Well, hello there, sunshine. I really want to begin this episode by saying this is a no judgment, no negativity zone. We are talking about the prize box today.
And I know this is a touchy subject. But I want you to know it sincerely does not bother me if you love your prize box. You do what works for you. I’m just here to share my experience for those of you who may be searching for a new way. I’ve been teaching eight out of my 11 years without that guy. And I get asked constantly, “Toni, how do you do it? How do you motivate your students to focus, to complete their work, to do anything really, with no prize box? Where’s the positive reinforcement? Where’s the motivation? What do you do with all your extra money and time that you don’t use worrying over that box of trinkets?”
Okay, so maybe I made that last one up. But anyway, yes, I am prize boxless. Is that a real word? I am a prize boxless teacher, and whether you want to be like me and break up with yours, or just snatch some ideas to help motivate your students more, in addition to your prize box, this episode is actually for everyone.
So before we get to new ideas and strategies that I’ve never shared before, let me take a moment and ask you an important question. Do you know a teacher friend who could use some encouragement, just like what you’re finding here right now? Maybe they need a positive voice in their ear that might help them through a hard day. Please consider sharing this post with them. The process of sharing it is as easy as pie, that’s something we say here in Kentucky, and can make a big difference for someone who is struggling.
Me and My High Maintenance Prize Box
So let’s go ahead and dig into today’s content. Different teachers and personalities have different relationships with the prize box. I don’t know how yours is going, but I dumped the prize box years ago and I never looked back for a few reasons.
Boy oh boy, that guy was high maintenance. I was constantly searching and buying things to put into it. And as my students got bored, I had to search even harder and be more inventive. I was a new teacher with lots of new debt, and it began to be too much. Some relationships just aren’t worth the money or the effort that you have to put into it.
Secondly, I didn’t like the results I got from using it. I created a system, tried hard to manage it, but realized that I had to donate time and attention that I didn’t have to spare. Things were already hectic in my kindergarten classroom. Not to mention I was still dealing with negative behaviors and management issues throughout the whole day, despite what was inside of it.
And the little people that I worked with were demanding when it came to using that thing. It controlled them, and they in turn tried to control me. “Mrs. Mullins, you forgot to let me get in the prize box.” Usually that happened right as we were going out to the bus. And so I had to play catch up the next morning, which stole even more time.
How the Prize Box Relationship Ended
So yeah, we didn’t get along, me and that guy named the prize box. I wish I could tell you that I put my big girl panties on and stood up to the box and laid it out straight. It’s over, you high maintenance, time sucking leech.
The truth is I accidentally dumped him. Let’s just say it was like a long-distance relationship where one day you forget to call and then you forget another day. And then by the third day, it’s too awkward to address the situation. So, you just go on pretending it never existed.
Yep, I went home one weekend, forgot all about going to the Dollar Tree and didn’t have anything left in it on Monday morning. Just as a side note here, where I live in the mountains of Kentucky, the Dollar Tree is a good 35 minute drive away. So it’s not as easy as it sounds to get there and to get those items for the prize box.
On Monday, I realized what I had done, and I suffered on without it. By the third day, no one even missed it. Not me, and more importantly, not my students. By Friday, I knew I would never call him back. He was history. No more frantic weekend trips to find mindless trinkets that would probably end up left on the school bus or in the bottom of a toy pit at home. No more wasting time managing who gets in and who doesn’t. And no more sad looks from the other students who may have tried so hard that day. But hey, I couldn’t afford to give them prizes every day.
Tangible Rewards Mean More Without the Prize Box
So that is how my prize box and I cut ties. And I’ve never looked back. That was the most controlling work related relationship I’ve ever been in. And now when I do decide to reward my students with tangible items, with toys or trinkets, like when they learn all of their rainbow words, I do give prizes for things like that. Or when they reach another major milestone, it’s an even bigger deal.
They know that Mrs. Mullins doesn’t do that. And so those big milestones are truly more sought after. I can give a little prize for a big achievement. And it’s just perceived as absolutely amazing and something they have to have. Do you see how I sort of hack that to get the results that I want? Yeah, so now that I’ve told you my story about my big, not so dramatic, breakup with the prize box, you may be wondering, how do I do it then? What do I give them to keep them motivated and engaged to survive a day trapped in a room full of tiny humans?
Classroom Management Instead of the Prize Box
That’s easy. Instead of filling up my classroom prize box, I intentionally choose to replenish my management toolbox instead. Classroom management strategies are undoubtedly what saved my life in the classroom. What keep me sane during the hard days. I don’t look for shiny or more colorful and alluring prizes. Instead, I look for new strategies. I try new things, implement new routines and experiment with what works and what doesn’t. And when I find something that does work, I use it until the gleam wears off. And then I try something new.
Not having a prize box forces me to focus on the true needs and behaviors of my students. I truly feel like I’m a better, more joyful teacher because of my lack thereof, and the overlying lesson I’ve learned from eight years of this is that no strategy works for all students, not even a prize box. No strategy works for all teachers, or for every school year.
If we’re going to sustain as an educator and be joyful in what we do, we must come to terms with the fact that things are constantly changing. We can resist that change, which brings about other kinds of stress. Or we can accept the challenge and research and try new things. And actually, I can tell what choice you’ve made, because at this point, you’re still listening to learn some new strategies. So way to go teacher, you are the kind of teacher I just love.
So now, I’m going to share some of my favorite strategies that I’m using this year with my current group of first grade students. First I’m going to share some strategies that I’ve used for a long time, strategies that have served me over the years that continue in my classroom year after year. At some point, they may not be effective anymore. But so far, I’ve had a lot of good luck out of these. After that, I’ll share some new ideas that I have uncovered just this school year and have never shared before.
Strategy #1 – Classroom Cheers
Let’s talk about some old strategies for motivating my students without a prize box. It was that very year that I broke ties with that annoying guy that I started using classroom cheers. I am a cheer fanatic. I get this from my great friend Dr. Jean, and I know exactly how to use a cheer to motivate positive behaviors. It comes from my language and my students’ innate need to please their teacher.
I say something like this. “During our lesson, I’m going to be looking for someone who is being patient, or maybe being calm or who has the best handwriting. And in just a few moments, I’m going to stop everyone. We’re going to put our attention on this special student and give them a big loud Hip, hip, hooray.”
So when using cheers just remember to use it to drive their decisions. Let them know what you want to see. And I promise, every single time they will deliver. They are getting the attention and recognition of you and all of their peers. And that is insanely valuable to our little learners.
If you don’t already own my free set of cheer cards that was created with the help of Dr. Jean, you can find them below. These cards can help you implement these new cheers. Remember to use it effectively. Don’t let cheers be just something you randomly do. Use them to your advantage.
Strategy #2 – Positive Notes Home
Another strategy that my students are just loving this year are positive notes home. You can grab a free set of those right here.
I print those out and in the morning I place them up in front of the classroom where everyone can see the blank ones. My students know that during the entire day, I’m constantly looking for someone to send those home with. Not only that, but I also snap a picture of the winning student or students that day and I share that in our family Facebook group so that all the parents at home can see the winner and recognize them as well.
It is a big deal to my kids this year. They really love the recognition and, trust me, it is much more powerful than anything they could pick out of the prize box. It’s that moment of pride and joy. Literally, when I call their names, some of them jump for joy. The great thing is, is I just go through a cycle with that so that everyone gets a turn to receive a positive note home. And I constantly reference that throughout the day so that I can see the results I want to see from my students.
Strategy #3 – Table Points
An oldie but goodie that I’ll never let go of is table points. Table points is a great strategy that puts a little competition into your classroom, because everybody wants to be the winner of the table points game. This year, I mixed it up and changed table points over into character points.
I’m hoping to get a compilation of those to share with you over the summer so that you can have them ready as well. But I assign each table a character and I say things like this, “I’m looking for the character today that has all of their work completed and doesn’t call out, but instead puts on their ready signal.” That just means cross their fingers together on top of their table. “Oh my goodness, it looks like the monkeys are the first ones done and with ready signals on. Let me give them a point.”
Strategy #4 – Folder Stickers
At the end of the day, I do reward the table points winner with a folder sticker. This is a brand-new strategy that I accidentally invented this year. Folder stickers for me this year are like gold. I truly feel that in my current group of students the majority of them would choose that little sticker over getting in the prize box every single time.
Now these are not magical stickers, in case you’re wondering. These are just regular stickers that I have called folder stickers. At my new school this year, we send home daily folders. The students come in, they get out their folder, they put it in a bin, and at the end of the day they take it home. We put things in it throughout the day as needed.
One day, one of my students asked, “Mrs. Mullins, can I put this on my folder instead of on my paper?” After that another students said, “Mrs. Mullins, I want to put my sticker on my folder.” And so I added a new strategy to my management toolbox.
Folder stickers are now like a badge collection. On special occasions, I give my students folder stickers so that they can display their positive behaviors in a way that can be seen on their folder. Most stickers go on papers, and they just get thrown away. But this is a collection. This my friend is a big deal, especially if you have some competitive students like I do, because they’re constantly talking about how many stickers they have on their folder.
Another benefit I found from this is that my students make a deeper, more meaningful effort to keep up with their folder. There is hardly ever a time when any of my students forget their folders at home, because they know if they earn a folder sticker, they won’t get to put it on their folder.
This is also great for parents. They see that this is a collection based on their child’s achievements and accomplishments in the classroom, and they brag on them about it. And that even helps me more, because they’re more motivated to get a folder sticker.
Strategy #5 – Student Shout Outs
Another new strategy that I began this year and that has been really effective in creating positive behaviors is student shout outs. I simply wrote the words “student shout outs” on my whiteboard with a big heart next to it. And I tell my students that I’m looking for good behaviors to highlight on our student shout out board. So if you’re doing something really, really amazing, something extra ordinary, like being very, very patient, or being super kind to someone, and I notice that I will write your name up here on our shoutout board. And next to your name, I’ll write what it was you were doing, that way everyone who comes by can see that you’re really, really good at something.
You would not believe how hard my students try this year to get their name on the board. At the end of the day, we actually give a big round of applause to those students. I call out their name and tell everyone what they did. And in addition, I can’t lie, those students also get a folder sticker.
I did make a few rules with this. You cannot ask me to put your name up there. I must notice something naturally in the environment, because they do ask, and they do want you to notice things.
I also snap a picture and share this on my family Facebook group. And the parents love it. They absolutely are so proud to see their child’s name on the student shout out board. So I’m also growing those connections through this management strategy, which is awesome.
Layer Your Strategy
These are just a few of the layers of management I have going on in my classroom. So I hope that you found some strategies that you can try. Just remember whether you use a prize box or not, our students and families really crave recognition. They crave acknowledgement just for being who they are.
The opportunity to connect with you in this way is just a dream for me. I do want to remind you that we have a Facebook group, which will also be getting a new name soon, but I would love for you to join. I’m working to become more active again in the group and provide more and more to the teachers there. You can join below if you’re interested in being part of that community.
For now, it’s called Primary Teacher Friends. We would love to connect with teachers like you in that group. With that I hope you have a wonderful rest of your week. And I’m deeply excited about the next several weeks where I have a new series coming out which I hope will give you some great encouragement and energy to help you finish out this year. As always, until we meet again, go make a difference, Teacher Friend.