To sticker or not to sticker…. that is the question?

To sticker or not to sticker…. that is the question?


I have long been against the use of stickers in the classroom and have had many debates with colleagues over this. For many years, schools have relied on extrinsic rewards, such as stickers or, certificates to elicit particular behaviours such as ‘good listening’.

We are bombarded with extrinsic motivation all the time from reward points for shopping at a particular store to bonuses for achieving set targets at work. External rewards can be good motivators but create a you do something for me – I’ll do something for you, culture.

I used reward systems early in my career but found that, after a while, many children expected a reward for doing the most basic of tasks. I found rewards worked, in some circumstances, in the short term but long term did little to improve either behaviour or attitudes to learning.  In addition, I felt it was a waste of time creating certificates, many of which never made their way out of the child’s school bag.

I heard of a teacher recently who started a new behaviour initiative with his class. When a child reaches 10 points they can choose a prize from the box and each time they achieve a multiple of 10 points, thereafter.

I have taught in schools who use Class Dojo, which is a similar, electronic, system but with rewards in the form of certificates, not prizes.  With so many categories, all pupils could find some success nevertheless, total scores are still displayed by each child’s name and on show for all to see, when on the interactive white board.

I have some issues with these types of scoring systems, particularly with giving of presents as rewards.  What about the children who will find it incredibly challenging to get to 10 points due to special educational needs (identified or not), or children who may not be receiving the right support or who may be in a class that is not geared to their way of learning? They are likely to be way behind their peers in the scoring system which, if on show, is there for all to see and judge.  What will this do to their self-esteem and how upsetting for their parents when they see their children at the bottom of the score board.

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Wayne Dyer

We need to think carefully about the message we are sending when giving out rewards. For example, how is it perceived by children who get them frequently and, more importantly, by those who rarely get them.  Could the reward system be contributing to some of the negative behaviours in class as children are individuals, and all unique, and often whole class reward systems don’t meet the needs of them all.

Children live up to the expectations of adults, negative as well as positive. Attitudes we exude and the way in which we interact with, and reward children, can set them up to either behave and work hard or possibly, misbehave and disengage from learning.   I have heard teachers speak about ‘good’ children in the class who always do as they are told and work hard and then, complain about the ‘naughty’ children who get all the attention, even though they disrupt the class.  If all behaviour is a form of communication what are these children telling us and how are they perceiving our interactions with them?

All practitioners in the early years sector are great advocates for intrinsic motivation as they have chosen this career path not because it has a great salary, many opportunities for promotion or any other benefits but because it is a vocation and internally satisfying. They do it because they find fulfilment in their work and monetary rewards are secondary.

But how can we ensure that we are supporting children to develop intrinsic motivation in the classroom or in an early years setting?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Enable children to be independent and have a say in what they are learning and how. So much of children’s lives is planned for them but if you want them to be autonomous then give them a voice, so they become co-constructors of the learning rather than passive recipients. Planning in the moment, a pedagogy that is gathering momentum, enables this beautifully as it is led by the child and so children are more likely to be intrinsically motivated if their needs and interests are being met and followed. I always followed children’s interests, in addition to the planning required by the school, as learning objectives can be delivered in so many ways, it doesn’t all have to be through the current topic or theme.
  2. Praise attitudes to learning as opposed to personal praise. ‘I can see you really had to work hard to solve that problem. Well done for persevering.”  Building Learning Powers is a great way to do this and support children in learning how to learn.  Making explicit learning capacities such as ‘noticing’ (observing), ‘managing distractions’ (not losing focus due to distractions from others) or ‘collaboration’ (working together as a team) enables children to understand that the focus is on the effort made and that learning is in the process and not defined by the end product.
  3. Time and space to allow for deep level learning. Children need time if they are to become deeply involved and work to their full capabilities.  Children who have ample opportunity to do this regularly have no need of stickers, as they are following their own interests and inner drives.  Even better if they are allowed the opportunity to return to their creations later in the day. There is nothing more exasperating for children to see constructions they have meticulously created, tidied away at the end of the session.  If you can, provide an area for children to leave their models to come back to later. For larger constructions, try using builder’s tape and asking children to write a Do Not Touch sign, particularly important if you are to leave things overnight.  Look at daily timetables to establish when children have periods of uninterrupted play. My inputs were at the beginning, and end, of the morning and afternoon sessions. The rest of the time children were able to free flow, inside and out, and could follow their interests for much of the time, if not working with an adult, so there was lots of time for them to become deeply involved.
  4. Allow children to have an input into the rules and routines of the setting. If children understand the why behind the rules, they will have a better understanding and are more likely to follow them. Children are often given far less credit than they deserve. Take risk management for example, more often than not when asked, children will be able to say what is worrying the adult, about a particular type of activity, and are able to say how they can mitigate this.  They are quite adept at setting their own rules and boundaries it just needs discussion. Encourage children to see the classroom as a community and discuss ways in which they can work together for the benefit of all.
  5. Create an enabling environment. Loris Malaguzzi spoke of the learning environment as the third teacher as, when set up properly, it provides for everything the children need to be independent and allows for creativity to flourish.  Look at the learning environment. Is it set up to allow for independence? Can children find what they need? Do they have space to create on a large and small scale? Is the outdoor learning environment accessible throughout the day? Do they have access to a range of open-ended, loose materials to create with?  Are children encouraged to work with others as well as working by themselves?  Are there plentiful opportunities for problem solving to aid the development of critical thinking? How do the adults interact with, support and extend the children?  If you are not sure, why not audit the learning environment and find out.
  6. Teach children how to manage conflict from the very beginning. It is common to see class rules displayed in settings such as ‘we share with our friends’. What if a child doesn’t want to share? What if they haven’t finished playing with a particular resource?  Giving a 5 minute timer, which I did earlier in my career to support turn taking, does little to allow for deep level learning to take place. It is better to speak to both children, when there is a disagreement, and allow them to hear the other’s point of view then listen to the adult modelling the language appropriate for the situation, which they can then repeat. Before long, children will be doing this themselves without the need for adult intervention. I have seen how quickly the impact of giving children the vocabulary to manage conflict, had on their behaviour towards one another.

Don’t throw out the stickers straight away. All change starts with discussion and reflection on current practice, to develop a shared vision going forwards.



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