Let’s talk about stickers. They’re great! Everyone loves stickers – I still love a good sticker – and it still makes me feel special when I get a new one. The question is, what should we be using stickers for? Reward for good behavior? Sure! To track success on charts? Not so much. Isn’t that the same thing? Not really, no. Charts with stickers to track how many books a kid has read, or to track how many math goals have been achieved, or any other form of PUBLIC COMPARISON is just not really helpful for anyone. The kid at the “top” of the list might be real proud – and his/her parents are pretty darned proud too, but what about ALL of the other students? Is this motivational? I think that’s the teacher’s goal – to motivate – but is it working? Is that the right way to motivate? Let’s think this through…. It’s a struggle for me to read, but I’m doing my very best, and I’m still toward the bottom of the group. I’m labeled as not-so-smart and lazy. The kids look at my stickers and judge me every day. The first thing the parents do is look at the charts to compare their kid with the other kids – to judge. The charts make one kid feel special, and let’s be honest – make ALL of the other kids feel “less than.” Like “losers.”
Is that the goal of education? It shouldn’t be. The goal should be to inspire. To motivate every individual student to be the very best that he or she can be – without feeling the pressure of public comparison with everyone else. Rewarding students with stickers is a GREAT idea – but what if every student had his/her own personal goals? What if they kept their own goals in their own notebooks, with their own stickers on the back INSIDE cover of their own notebook? Individual improvement should be rewarded – individually – according to each person’s capabilities and accomplishments.
I know a teacher who bragged about how she gave stickers out every day. She stuck them to the shirts of the kids who were doing a good job. She laughed about how the same kids go home with a shirt full of stickers every day. Do you think the other kids in the class know which kids go home with stickers every day and which kids don’t? How do you think it feels to be the kid who never goes home with a sticker? Do you think they’ll try harder to get stickers, or just give up and behave badly on purpose, so that it becomes THEIR choice to not have stickers? Or do you think maybe they’ll actually start believing that they are “bad” and don’t deserve a sticker? Do you think this might have an impact on their behavior and self-esteem?
Stickers are fun and should be used frequently. Kids should be rewarded for improvement, for effort, and for accomplishments. Not empty achievements, but real ones, based on their own abilities – not in comparison with everyone else. Think through the way you reward. Create an environment where every student feels safe. Safe enough to try harder. To give their best effort and not be afraid of failing. To feel free enough to learn without being judged. To be OK with the struggle because they know it won’t be followed with humiliation – but with pride. The pride of knowing – and having the teacher know – that every day they feel free, secure, and safe enough to try again. To learn more. To grow academically and personally. To thrive in mind and spirit. To be weighed – and to not be “found wanting.”

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