You know how important it is to reward good behavior through positive reinforcement, but when you have an entire class to give rewards to…. it can become expensive. That is why free classroom rewards are so important! Many students like to work for tangible objects, such as small toys and trinkets, but we should not have to empty our pockets for these toys.
Using tangible rewards focuses on extrinsic motivation and does not lead to students having intrinsic motivation. Not all students are intrinsically motivated, but that should always be a goal and using non-tangible rewards it one way to do just that. Below are examples of whole class rewards as well as rewards for individual students that are (mostly) non-tangible rewards, and totally FREE. The following list is a gathering of ideas of free classroom rewards that I have used in my own classroom for students with disabilities as well as general education students.
Examples of Free Classroom Rewards
1. Dance Party: Turn on Kids Bop and let students move their bodies. Music is tied to emotion, so this can also be used as a regulatory activity. If students are upset or anxious, putting on an upbeat song or a slower calming song can change their mood. Another trick is to allow certain students who may need more motivation to be able to work for class DJ. These students can choose the songs they want their entire class to dance to.
2. Special Guest: This is a great reward for students, especially for younger students. Students can work for having a special guest invited into the classroom to spend time and read a story. They could share some information, or just join for lunch. It is important to note that this reward could take some time to coordinate so it should be used sparingly. This is especially true for students who need immediate reinforcement.
3. Extra recess: This is a tried and true strategy that can work for students no matter their age. Sometimes it can just be free time inside of the classroom. Simply allowing students to socialize in school without the pressure of completing work can be motivating for many students.
4. Positive Phone Call Home: Calling home can be one of the best ways to build a relationship with families and students. Most times schools are calling families when there is a behavior problem. To call about a positive thing will build students up and if a problem behavior does occur in the future, it is easier to have that conversation with parents.
5. Homework pass: This can be something for older students when they do something above and beyond. Just print out a handful of these passes and give them out as much as you want! (Plus less grading for you!)
6. Board Games: Ask other teachers in your building if they have board games you can borrow (if you do not have them in your classroom). Cancel your traditional plans for an afternoon and just play with students. This will help build a relationship between you and the students, work on interpersonal skills, and allow students to have fun being kids!
7. Movie Party: Have students work together as a team to earn a certain number of points by following directions and completing work to earn a movie party. Just pull up a streaming service and press play. You can even engage families by asking them to send in movie snacks. Here is an example of a tool you can use!
8. Special seat: Allow students to sit in a special seat for a day. It could be the teacher’s chair a bean bag, or on the table. It just makes it fun and unique. Even allow them to sit next to their best friend (as long as they are not too distracting)
9. Teacher for the day: Students get to sit at your desk, make some big decisions like who is line leader or when snack time is. Maybe even have them lead morning meeting.
10. Desk pets: Allow students to bring in their own stuffed animal to join them as their desk pet for the day! It will have to be small enough to not be distracting, but students love to bring a piece of home into school.
11. Read their favorite book: For an individual student, allow them to choose the book that is going to be read aloud to the class that day. Let them choose their favorite book or maybe just one they have had their eye on for awhile.
12. Paper airplanes: Have a fun time of teaching students how to build with paper airplanes. Just give them each a piece of paper (hopefully provided by the school), teach them how to create a paper airplane (and work on those OT skills), then go outside and practice flying them. Many students do not get this simple sort of experience in their own homes, so this can mean more to them than just a break time.
13. Go on a walk: Go on a walk outside to get some fresh air. Don’t let the rain or snow frighten you, don’t you remember how fun it was as a kid to dance in the rain or play in the snow? Kids still enjoy that!
14. Extra time on electronics: Students love their electronics, and many times do not get to use them for leisure in school. Allow students ten or fifteen minutes to play on their iPad or Chromebook. It could be educational games or videos, I would suggest putting expectations on what is allowed during this time so students learn to be good digital citizens as well as remain appropriate during school time.
15. Write with a pen for the day: Another great way to reinforce behavior is to allow students to use a pen for their work for the day. It seems simple enough, but allowing students to have access to an otherwise denied supply is very motivating. You could have silly pens, colorful pens, or just regular ‘teacher’ pens to motivate students. I can remember how motivating it was for me to have teacher pens with one side red and one side blue.
16. Go on a virtual field trip: There are so many free places you can go on a virtual field trip to. For example, you could go to Yellowstone National Park, or check out ocean animals like those at the Monterey Bar Aquarium. There are so many places you can take students to see things they may never have experienced. This is a great way to have a common goal for the entire class to work for. Choose a place to visit at the beginning of the day. Have students earn a specific number of points before they can take their trip. This creates a sense of community and has students work together to achieve a goal.
17. No shoes: This may result in a bit of a stinky class, but allow students to go shoe-less for the day! Either have them wear just their socks or slippers.
18. PJ day: If you want to go beyond just the no shoes, allow students to wear their pajamas for the day. We know students love to stay in their jammies!
19. Eat lunch in the classroom: This may be one that you do not want to do often, because we all need our own time to decompress, but sometimes the school cafeteria can be loud and overstimulating. When students earn lunch in the classroom, it can be a reinforcer as well as possibly prevent more behaviors after lunch.
20. Play a class game: Play a game whether it is inside or go outside and play. This will build your classroom community and is a great examples of a whole-class reward.
21. Principal acknowledgement: Have your principal acknowledge the entire class over the announcements to let the entire school know they have been making good choices.
This list of ideas for free classroom rewards can support you in reinforcing positive behavior within the classroom without breaking the bank. Student behavior can be challenging, and purchasing reinforcers can put a strain on us as teachers. That is why the best way to reinforce behavior is to use these non-tangible ideas.
Use this list as a starting point and then keep adding to it once you get to know your students. Once your students learn how they can earn these rewards, have them work together to come up with classroom reward ideas that they would like to earn. This is a great way to get even more buy in from the students who may be a bit more challenging.
If you are still struggling to get ideas for free classroom rewards, you can always reach out to a student’s parent. They typically know the student best and could provide specific reinforcement ideas at home or just have a creative idea you have not thought of. Also involving families is one of the best ideas to get support throughout the year.
Once you have a list of ideas, students can vote for the most popular choice all students wants to work for. This technique can be done with young kids or older students. The best part of using whole class reward systems are that it builds community, relationships between you and the students as well as between the students. This makes for a much more enjoyable year as opposed to always putting out fires due to problem behavior.