Classroom Rewards: What Is Your Flavor Du Jour?

Motivating students has been a teacher’s task since the beginning of teaching which is possibly the world’s second oldest profession.

At the Catholic school I attended my elementary years the motivation for the classroom was fear. The last thing any student of Sister Agnes’ third-grade class wanted was to be dragged behind the piano in the corner of the room where one’s backside would have a lengthy conversation with the custom-made, solid oak, half-yard stick. Sadly, over the course of the year every student in her class would have that conversation—a staccato firing of the oak with reports blasting throughout the classroom like Spring Festival fireworks. Even little Susie who never did anything wrong was forced to walk the walk-of-shame—coming out from behind the piano, Sister Agnes smiling her well-that-certainly-taught-you-never-to-backtalk-a-nun-didn’t-it smirk, while trying to hide the tears welling up from the pain and indignity as all the students did.

Thankfully, in most schools they don’t have the funds to put pianos into classrooms any more, and in most countries I’ve worked there are laws protecting students from nuns. (However, the last country I worked in, in SE Asia, the native teachers really had to mess up a student before the teacher was reprimanded. One teacher lost their job only after hitting a student in the head with a ruler and accidentally slicing off the student’s ear.)

And then, thanks to modern adhesives, someone invented the gold star and a more modern system of student rewards was born. Which leads to the question: What is your classroom reward flavor du jour?

Do you have a points system that you tally on the board? Do you have a gold star system? Do you have a multiple choice foamy sticker collection? Do you let students choose from a toy chest of Super Balls? Do you give the students lollipops or chocolates? Do you give them a cigarette? Or do you find that you don’t need rewards?

Whatever you do, there are scores of other teachers and classroom assistants doing the same thing. The bottom line is if it works for you and your students are constantly improving it’s probably a good thing for you. But, could it be better for them?

As a teacher, in theory, you want to make a difference in your students’ lives—probably to make their lives better. Filling a student with knowledge and curiosity is a common goal amongst educators. Working hand-in-hand with educators to make the students’ lives better are the parents; sometimes a teacher knows the parents and more frequently not.

What if I told you that some of the things listed among the student rewards above are bad for your health and are among the leading causes of death around the world; cause cancer [1]; are a major cause of heart related diseases; are the cause of many dental problems; and are addictive?

You reply, “You did mention cigarettes, and of course I’d never give a cigarette to a student as a reward.”

Of course you wouldn’t. Yet, these health issues which are all directly related to cigarettes are also all directly related to sugar consumption as well.

But one lollipop surely can’t be that bad. Now replace the word lollipop with cigarette.

According to guidelines set forth by the World Health Organization (WHO), people should limit their sugar intake to 5 percent of their total caloric intake to prevent sugar-related health issues that include all the ones mentioned plus dozens more—including diabetes which is a heinous disease in the way it kills people. For an adult that’s 25 grams of sugar or 6 teaspoons per day. For a child the 5 percent applies as well.

In a survey I gave to 80 students in grades 7 to 10, ninety-seven percent said that humans require sugar every day with their answers varying in range from 3 teaspoons to 30 teaspoons per day. When I told them that humans do not require sugar some even had their parents come talk to me because they were so upset. Even at my thesis defense one of the committee members questioned that fact—fortunately, another committee member, an M.D., corroborated my position.

My current school has several teachers who use cigarettes candy as rewards. One gives out 100 gram chocolate bars—another, Chupa Chups lollipops, or something very similar.

One Chupa Chups lollipop weighs 12 grams, and its website says it contains only 10 grams of sugar (but it has 11g of carbohydrates so there is some number fudging going on since carbohydrates are sugars). This means it has 2 grams, 17 percent, of coloring and additives, which is difficult to believe.  So my belief is that it contains 12 grams of sugar, but I’ll humor the official ingredient list and say 11 grams because 11 grams of carbohydrates directly converts to 11 grams of sugar.

Now, if the student is a full-grown 17-year-old, one Chupa Chups would be about half of the WHO limit.  For a first- or second-grader it’s likely the total amount of sugar that student should have for the day. I don’t even want to calculate the 100g chocolate bar into this equation.

If you only give out individual, cello-wrapped candies that weigh 3 grams, is that OK? I can’t say. But I can ask what your job is. Is your job to fill a student’s belly with candy and get them closer to their daily limit of sugar? I propose that your job is to fill students’ heads with valuable, or otherwise, information that’s going to make a difference in their lives not filling their bellies with sugar that may unequally make a difference in their lives, in a deleterious way.

“But I’ve spoken with the parents, and they said it was okay if I give their child a candy during class,” you reply.

Maybe so, but would you give them a cigarette?  What if the parents said it was OK if you give the student a cigarette as a reward; would you do it then? What if the candy you provide is the beginning of a love affair with that candy that leads to their diabetes or cancer.  It may be a far-fetched scenario, but is it impossible?

These reasons are why I prefer to give stickers and stars rather than lollipops and candy bars to my students. Because I don’t know if the parents want me to give their student a lollipop. And I don’t know if the same parents know about the associated cognitive development and health concerns that have come to light with current research into sugar consumption—critical information that would enable them to reach an educated decision concerning the matter.

I don’t know the research on giving students stickers as a reward, but I know research shows that children who eat nutrient deficient food regularly perform worse in exercises requiring cognitive flexibility. And students who eat junk food regularly have lower grade percentage averages (GPA) than students who eat meals prepared at home from unrefined ingredients. One of the ingredients that determine whether a food qualifies as junk food is its sugar content. One Chupa Chup lollipop, a relatively small piece of candy, contains 12g of sugar, half of the WHO ideal for sugar consumption per day for an adult. So, as a group who want our students to succeed, should we be helping them reach their WHO recommended intake of sugar by giving candy as a reward?

For great ideas about rewarding and motivating students follow this link to my alma mater.



Christopher Jones
I came to Beijing to teach after teaching in Thailand for 9 years in primary, middle, and high school. I earned my MAT English, and Diploma in Teacher Education, while in Thailand, spending many weekends commuting back and forth to Bangkok from my home in Hua Hin. I am currently working on my thesis for a Master’s Degree in Scientific and Technical Communication (STC).


WeChat: Mr_C_Jones 


Illustrations by Nichalia Schwartz, All Rights Reserved

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