Don’t get me wrong — I love candy. And, a jolly rancher, a tootsie roll, or a starburst can work wonders in the classroom for student motivation and enthusiasm. So can pizza parties, and cupcake days, and brunch, and…I’ve had so many types of food parties I can’t even keep track!
Recently, however, I’ve been concerned with using food in the classroom as a primary incentive or reward. I’ve struggled with sugar cravings and overeating my entire life, and I want to model and promote healthy eating whenever possible–especially in my classroom. Teaching my students to associate incentives and rewards with food is exactly the message I am trying to unlearn myself in adulthood.
While I’m sure I will still use candy or food on an occasional basis in my classroom, I want it to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Non-food rewards for the elementary, middle, and high school classrooms
I’ve designed the following list with secondary students in mind, but these activities can be used in any grade level.
1. Escape Room
2. YouTube video choice
Showing a trending YouTube video or even an old classic can be a great reward for your class. As always, preview the video to make sure it’s school appropriate!
3. Q&A with the teacher
Students are often so curious about their teacher’s background and personal life. Use their curiosity as an incentive by doing a 10-15 minute teacher Q&A! Have students write down questions (preview them first and eliminate anything too personal), and then you can randomly draw the questions out of a hat to answer them!
4. Board game time
Board games can improve communication, critical thinking, vocabulary, and more. They also make a great reward or incentive! Check out Apples to Apples, Reverse Charades, Fitz it, Man Bites Dog, Over/Under, Scrabble, Taboo, etc.
5. Decorate the classroom
Let students’ creativity shine while they utilize collaboration and team-building. Pick decorating ideas that relate to class content, growth mindset, learning styles, study skills, etc.
6. Open mic
Students can read a favorite poem, sing a favorite song, and show off talent for the class. To add extra ambiance, you could set up a microphone, stool, lamps, and comfy seats.
7. Social media shout out
Most schools have a social media presence — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or all of the above. Arrange with your principal ahead of time, and tell students that if they hit a certain goal, their class will get a class shout out on social media!
8. New flexible seating options
Build excitement and let students work towards one or more flexible seating options: a balance ball, a futon, a high-top table and stools, etc. Post the different choices on the board and students can earn points as a class towards earning one!
9. Choose the teacher’s outfit
Pick 3 shirt options, 3 bottom options, 3 shoe options, and 3 accessory options and let students vote on your outfit. Make it fun and throw in a couple crazy options: pajama pants, tie die shirts, gaudy accessories, etc.
10. Outside time
Let students soak up the sun, get some fresh air, and let their toes sink into the grass while they work on writing poetry, stories, journals, skits, etc.
11. Late assignment tickets
Pass out tickets that let students turn an assignment in late. Put an expiration date on it, though, so you don’t end up with an assignment turned in in May that was due in September!
12. Comfy day
Let students bring in their favorite blanket, wear PJs, take their shoes off if they want — they earned a day of comfort!
13. Fidget toys
Purchase a variety of fidget items for students and let them pick one from your collection!
14. Music time
Let students vote on a Pandora station or Spotify playlist and listen to music while they work. You can also let students listen to music on their own devices as a reward.
15. Choose your own adventure
Select a list of reading options that would work with an upcoming unit, do a “lit talk” about each piece, and, as an incentive or reward, let students vote which they want to read in the next unit.
16. Joke time
Let students find and tell their favorite (clean, of course) jokes.
17. Extra credit opportunity
If you aren’t one to offer a lot of extra credit, you could use extra credit as a great incentive or reward.
18. Reduced HW assignment
Cutting an assignment back will definitely earn you bonus points with your students!
19. Teacher talent act
Do you have a special talent? Playing guitar, singing, saying the alphabet backwards, etc. Promising to showcase your talent as an incentive or reward is sure to get your students motivated!
Students don’t seem to tire of Kahoot, no matter how often they play! Make a content-related Kahoot or just a fun Kahoot to use as an incentive or reward for students. You can also have students create their own Kahoot as a reward.
21. Seating choice
If you use assigned seats, allowing students to choose their own seats can be a powerful incentive or reward!
22. Class raffle
Students receive raffle entries individually and as a whole class (rewarding behavior, etc.). Pick a day and do a whole-class raffle, giving away school swag items and other prizes you have collected.
23. 2-minute social time
Let students occasionally earn social time at the end of class to relax and talk with friends — It might be a break from the traditional exit ticket, but sometimes students just need some social time! Just make them earn it! 😉
Who doesn’t love stickers?! You can get the classic, old-school puffy stickers, emoji stickers, or graphic stickers perfect for personalizing laptops. The graphic laptop stickers are great for high school students — just make sure you go through the pack first and take out any that aren’t school appropriate!
25. Class on the stage
Let students perform a skit, do a talent showcase, read through a play, etc. Getting out of the classroom and into a new environment can be exciting and memorable for students!
26. Extra reading time
If you use silent reading time in your classroom, allow students to earn extra reading time for good behavior, focus, etc.
27. New books for the class library
Have students make a class book wish list and let them work towards earning the books as an incentive or reward.
My students request debates all the time, but they want to talk about a heated issue without the constraints of a rubric or other “academic” requirements. As an incentive or reward, let them “just debate” for part of a class period about controversial topics they choose.
29. Administrator shout out
Invite your administrator to come in and give a verbal shout out to your class!
30. Assignment design
I would consider this a time-intensive incentive, but involving students in an assignment design can be a great incentive or reward! You can give groups of students a list of standards that they will need to show proficiency in at the end of the assignment, and students can decide how they will show what they know.
31. Invite a guest speaker to class
Bring the outside world into the class with a guest speaker. Compile a list and let students vote who they would like to speak to the class. Consider local motivational speakers, college professors, members of law enforcement, etc.