How to Reward Your Middle School Students for Good Behavior & Academic Achievement

“Middle school is an incredibly difficult time in terms of childhood development,” says Lynn Schiller, a clinical psychologist in Summit, NJ, and public education coordinator for the New Jersey Psychological Association. “Children are entering into their pre-teen years, which are fraught with self-doubt, limit testing and the need for acceptance. Positive feedback will help improve esteem and bolster confidence, which will be called upon when making good choices and establishing a work ethic.”

Acknowledging a student’s academic achievement or good behavior with rewards and incentives has important benefits for continued learning and socialization. “It’s important to one’s self-esteem and ego functioning to feel like we are improving and mastering our environment,” Schiller says. “A student who feels connected to their efforts is more likely to invest energy going forward into further achievement. Children want to be positively noticed, particularly when much of the input they get from authority figures is corrective and, at times, punitive.”

A Balanced Approach

“Middle school students are transitioning from the relative warmth and comfort of grade school to the independency and high-risk environment of high school,” says Ben Sasser, a middle school teacher in Miller County, GA. ”Middle school is the proper place for judicious, careful acknowledgment. Not too much so that it loses its impact, but not so little that they feel their successes aren’t noticed.”

Schiller agrees. “The biggest mistake people make in general about praise — and teachers would fall into this trap — is praising without cause or specificity,” she explains. “We think, as a society, that if we give positive feedback, even when it’s not warranted, it will heighten self-esteem, when in fact, it can have the opposite effect. Praise needs to be authentic and targeted, such as telling a student he made a good effort on improving their spelling when an improved grade is achieved. This is tied to a specific effort and achievement, rather than diffuse praise by saying ‘you’re the best speller ever.’”

Consider these factors when designing rewards for your middle school students:

Reward with More Learning: When Sasser’s students do well, he rewards them with a fun, but still relevant, learning opportunity. “I exclaim approval of good work in front of the class in a fun way and I ask for a more creative assignment instead of the standard, multiple-choice test,” he explains. “If the student clearly understands the material and is a good writer or artist, I might have them write a short story or essay, or have them sketch a work of art about it. Or a more creative homework assignment or something personal to that student, like an activity they enjoy or time to read in the media center or to complete another task.”

Inspire Future Success with Past Accomplishments: Rewards and accolades earned by previous students or classes can motivate current behavior, according to Marcy Layne, a music teacher at Thomas Ewing Junior High School in Lancaster, OH. “Showcase past accomplishments in your subject, such as trophies or plaques,” she suggests. A case full of these rewards draws the right kind of attention. “Students will ask about them,” giving you an opportunity to share the lore and inspire them to attempt similar feats. Adds Schiller: “Public reward helps set a tone and serves as an example to others that if they put in the energy towards academic and behavioral achievement, they, too, can be rewarded and recognized.”

Display Good Work: Make a wall of fame in your room or even in the hallway outside to highlight great work to a larger audience. “If you have bulletin boards, use them to showcase outstanding students or their work,” Layne says. For larger accomplishments, consider an awards ceremony, certificates of achievement or other public acknowledgement. This leverages the middle school social dynamic in a positive way. “Relationships are paramount to school age students,” Schiller says. “They tend to replicate the behavior they see from other respected peers.”

Make It Personal: It’s also important to privately praise students. “A private acknowledgment shows the student that you, as the instructor, have really been changed by the student’s work; you’ve really thought about it and it has affected you,” Sasser notes. Similarly, letting a student know you notice and appreciate a move toward better behavior and habits is also helpful. ”These private acknowledgments can change a student’s life, and they also offer a perfect opportunity for fine tuning with some positive criticism. After telling the student how great the work is, I might add, ‘Now, since this is just so good, let me show you something that we might adjust a little bit if this was a ninth-grade essay’.”

Periodic rewards in the classroom show students that quality work and constructive behavior is noticed and valued. “Without those rewards, or with too many, students may believe that it doesn’t matter how well they complete an assignment or grasp a concept,” Sasser warns. ”Rewards offer tangible encouragement. But for the reward system to be effective, the rewards must be meaningful to the achievement and the student, they must be given sparingly, and the practice of giving the reward must be genuine.”

Margot Carmichael Lester is owner of The Word Factory in Carrboro, NC. The granddaughter of schoolteachers, she’s a frequent guest instructor, leading K–12 workshops on persuasive, opinion and argumentative writing. She’s a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Find her on Google+.

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