appreciated. Here are some suggestions for how to integrate these ideas easily to make them work for you:
- Lunch with the student: This doesn’t even have to be one-on-one time—students can bring a friend and eat with a group. This is a great time to connect with students and see them in a different context.
- Attention from a special person: The principal or even the superintendent could pay a call to the student to give them a high five or an “atta boy” (or girl!).
- Phone call home: The student can go to the office and call their parents—but for a good reason! If this isn’t a common practice, this can really surprise a parent, but could also really make their day.
- Being the expert: The student who completes the best project or gets the highest score can present their great work to the class. This doesn’t motivate all students because some are less comfortable with presenting, but it encourages approval from peers and models great learning.
- Lunch with a friend: If students usually use an assigned seat in the lunchroom, having some time to eat with a good friend can be highly motivating. As students get older, this probably motivates them more. If a student typically doesn’t have good peer relationships, this can also be a time that the counselor can eat with them and a friend to help coach them through good conversation.
- School job: This one can also fit into the “independent” category if a student is doing it on his or her own. The student can be “in charge” of something, such as the lunch line, the hallway, or checking to see that a task has been completed. There are endless ways that students could obtain peer approval, receive positive attention, and do something that benefits the school as a whole.
- Fast food restaurant toys: These are free, but they mostly get thrown away (at least in my house). Other teachers could also collect these for you if you ask. They can be put into a “treasure box” for students to pick from when they make a good choice.
- Coupons from restaurants: Many places will give away free ice cream cone or cheeseburger coupons, counting on the fact that the customer will probably spend money by getting more than just the free item. These aren’t as immediate of a reward since it is a piece of paper and not an actual ice cream cone, so they may not work as well with younger students.
- That one favorite app: A few years ago, using technology was a pretty big reward for students. As devices have become more available, this doesn’t work as well. But, if students are allowed some free choice in their use, it can be highly motivating.
- Free reading: This can be an incentive for the whole class, but allowing all students some time to read anything they want is very motivating. This can also expand students’ attitude toward what “reading” really is. Newspapers, comic books, joke books, and the like can all be novel and motivating if students are able to pick anything they want.
- Craft time: This one overlaps with the consumable idea. With any slew of leftover crafting supplies, students can get creative and build something on their own. The reward is the free time to do it and the ability to create, which is highly motivating to many students.
- Be the teacher: Being up front is a huge motivator for some kids—they love the attention and control of being in charge. Whether it be holding the book under the document camera or being the first to use the touch table, the individual attention the student receives can be a game changer.
As you can see, it is easy to find rewards that will motivate all different types of students. This list is just a starting point for what can happen when teachers think outside the box to motivate students in a budget-friendly way.